December 16, 2017

Letter to Jesus 1: Friend of Sinners

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Dear Jesus,

I’ve been thinking about what it means that they called you “friend of sinners.” I know it wasn’t a title you gave yourself, it was a slur from the religious folks, who taught that the righteous should separate themselves from the wicked in order to stay pure and upright before God. You didn’t play by their rules, did you?

In my world today, when we talk about being a friend of “sinners,” we are usually talking about unchurched people and marginalized people. Kinda like the “Gentiles” or “heathen” and the “unclean” of your day. You certainly modeled loving those kind of people for us. You extended grace and kindness to all kinds of characters people considered outcasts — promiscuous women, lepers, and those viewed as traitors to their nation (and God), like tax-collectors. You were willing to touch and heal those whom people stayed away from like the plague, such as poor souls oppressed by evil spirits, scary, intimidating people. You were also hospitable and helpful to foreigners and even pointed to them as examples for us all of true faith and love. At the end you even welcomed a condemned criminal into your kingdom.

But until it occurred to me recently, I had not thought deeply what was probably the most basic aspect of what it meant when they called you “friend of sinners” – you hung around with essentially religious people who weren’t always very observant.

Jesus, you didn’t live in a “secular” society, but a religious one, a Jew walking among Jews, right? Most of the people you met and befriended and broke bread with were people of faith and religious heritage. They were members of the people of God living in the Promised Land, and though the land was occupied by the Romans, they were free to practice their faith. The leading religious voices were the Pharisees (the ones you criticized a lot). They were the most devout. They sought to live “by the Book.” They believed that when the whole nation became obedient and kept God’s commandments, the Messiah would return. So they not only sought to walk in righteousness and purity themselves, but to hold their fellow Jews accountable to the Law of Moses as well.

You didn’t seem to agree.

Yours was a heart and ministry for the “ordinary,” less pious folks. The ones who didn’t always wash their hands correctly. The ones who did a bit of extra traveling on the Sabbath (especially when it meant coming to see you!). Those who were perpetually unclean because they had certain illnesses or had to take care of sick loved ones, do business with Gentiles, or tend animals. They didn’t always fast properly and weren’t meticulous about tithing. And women. Women who were marginalized solely because of their sex – you approached them, talked to them, treated them with equal dignity, even included them among your followers, though much of that must have seemed scandalous to the scrupulous.

You reached out to plenty of folks on the margins, invisible, rejected and neglected by most. But I think most of the time you found yourself in the company of the hoi polloi, the commoners, the humble, hard-working, family-loving, neighbor-helping, quiet everyday people, who had a religious upbringing and a measure of faith, but who were not extraordinarily pious or fervid in the practice of their faith.

It seems to me that you liked them.

Am I right?

Because I like those kind of people too. But the people who say they represent you today are telling me it’s not enough to be that kind of person. Instead, I keep hearing that we must be “on fire” for the Lord. I’ve heard the word “radical” too. “Sold-out” is another way it’s expressed. Preachers and others keep bandying about terms like “passionate” and “fervent.” In fact, there is a whole culture and religious language, and if you don’t converse in those terms, you feel like an outsider. It’s not enough to have a measure of faith, one must be an enthusiast.

I have to confess, Jesus, I was in that culture and behaved like that for many years, and when I look back, I fear I might have loaded burdens on people that were too heavy for them to bear.

But now, every day I too walk among ordinary people, many of whom are not very pious. A lot of them don’t go to church, even though that’s their background. A great many of them tell me they believe in God and I watch them practice love and kindness in their homes in difficult situations. Of course, I don’t see or hear everything, and I’m sure my view of them is somewhat sentimental. However, I do know that very few refuse me when I offer to pray for them, and many of them ask me to do funerals for family members when they die. Some of them ask me if I have a church where I preach, exposing a longing for something, I don’t always know what.

What am I supposed to think about these people, Jesus?

Mostly I just try not to form opinions and give them the benefit of the doubt. Just be kind and treat them as my neighbors, with dignity and respect. Listen to their stories, tell them mine, and offer to be there for them if they need something. Commit them to God’s care in prayer, try to answer whatever questions they have, and let them know they have a friend.

Is that enough, Jesus?

Do you expect all people to be pious, observant, devout? Or do you still hang out with people who are content to just live life without making religious practice their life’s preoccupation?

Just wondering,

Chaplain Mike

Comments

  1. I’m wondering too. Thank you so much Chaplain Mike.

  2. after the symphony
    retirees gather on a crowded sidewalk
    for chartered transports
    pilgrims on the way

  3. Good stuff.

  4. CM, you inspired me. I wrote my own letter to Jesus this morning. And it helped. Thank you.

  5. Ronald Avra says:

    I frequently wonder, if during my time in evangelical churches, I loaded burdens on individuals that they were not meant to bear. At times, I have sinned flagrantly, but none of that haunts me like memories of individuals who I may have vigorously pressed for the need to do better, to be separate and sanctified.

    • Ronald, I feel your angst. The “Woe to you’s” in Matthew 23 have spoken to me in painful ways. These days, as I find myself leading/facilitating a Sunday school class and a men’s group study, I try really really really really hard not to make others twice the child of hell that I am. No guilt, no shame, and I try to be openly honest about my hypocrisy of teaching the Word, but often failing at it.

    • Adam Tauno Williams says:

      This.

  6. Some time ago, I came to the realization that I was spending all of my time ministering to those in the church and, outside of work, hardly any time at all in the larger community, and so, after many years of “being on fire” for Jesus, over the last year I have stepped away from much of the work I was doing at our church.

    We have become more involved in our community, mostly through my kid’s schools, and slowly but surely we are starting to form relationships that have nothing to do with church and more to do with life as a whole. As a result, our attendance on Sundays has not been as regular as in the past–my pastor and men’s group are concerned for my salvation.

    • –> “…my pastor and men’s group are concerned for my salvation.”

      Just tell them you’re not sure that Jesus is (concerned for your salvation, that is).

      I actually skipped church this Sunday to watch the Seahawks play the Jets. Yesterday at Wednesday night men’s group, several of the guys said, “Missed ya Sunday.”

      “Yep. I had a couple errands to run, decided to do them after my Sunday school class, then just decided to go home and watch the game.”

      Got a couple of funny looks, but a couple of nods, too. There are some good guys in that group…LOL…

      • Adam Tauno Williams says:

        If a church is an actual community, integrated into the larger community and its neighborhood, it should seem the weekly ‘check in’ would be less of an urgency. It would be part of Life, rather than something that needs to be Visited.

        • Thiat only makes sense in the Constantinian ethnic church model in which you and I were brought up. It cannot possibly work in the Death-Star-vs-Rebel-Alliance paradigm of the “regenerate church” model. I remember how I felt when the Baptists we imported from Kentucky to work in our factories labeled us Dutch Reformed as legitimate targets of evangelism. Community? Fuggetaboudit! They got their turn, though, when the Pentecostal movement gathered strength and began describing the Baptists as second-string Christians.

          Jesus, as CM ably points out, was a member of an ethnic church. I don’t blame Him for preferring the amim ha ‘aretz to the tediously religious.

      • I actually skipped church this Sunday to watch the Seahawks play the Jets. Yesterday at Wednesday night men’s group, several of the guys said, “Missed ya Sunday.”

        I often wonder how many of those ‘missed you’ comments are because they miss you as a person or they just noticed your absence and it’s a tsk tsk moment.

        Childhood memory. I skipped youth group for a reason or another once, maybe it was an event on a Friday, something. Next time I saw my youth pastor, he pulled me aside, gave me the third degree, with a heavy emphasis on how nothing could be more important than showing up for whatever it was. That I should never skip again without a good reason, of which it was clear there was none.

        I remember that being a common occurrence. Miss anything, get taken aside, often visibly in front of others.

  7. Another fine post, Chap Mike.

    I was recently fascinated by how often Jesus (unlike myself) puts his words into action. For example…

    In Sunday school class a couple weeks back we looked at Luke 18:9-14 (the parable of the Pharisee and the tax collector). In it, Jesus basically says it’s better to be tax collector (cultural connotation: traitor and thief) who recognizes his sin and need for mercy than a religious person who’s arrogant, self-righteous, and looks down upon others.

    Me: “Fine, Jesus. I get it. But it’s just a story. You made it up to make a point. You don’t actually BELIEVE that, right?”

    Along comes Zacchaeus in Luke 19:1-10.

    Me: “Aha, Jesus! Time to put your words into action. Certainly you don’t actually think that tax collectors (traitors and thieves) are deserving of mercy. A parable is one things, but you won’t ACTUALLY spend time with them, right?”

    Well…

    v5-6: “When Jesus reached the spot, he looked up and said to him, ‘Zacchaeus, come down immediately. I must stay at your house today.’ So he came down at once and welcomed him gladly.”

    There’s more about the people grumbling and Zacchaeus making restitution and Jesus saying salvation has come to his household, but the point is: Jesus didn’t just say, “Tax collectors are in need of mercy and worthy to spend time with,” he actually then PUT HIS WORDS INTO ACTION.

    Tough stuff to live out for me.

    • Adam Tauno Williams says:

      +1

    • Jesus in this story doesn’t command Zacchaeus to do anything in return for staying at his house, however, I’ve heard it most often taught as what we must do in response to the grace shown by Jesus–i.e., “Jesus died for you! Now, what are you going to do for Him?” Instead, the emphasis should be on the grace Jesus shows to Zacchaeus and on the scandalous behavior of Jesus in spending time with, as you say, “traitors and thieves.”

      You mentioned the tax collector and the Pharisee; I drive people crazy when I tell them Jesus never says the tax collector quit his job, made restitution or any similar sign of repentance. For all we know, he continued doing the same old thing because his actions are not the point–God’s grace is the point.

      • Was it Finley or Pelagius who said something along the lines of when Jesus said “go and sin no more”, because Jesus being Jesus he wouldn’t have said that unless it was absolutely 100% in our power to obey and literally go and never sin again?

        I remember that made Calvinism sound so good to me.

        God’s grace is the point, agreed.

  8. Instead, I keep hearing that we must be “on fire” for the Lord. I’ve heard the word “radical” too. “Sold-out” is another way it’s expressed.

    Chaplain Mike, as I read that I hope you don’t mind me saying but I think that you are all of those things – but in the right way. Aren’t Chaplains sold out to God, on-fire in their hearts (on-fire does not mean emotional effusiveness) and it is radical to give up all the trappings of success in our culture to be a Chaplain.

    • In my SW city there’s a Christian radio station that daily advises listeners to be ‘intentional.’

      What’s that mean? Do everything on purpose? As opposed to ‘be reckless’?

  9. Christiane says:

    ” Or do you still hang out with people who are content to just live life without making religious practice their life’s preoccupation?”

    what passes for ‘religious practice’ these days ???

    I’m told that over 80 % of evangelicals will vote for Donald Trump.

    what passes for ‘religious practice’ these days ???

  10. Dennis Fitzpatrick says:

    Jesus never failed to call sin, sin. Like todays church that confuses Gods love in Christ and preaches; Homosexual marriage is not a sin, so called gender changes are fine too and accusers those who disagree and preach otherwise of not being Christ like. . We are called to preach law and forgive the penitent. Worse, churches that in the name of Christ and Luther call the murder of infants through abortion as not a sin. We now have (check the data yourself if you disagree) children 13 and older committing adultery and the best a church can come up with is pass out condoms in an offering plate rather than calling them to repentance. It is one thing to talk the love of Christ but without preaching of the law, who cares? .

  11. For me, it’s been a wonderful week of posts. Gentle and compassionate voices which give peace and hope instead of guilt and shame. I wonder who they remind me of? Thank you Chaplain Mike and other contributors.

    I know Jesus called out sin but, as has often been pointed out in these pages, he tended to do that with people who claimed to be righteous, not with those already feeling pretty rubbish about themselves.

    • –> “I know Jesus called out sin but, as has often been pointed out in these pages, he tended to do that with people who claimed to be righteous, not with those already feeling pretty rubbish about themselves.”

      Bingo!

      A careful reading of the gospel accounts would make this fairly clear, which leads me to wonder where the theology of a different sort of Jesus comes from…