A Disciple’s Pet Peeves: “Jesus Hung Out with Sinners”

I first learned to love God through His Word and didn’t walk through the doors of a church building until I’d read and wrestled through the Book at least once. Since then, I’ve continued to read and wrestle through the Bible repeatedly – a practice that’s brought to light some rather odd discrepancies between the actual Words of God and Bible-belt churchianity culture where I live. A few of these discrepancies have grown into pet peeves, like the oft-repeated mantra, “Jesus hung out with sinners.”

To that, I can only muster both shreds of dignity, roll my eyes, and state with all possible decorum, “Well, duh!”

The LORD saw that the wickedness of man was great in the earth, and that every intention of the thoughts of his heart was only evil continually.

Genesis 6:5

I have to wonder if anyone who repeats this slogan has actually read the Bible. The whole of it, I mean; not just the verse of the day, an occasional victorious meme, or Aunt Sue’s Hobby Lobby signs.

The LORD looks down from heaven on the children of man, to see if there are any who understand, who seek after God. They have all turned aside; together they have become corrupt; there is none who does good, not even one.

Psalm 14:2-3

Honestly, you don’t need to turn many pages of Scripture to find human beings sinning. All of them. Starting with the first two ever created and spiraling downward from there. My rogue race began with simple disobedience and quickly progressed to bloodshed, polygamy, incest – and it just keeps getting worse.

Even David, the man after God’s own heart, committed adultery (and possibly rape) followed by conspiracy to commit murder to cover his backside (see 1 Samuel 13:14, 2 Samuel 11). Anyone reading it can see the truth behind Paul’s words: “all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God” (Romans 3:23). An honest look at the news headlines, social media feeds, or even our own lives confirms this truth is ongoing.

My best guess is that those who repeat this inane refrain are drawing from segments of Scripture such as the following excerpt:

And as he reclined at table in his house, many tax collectors and sinners were reclining with Jesus and his disciples, for there were many who followed him. And the scribes of the Pharisees, when they saw that he was eating with sinners and tax collectors, said to his disciples, “Why does he eat with tax collectors and sinners?” And when Jesus heard it, he said to them, “Those who are well have no need of a physician, but those who are sick. I came not to call the righteous, but sinners.”

Mark 2:15-17

It’s true – Jesus did dine with sinners. In fact, every time He ate in the presence of a human being, He was dining with a sinner.

To put it another way, Jesus didn’t come to earth with the option of going on occasional retreats with His like-minded buddies who were also sinless incarnations of the Living God. Every person He interacted with was a sinner.

Jesus had no alternatives; if He hung out with anyone, He hung out with sinners.

However, those who spend their time parroting this phrase without contemplation are missing the beauty of the passage. When the Lord responded to the accusations of the Pharisees and scribes, He wasn’t telling them that He preferred the company of sinners to the company of upstanding, righteous members of the community. Or in today’s vernacular, He wasn’t saying He’d rather hang out with prostitutes and drunks than with pastors and clergy.

Instead, He was subtly rebuking them.

Jesus didn’t come to call the righteous – because there are none. He came to call sinners, a label we all carry whether we realize it or not. Even those Pharisees. Especially those Pharisees and those of us who – like them – believe we are “good people” because of what we’ve done and because of our ability to justify the ickier deeds.

I stood upon a high place,
And saw, below, many devils
Running, leaping,
and carousing in sin.
One looked up, grinning,
And said, “Comrade! Brother!”

Stephen Crane

That Jesus spent time around sinners is a given, but the reason this phrase has become a pet peeve is the way it’s often used. Too often, people sling these words around to justify their own poor choices in companionship. If we were Jesus, we needn’t worry about being corrupted by the company we keep. But we are not Him.

While it’s vital that we tell everyone the gospel, it’s also important that we remember our own proclivity to stray. As my pastor says, we need to preach the gospel to ourselves daily; keeping alert to our own need of Him and remaining wary lest we take the easy road into sinful practices and disavow the gospel’s power by our deeds. Or by our pride.

When pride comes, then comes disgrace, but with the humble is wisdom.

Proverbs 11:2

Assassination of Self

For we who live are always being given over to death for Jesus’ sake, so that the life of Jesus also may be manifested in our mortal flesh…
…For this light momentary affliction is preparing for us an eternal weight of glory beyond all comparison, as we look not to the things that are seen but to the things that are unseen. For the things that are seen are transient, but the things that are unseen are eternal.
(2 Corinthians 4:11, 17-18)

The call to homeschool is a call to sacrifice.

No, wait. It’s been on my mind lately as I’ve found myself advocating for a troubled young lady. But there’s more to it. Hmmm, maybe –

The call to be a parent is a call to sacrifice.

No, no. Not there yet. To be married? Single? To work? To stay home with your kids? Be a missionary? Be a friend? Be alone? Write? Eat? Breathe?

Ah, yes. It’s all of those and more.

The call to follow Christ is a call to sacrifice.

Or as Dietrich Bonhoeffer stated it:

The cross is laid on every Christian. The first Christ-suffering which every man must experience is the call to abandon the attachments of this world. It is that dying of the old man which is the result of his encounter with Christ. As we embark upon discipleship we surrender ourselves to Christ in union with his death—we give over our  lives to death… When Christ calls a man, he bids him come and die.  (from The Cost of Discipleship)

Let me speak frankly here, my friends. The more I walk and talk with my King; the more I read His word and put it into practice, the more I surrender to Him and learn to trust Him, the more I see the beauty in sacrifice. In death.

Last week, I wrote to you about a confession of my own sin and of the good which came of being hurt by church. Today I can tell you I still feel free from the taint of bitterness. But it was not a process either quick nor comfortable. It was long and terrible, for the root of bitterness was wound tightly around not only my heart, but around everything else as well. And it did not begin with confession – it ended there.

In some ways, it was nothing short of spiritual open-heart surgery. Or, if you will, circumcision of the heart. It was painful. It was bloody. And it was completely worth it.

And there’s the thing – no matter what the King of kings calls us to give up in this life – even if it’s hurt feelings or pride or selfish ambition – it is worth it. Not only will it be worth it for the next bazillion years, it will be worth it here and now.

An image comes to mind here from one of my pastor’s sermons. He spoke of putting to the sword any temptations, selfishness, envy, pride – literally anything which distracts you from the Lord.

Guys, let’s be real here. These are not vague words encompassing ideas of “bad stuff” to avoid. These can even be good things. Praise music. Family visits. Fun times. Entertainment. Anything which has become an idol for us and merits more attention than the God who gave them to us must go. Anything. 

(…and a quick aside for the record, I am not advocating putting your family or your movie collection to the sword! Just the idolatrous misplacement of our own affections…)

Whatever it is which entices us away from the Lord’s best, from growth and humility and Truth, we need to put it to the sword – the Sword of the Spirit which is the Word of God.

Let’s think about the use of a sword for a moment. To put anything to death by the sword, there’s a necessary intimacy. A gun is cold and impersonal; the slight pressure of a single finger and the deed is done. I can shoot from the relative anonymity of a passing car or a window. I can put a neat bullet hole right into a skull without ever seeing the face of the one I robbed of life.

Not so with the sword. To put a person to death with a sword takes proximity. There’s some degree of effort involved, as even a sharp blade will not penetrate far into muscle, bone, and tendon by accident. There will be pain. There will be blood. There will be screams of agony and it is likely I will see the eyes of the one I destroy – the windows to her soul.

Look in the mirror, Soldier. There’s your target. It’s time for the assassination of the old self. But it has to be personal. You have to mean it.

Even when it hurts. Even when it’s embarrassing. That’s just the death throes of our pride, friends. Bloody, messy, agonizing, horrible to endure, but so, so worth it in the long run.

Lord, may we all be willing to let You show us what must die, then give us the strength and trust to put it to death. Forgive us for clinging to what we believe are good things when You truly do know best. No matter how painful or shaming, expose them in us. We yield them to You to rip out, and we take up the sword in cooperation and obedience to You, our King. 

We know that our old self was crucified with him in order that the body of sin might be brought to nothing, so that we would no longer be enslaved to sin. For one who has died has been set free from sin.
(Romans 6:6-7)