We need to ponder long and often the particularly fascinating truth that our Lord Jesus was the sinless “friend of sinners.”
“Sinners in denial,” Pharisees past and present, are seriously bothered by that. “Confessed sinners,” past and present, who know they fall terribly short, love him deeply for it.
Only two types of people exist: confessed sinners and sinners in denial. The former know they need mercy and thus react to others with mercy; the latter, the opposite.
Not all Pharisees mean to be bad people. That does not change the fact that even the nicest ones are a constant danger to themselves and others. Far too nice to ever put it this way, they are beset by two foundational beliefs: 1) I fall short in lots of ways, but the ways I fall short are better than the ways you fall short; 2) If you would just try a little harder, you could be almost as successful as I am in meeting God’s standards.
Looking around, they see in our world an appalling lack of regard for God’s (and their own) standards. What makes their view so tempting is the fact that our society does indeed exhibit a flagrant disregard for God’s standards. What they have a harder time seeing is that so do we all, some in ways not as obvious as others. The best of us needs God’s grace as badly as the worst.
It’s one thing to be one of those moral chameleons this world has in plenty who don’t see anything as right or wrong and can rationalize any attitude or action. It’s another—at least as bad and hurtful—to be so unable to sympathize with human weakness that we paint the whole world as black and white with little gray at all, and, by the way, almost no warmth or color. Law is always cold as stone; only hearts hold real warmth.
Into our world comes the only perfect person who ever lived, and how does he deal with terribly fallen humanity?
At a well in Samaria he holds out hope for a gal who is a five-time marital “loser” and “shacked up” with a guy at the time.
He saves a woman “caught in adultery” lying in the dust at the feet of Pharisees.
He brings new life to a sawed-off lying cheat of a tax collector named Zacchaeus.
How would nice “righteous” folks deal with such people today? Not like Jesus did. Penance or probation would likely be involved. Head-shaking would abound. We’d call a meeting and opine, “As much as we’d like to show mercy, and as much as we believe in grace, if we’re too loose, too lenient, we’ll be sending a message we just can’t afford to send.” What makes such unfailingly black and white folks so dangerous is that, not having suffered enough, failed enough, themselves, they honestly don’t see how they can follow any other course. Such brittle “grace” is no grace at all.
With good intentions, they forget how precious a price was paid for sin, that they didn’t pay it, and that they’re as spiritually needy as the neediest person they ever met. And “they” is, all too often, “we.” And me.
Christ’s suffering paid the price for sin. Until we’ve been broken enough to see our own deep need, we’ll neither fully accept his sacrifice for ourselves or be willing to share the gift of the sinless “friend of sinners” with others.
Curtis Shelburne is pastor of 16th & Ave. D. Church of Christ in Muleshoe. Contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org