Well, Lord, there go my well-intentioned plans at “morning devotions” and “starting my day in the Word.” It’s 3:30 PM and I have been working non-stop since 8, skipping past that part where I seek you first and invite your Spirit to guide my path today. And, I confess, my day has been a bit chaotic and my heart has felt anxious. So here I am, putting aside the work that so commands my attention most of the time and turning to you—to your words in scripture. I pray that you will lift my head and my heart as I turn my eyes to you.
I’m still in Mark 2 today, because I just scratched the surface yesterday! So take a moment to read through the chapter in your favorite translation. Since I read the ESV yesterday, today I’m reading from The Message to get a different perspective. Mark the parts that jump out at you—I have new ones since yesterday, because some of the phrases that are in this translation are different (and quite catchy).
If you read my post yesterday, you saw some of the things I’ve marked over the years in this passage. Today, I’m focusing on Mark 2, verse 15. The ESV says, “Many tax collectors and sinners were reclining with Jesus and his disciples, for there were many who followed him.” The Message puts it this way: “Later Jesus and his disciples were at home having supper with a collection of disreputable guests. Unlikely as it seems, more than a few of them had become followers.”
Over the years, I’ve head of Jesus referred to as the “Friend of Sinners.” I’ve heard it pointed out that he hung out with sinners, but it wasn’t until fairly recently that I started to wonder why Jesus hung out with sinners.
No, that’s not quite right.
What I wonder more these days is, why did sinners hang out with Jesus?!
The questions might seem to be the same, but in fact they’re not. We know why Jesus hung out with sinners—he loved them. In fact, he said it right in this chapter: Those who are well have no need of a physician, but those who are sick. Jesus came not to call the righteous, but sinners. We get that.
But what I find really curious is that sinners wanted to hang out with him.
How many people who would be labeled as “sinners” often choose to hang out with “holy” people? Think about it for a second. Are you a devout Christian? Are people who are not only not Christians, but are nothing short of heathens, eager to be friends with you, showing up at your house for dinner?
Exactly. But they were with Jesus. “Unlikely as it seems, more than a few of them had become his followers.” And I want to know why. I want to know why people who society calls “trash” wanted to be friends with Jesus. What was it about this perfect human being that made him such a magnet for sinners? Here are a few things that come to mind:
He loved them. For reals. And not in a “love the sinner, hate the sin” kind of way. (C’mon. Would you feel genuinely loved by someone who said they loved you, but hated your sin? Me neither. “I love you, but I hate your gossiping tendencies.” Um, “unfriend,” click.)
Jesus genuinely loved sinful, broken failures of human beings who had more regrets than a dump has flies. He loved them in a “forgive them Father, they know not what they do” kind of way—with compassion, patience, and mercy. He loved them as they were, where they were. I struggle with this so much. I have no trouble loving who I hope this person will become after she has been transformed by the love of Christ. But right here, right now? With that trashy mouth and that attitude toward Christianity and those political views? If I’m honest, I find unconditional love to be really, really hard. Yet Jesus loved unconditionally, and people could sense that. And it was, as some might say, “winsome.”
I think this love meant that sinners felt safe with Jesus. They didn’t feel like they needed to hide who they were, or try to pretend that they were someone else. Of course, they were wrong about Jesus’ love being “safe.” It’s not safe at all—it’s transforming. And when you are transformed by the love of Christ, you do crazy things, like give up everything to follow him, sometimes into some very unsafe places! No, Jesus love isn’t actually safe; but for some reason, even in dangerous places, his love feels safe. His love feels like the safest place on earth—kind of like the fiery furnace in which Shadrach, Meschach, and Abednego were was the safest place on earth!
And he loved the things they loved. Namely, eating and drinking. Jesus clearly enjoyed a good meal with good wine and good friends, and that made it fun to hang out with him. Do you know people who can’t just relax and enjoy themselves? That’s probably not the person you’re eager to be friends with. But when you’re with someone who can “recline at table in his house,” you sense his hospitality, and you relax and enjoy yourself, too. There’s nothing as liberating for a relationship as good hospitality, and I think verse 15 hints that Jesus was a very hospitable host.
Of course, their relationship was not one of just fun and fellowship. Jesus was their teacher! He talked about the kingdom of God with purpose and conviction, and they listened. Look at verse 13: “He went out again beside the sea, and all the crowd was coming to him, and he was teaching them.” But later, in verse 15, we find him reclining at table with many tax collectors and sinners, along with his disciples and religious officials (scribes), for there were many who followed him—home. For dinner. And while we can’t know this for sure, I do not expect that Jesus was still in teacher mode at this point; I think he was in friend mode. Reclining. Eating. Drinking. Talking. Listening. Laughing. After all, a) he was human, and these are things humans enjoy, and b) why else would they choose to hang with him after his teaching stint beside the sea?
He served them. In this case, he served food. And he served as a friend—a spiritual physician, healing them with love, truth, food, and (I suspect) laughter.
Something about the way Jesus behaved with these “sinners” upset the religious folk. What do you think that was? Personally, I think they were upset not primarily because Jesus was associating with these unsavory people, but because he was enjoying them. He was not treating them like projects—or a mission field. He was loving them—and liking them. He was enjoying the good gifts of food and drink and fellowship with them, and that was unacceptable to the religious folks.
So here’s the thing: I want to be like Jesus. I want to be the kind of person that people of all stripes feel genuinely loved by—because I actually, genuinely love them. How does this happen? Here’s where our paths must diverge a bit from Jesus (who was perfect, not sin-sick in the least): it begins with recognizing our own need for grace, and realizing that we, ourselves, are sinners and in need of a physician.
“Who needs a doctor: the healthy or the sick? I’m here inviting the sin-sick, not the spiritually-fit.” Do you identify more with the term “sin-sick” or the term “spiritually-fit?” Oh, how easy it is to feel high and mighty when you have it all together, when you know the answers to all the Bible trivia questions and your church attendance is almost perfect. If I’m honest, I would admit that I don’t go around feeling “sin-sick.” But I am. Believe me, I am.
But I also think that we need to get out there and put ourselves in the company of people who are not going to be coming to home group or signing up for worship team. Several years ago, I was very involved in ministry and hosted a small group and served at a Christian organization, and it occurred to me one day that I did not have a single close, genuine non-Christian friend. It wasn’t something intentional on my part, it was just that my job and social life kept me nicely ensconced in my Christian bubble.
I’m happy to say that’s not the case anymore. I have friends now who are what the Bible (and many of my Christian friends) would call “sinners.” Some are from different religions than me (or no religion at all). Some are gayer than the day is long. Some have had several husbands, and the man they’re living with now is not their husband. Some were Christians, but got super hurt and now want nothing to do with God. But they want to be my friend.
And I’m incredibly privileged that they do. I think it’s easy for Christians to be friends with Christians. But it’s not always easy for people to set aside whatever differences they might have about God, or the path to God, or the rules of God, and just be kind and friendly to each other, enjoy food and drink and laughter, and be in friendship together. My friends know I’m a Christian—they know where my heart is (with Jesus) and where I spend a lot of my time (at church, talking and singing and preaching about Jesus). They may even guess that I pray for them, and they probably suspect that I believe the only way to salvation is through Jesus Christ (though that hasn’t come up at too many dinner parties).
I’m not trying to undermine the importance of encouraging people to repent from sin and be made new through Christ. I value truth, and there are times when a good, old-fashioned Bible thump is just what the Doctor ordered.
But my takeaway from Mark 2:15 is that Jesus sometimes just reclined at table—just sat with his friends, who were the kinds of people that made religious folks nervous, and enjoyed a meal.
And sometimes, that’s the most Christ-like thing I can do.
Of course, at the end of the day, the lesson is not that Jesus hung out with sinners, so we can too. No—if that’s what we think, we’ve missed the most important truth here. The lesson is that Jesus loved sinners—so we have hope. Because we’re the sinners. Every one of us. And we can either be the sinners who get angry at Jesus for loving sinners (in other words, the sinners who don’t know they’re sinners). Or we can be the sinners who deeply and profoundly appreciate that Jesus loved sinners, because that means that he loves us.
And for those of us who love Jesus and want to live like he did, we can examine our hearts and lives, asking: Do I love unconditionally? Am I a safe person for someone who feels like a failure, a misfit, and an outcast? Am I hospitable to people who behave, speak, believe, and think differently from me? Do I serve people with compassion, warmth, generosity, and laughter?Do I welcome to my own table, in my own home, those who are not part of my religious circles?
Whether you self-identify as someone who is righteous because of Christ (and that’s not arrogant, by the way) or you’re a self-proclaimed “hell-in-a-hand-basket” sinner, don’t write someone off just because they’re in a different camp. As Jesus showed, beautiful things can happen when heaven and earth collide around a good meal.
(Good wine helps too. Or at least iced water with cucumber slices. Or cheap Mexican beer and chicken-in-a-bag, which is what my friends and I are enjoying in the picture above 🙂