The religious leaders of Jesus' day were distant from the people. "Sinners" were to be avoided, not engaged. The dirt might rub off. They couldn't risk their reputation rubbing shoulders with people who were not as religious and pure as they were. Their lives were filled with pride.
Jesus, on the other hand, was eminently approachable. He spent so much time with the riff-raff of His day that His reputation was tarnished (at least in the minds of the Pharisees) as a glutton and a drunkard!
"For John came neither eating nor drinking, and they say, ‘He has a demon.’ The Son of Man came eating and drinking, and they say, ‘Here is a glutton and a drunkard, a friend of tax collectors and sinners.’" (Jesus in Matthew 11:18-19 NIV)
One scandalous incident reported to us in the Gospel of Luke involves a woman who had lived a "sinful life" (polite speak for a prostitute).
When one of the Pharisees invited Jesus to have dinner with him, He went to the Pharisee’s house and reclined at the table. A woman in that town who lived a sinful life learned that Jesus was eating at the Pharisee’s house, so she came there with an alabaster jar of perfume. As she stood behind Him at his feet weeping, she began to wet His feet with her tears. Then she wiped them with her hair, kissed them and poured perfume on them. When the Pharisee who had invited Him saw this, he said to himself, “If this man were a prophet, He would know who is touching Him and what kind of woman she is—that she is a sinner.” (Luke 7:36-39 NIV)
Here is the contrast vividly portrayed. The Pharisee is scandalized that Jesus allows a prostitute to touch Him. Jesus wants to make contact with sinners, in order to show them grace and redeem their lives. Whatever the cost to His reputation, Jesus interacts with hard-living, broken people to show them God's unfathomable love and grace.
And He calls us to love like that!
Perhaps one of the most heart-breaking dynamics of what the Church has become is its avoidance of sinners. In an effort to be holy for the Lord we can sometimes become out of touch with people whom Jesus loves and wants to redeem. On our best days keeping our distance from sinners is an attempt to come apart from them and not allow them to make our lives guilty by association. After all, the driver of the getaway car is just as guilty of robbing the bank as the gunmen who go inside and take the money, right?
On our worst days, we distance ourselves from people we consider to be sinful because our pride causes us to think we are living holy lives that are above them and we look down on them in judgment. It is far too easy to have the heart of the Pharisee in a parable Jesus told:
To some who were confident of their own righteousness and looked down on everyone else, Jesus told this parable: “Two men went up to the temple to pray, one a Pharisee and the other a tax collector. The Pharisee stood by himself and prayed: ‘God, I thank you that I am not like other people—robbers, evildoers, adulterers—or even like this tax collector. I fast twice a week and give a tenth of all I get.’ But the tax collector stood at a distance. He would not even look up to heaven, but beat his breast and said, ‘God, have mercy on me, a sinner.’" (Luke 18:9-13 NIV)
Jesus sums it up this way:
“I tell you that this man, rather than the other, went home justified before God. For all those who exalt themselves will be humbled, and those who humble themselves will be exalted.” (Luke 18:14 NIV)
If we are to love like Jesus loves, we must allow His love to stir up His compassion in us, so we become approachable. We have to see people as bearers of the very image of the living God, beyond the brokenness and sin of their lives. We can love like Jesus loves and show the love of Jesus to others as we humbly view ourselves as sinners, saved by grace, who offer that grace to other sinners who need it as badly as we do.
When we live in humility and become approachable to people who desperately need a relationship with Jesus to find forgiveness and a new life for themselves, we love like that!
May it be so in me, Lord Jesus...