He Eats with Sinners
“Love the sinner, hate the sin.” Has there ever been a more over-used and less-practiced phrase in the church? In my experience, I think that we have gone from, “love the sinner, hate the sin” to “tolerate the sinner, hate the sin” to “ignore the sinner, hate the sin,” to “hate the sinner, hate the sin.” In this politically correct world and climate, is the loudest voice that is coming from the Christian church the voice of intolerance?
We can no longer deny that the world is changing. America is changing, and the church is changing with it. But are Christians changing or are we fighting back against the change? Have we become too comfortable in our churches to recognize the true needs of our neighbors, friends, and family? According to a recent Lifeway research study, 79% of Americans agreed with the statement that, “Christianity today is more about organized religion than about loving God and loving people.”
This clearly poses a major problem for the church today. If we are seen more “about organized religion” and less about “loving people,” we lose our ability to be the arms of Christ. We lose our ability to draw near to us those who most need to be drawn near to Jesus. Moreover, we lose the mission of the church, to be the voice of hope to those who have lost it.
How do we go from our church pews to city streets? We follow the example of Jesus.
“As Jesus went on from there, he saw a man named Matthew sitting at the tax collector’s booth. ‘Follow me,’ he told him, and Matthew got up and followed him. While Jesus was having dinner at Matthew’s house, many tax collectors and ‘sinners’ came and ate with him and his disciples. When the Pharisees saw this, they asked his disciples, ‘Why does your teacher eat with tax collectors and ‘sinners’?’ On hearing this, Jesus said, ‘It is not the healthy who need a doctor, but the sick.'” (Matthew 9:9-12)
knowing what to look for
If we look around our churches today, most of us probably see a congregation of others like us. The amazing, shocking, and nearly scandalous thing about Jesus is that He looked for those unlike Him. Matthew, a tax collector, was someone overlooked by many of the Jews. If he was seen, it was through eyes of hatred for the crime of fraternizing with the Romans. They viewed him as a traitor. Jesus was able to look past that and see the needs and the gifts that Matthew had. With Matthew the tax collector, the Samaritan woman (John 4:1-42), the leper (Luke 17:11-19), the children (Matthew 19:13-14), Jesus missed no one. Jesus knew where to find the marginalized, the poor, and the unclean because His eyes and heart were open to them. In many cases, the disciples simply didn’t see the needs of those immediately around them or turned them away.
Instead of looking past the “sinners,” on our drive to work, we need to have open eyes and hearts to know where God is leading us to reach out to the marginalized in our society, from children in foster care, to immigrants, homosexuals, homeless, prostitutes and to the meth addicts. We need to see past the “title” and see their needs as well as the gifts that God has given each of them.
Putting it into practice: A former school family here at Messiah carries around with them “blessings bags.” These plain brown bags are decorated by their two children with encouraging messages and are filled with cheese crackers, a tin of “lil smokies” and other snacks so that they can hand them out to the needy whenever they are driving somewhere. These “blessings bags” have been a catalyst for the family to build some deeper relationships with several recipients who have been “blessing bagged” several times.
being where the people are
Jesus was always with the people, at weddings, dinners, and in the streets. He was where the sinners were. He was able to meet the sinners because He continually put Himself in a position to meet them. He did not hide in the temple or the synagogue, but taught in homes and on the streets, from mountainsides and boats. He was where the sinners were.
Present Future author Reggie McNeal’s main point in his book is that the Christian church no longer knows the needs of our neighbors because we no longer know our neighbors – that we no longer know the needs of the needy because we aren’t in the places where the needy are. For us this means that we need to go into the AIDS clinics, the gay bars, to places where the homeless hang out. Not to protest their behavior, but to simply listen and to be around the people. How can we begin to show them Jesus’ love if all they know of Christianity is that it is “more about the organized church than it is about loving Jesus?” By being in the places the people are, we are more likely to hear their needs, concerns, and frustrations.
Putting it into practice: My small group adopted a mission focus of working with refugees. None of us in our small group see refugees on a daily basis, so we used local contacts at Catholic Charities to connect with some families. A few weeks ago, the group met the families we would be working with. We met them in their apartment complex (where a lot of other refugees live). Whenever we go to meet with them, we are in the place where the refugees are. We aren’t asking them to meet with us at Starbucks, but instead meeting them where they are comfortable.
providing care, not judgment…
Jesus was and is radically, shockingly, scandalously different. Jesus was not afraid to talk to the sinner. Even more shocking, He was willing to reach out and touch them, to heal them, to forgive them. Jesus served the needs of the “sinners” but He also, always, always, encouraged them to leave their life of sin. For the Samaritan woman it meant walking away from her adulterous ways, and for Matthew, it meant repaying the debt that he owed and leaving that life behind.
It seems like today, in the church, we no longer focus on the person, but the problems that they have. We no longer build relationships with those outside of the church because we no longer know how to relate. For us, following the example of Jesus means walking alongside those who are struggling and helping those we encounter to begin new lives as a broken, forgiven, healing survivor. It means helping an alcoholic friend get the services they need, or helping provide a refugee mother a way to feed, clothe, and parent her child.
Putting it into practice: Our congregation has “adopted” a family that once came to our church for rent assistance. The father had recently been laid off, but was continuing to look for work. He had been unable to find any and was unwilling to take welfare. After spending more time in conversation with the family, the needs were far greater than just needing the occasional help with rent. The congregation has provided clothes, food, and other basic needs. However, one of the members here at Messiah was able to provide the father with a job. This job, however small, helps provide the means necessary for the family to begin to support themselves again. There is also another member who helps them do a monthly budget so that their money can be stretched as far as possible.
Following Jesus’ example is not easy. It would be much, much simpler to stay in our pews on Sunday morning. However, that is not what we have been called to do. Following Jesus calls for a drastic change in our daily lives. It means examining and re-examining the ways we love and care for those who God has placed in our lives. It means never forgetting that we have the example of Christ who continually ate with sinners.