I think that God’s call for us to be in unity with the Divine, in unity with each other, and in unity with all Creation is nothing less than a scandal — and a glorious one. Often times people think that being good is about not only behaving in ways that are not bad — but staying away from people with bad reputations. There is a great importance placed, in many cultures, upon the company we keep. And many parents begin early in a child’s life to help filter who among their peers they should be around. We have almost daily reminders that a child who had been known as a “good kid” turned wayward when she “got mixed up with” the “wrong sorts.” Maybe after making her new friends she got into drugs, became less open and truthful with her parents, or started stealing (or all of the above). “She wasn’t like that before she started spending time with those girls,” some might observe.
Little wonder, then, that we find in the New Testament the shock and concern when upstanding members of society see the rabbi Jesus in the company of prostitutes, tax collectors, and other disreputables. Bad habits rub off of bad people and onto good, after all.
It’s not an odd idea. Many cultures have wisdom advice that speaks of good behaviors in the same way. “If you want to be smart, spend time with smart people,” is one saying I heard as I was growing up. Many teachers have observed (myself included) that a good student suddenly plunged into a class full of students who, in general, do not take their studies seriously will often times perform less well in their company. Based upon such observations, it is common in many places for parents to try to get their child placed with other students who perform well. Similarly, these generalizations are sometimes employed to keep students who tend to perform less well out of classes with those who do perform well. There are many layers to cause and effect, of course — more than will fit into this short chapter.
So back to Jesus and his disturbing tendency to keep “bad company.” Some of those around him wondered if he knew what sort of person with whom he was spending time. Such was the case with the Pharisee at supper who saw the prostitute and wondered if Jesus knew what kind of person she was. Were they seeing a blind spot in the perception (and wisdom) of the teacher? Did this lapse of good sense (and violation of 1st century notions of purity in Jesus’s culture) indicate a possible moral failing on the part of this traveling preacher? Doubtless these sorts of questions arose many times during Jesus’s earthly ministry.
In the feedings of the thousands, we see examples of Jesus bringing together people who were simply not supposed eat together, according to the customs of his culture during his earthly ministry. He didn’t seem to care who he ate with (and who you shared a meal with said whether they were included or excluded from those whom you saw as your own community). In other settings we see him speaking with Samaritans (people whose religion could be seen as having a similar relationship as to a “heresy” in Christianity), touching lepers (which was seen as rendering a person ritually unclean), and inviting himself to supper at the house of a tax collector. More than this, as a rabbi, where the assumption in his time was that one learned by imitating the teacher’s behavior, it was clear he was setting an example for his disciples. He expected them (and us) to do likewise.
So, then, part of being united in the love of Christ Jesus is to keep company with all the wrong sorts of people; at least in so far as the world looks at them.
This has been a personal challenge in my life. Like many other families, mine has suffered on account of family members who became addicted to drugs or alcohol, or who had strings of relationships that didn’t work, etc. It is especially hard when you are trying to raise children to live lives shaped by good behavior — but counter examples can be seen in the people they live with, people they love dearly. So, my own aversion to spending time around people who did not behave in line with the teachings of Christ and whose personal reputations were not good, were rooted in practical experience and not mere philosophy. Yet, as I read scripture and tried to learn from the teachings of Jesus, I felt his example pressing upon me.
A very important turning point came for me when I was looking for a church at which to do my practical ministerial training while in seminary. I went to a number of congregations to visit. Most of them were like other congregations I’d known well in different parts of the country. The people in the congregation had few, if any, visibly scandalous marks upon their reputations. At that point in my life I was looking for a challenge and I hoped to find a congregation that would give me an opportunity to more literally experience the kind of Christian fellowship I saw demonstrated in the earthly ministry of Jesus. So, I continued to look.
I was just days away from the deadline for submitting the papers for my year of practical ministerial training. I was not feeling drawn to any of the congregations I’d visited. Then a friend of mine asked me to go with him to a church he was going to visit that Sunday. I went.
A few minutes after we arrived, as I was putting page markers in my hymnal, I started noticing things about the congregation. It had many different kinds of people present. There were people from different ethnic backgrounds, people of different ages, different economic standing, and various levels of education. There were also people with observable physical or mental challenges. The congregation was not large — maybe sixty people — but the variety of people there on that Sunday was the best I’d seen anywhere.
Just as we were getting ready to start the worship service, a woman came in who was dressed in very tight-fitting clothes and a fur coat. She went and sat in the first row; as close to the altar as she could get. She made her living by prostitution on a street nearby. She was known to some in the congregation and one of the ladies was visibly uncomfortable when the woman removed her coat and sat there in form-fitting clothes that left no mystery as to what she looked like underneath. The church member came up and suggested the woman might be cold (as the heat was not working — which was true). She tried to lift the coat back onto her. But the woman in the front row stopped her and said, “I’m fine.” When it came time to take communion, I found myself at the altar rail with this woman. I thought to myself, “I am in a place with Jesus’s people.” It was there that I did my practical pastoral training during the coming academic year.
Since then, I have attended worship services at a number of local churches that are similarly blessed with congregations made up of the broad range of people Jesus welcomed into his presence during his earthly ministry. This is part of what it means to be united in Christ Jesus. This is part of Christian unity at the level of the local church.
Spending time with people whom the respectable in society view as being the “wrong sort” is something that needs to be a part of ecumenism at all levels of Christian community. There are countless ways we can look upon people as not being all they should be. These can be matters of social behavior; but they can also be matters of religious understanding. Setting pre-conditions of change upon those whose religious beliefs are different, saying we will not meet with, or have fellowship with, people because their doctrine is “wrong” or their understanding of how the church should be organized does not fit with our own, does not match up with the teaching example of Jesus. We need to welcome all and be hospitable to all. We need to sacrifice our reputations in the eyes of some in order to conform our lives to the love of God.
What to do, then, about the practical challenge that comes with being with people who may have habits or beliefs that we do not care to imitate — and do not want members of our communities to take up?
I think the key is knowing what we wish to teach and living that ourselves. It is not enough to be a good person on the inside. It is not enough to have a Christian spirit. Those who feel called by Christ need to live according to Christ’s example. Rather than spending most of our energy preaching against people, we need to welcome people and witness to them with our lives and our love. This is not about idealism; it is about enactment of inclusion of the very people God calls to himself in the person of Jesus Christ. Being a Christian is a dangerous activity.
At that same church I mentioned above, a man wielding a pistol confronted the pastor one Sunday. He pointed it at her and said he was going to kill her. She asked him what he needed, why he’d come into that church building. He repeated that he was going to kill her. She told him that she loved him and wanted to help . . . and that she was a mother with a child. She preferred not to die that day; but she would be happy to help him if she could. For a brief moment that seemed much longer, she looked past the point of the gun aimed at her and into his eyes. Suddenly, he turned and left. Later, she was asked about how she felt. “Scared. But what are we to do? We can’t lock the door and be a church that doesn’t welcome people. That’s not what we’ve learned from Christ. Living as a Christian is sometimes dangerous. There are risks you take on when you take up your own cross. After all, it got Jesus killed. It’s a possibility we must accept for ourselves as well.”
Love in Christ Jesus is scandalous. Jesus didn’t need to do background checks on people. He knew what sort of person with whom he was dining. When he was on the cross, he knew what sorts of people for whom he was dying. Unity in God’s love is an open and general invitation. It is even an invitation that includes you and me.