Sunday, April 3, 2011

A Fun Lenten Exercise

A question for us to carry around this week: who do I call "sinner"?

That is, in my mind, who do I judge to be "over the line" in some way? It could be people I read about on the news, the relative that I find appalling, some strange kid with "that disgusting lip ring", or my next door neighbor with the dog that won't stop yapping.

I swear this was my waitress at a restaurant recently. She said, Do you want fries to go with that? And all I could think to say was, Are those sterilized?

At the outset, no analysis, no self-judgment -- just put the question out there to the Lord, "God, who do I call sinner?" and then see over the course of the week who God helps you see.  

That term "sinner" pops up a lot in the New Testament (including at Matthew 9:11), generally as a term of judgment by the Pharisees towards certain Jews. Sinners in the New Testament are often grouped with tax collectors, who were often suspected (and perhaps guilty) of overcharging their fellow Jews. (Tax collectors would also bid for work from the Romans; the guy who said he could get the highest take from the people got the job -- so yeah, not the most popular profession. Imagine if the IRS hired agents based on who could do the harshest audits.)


So it sounds like the term "sinners" has the same basic meaning as we use today, that is, people who have acted in ways that are immoral -- thieves, prostitutes, guys who pick fights in bars.

But this is the Pharisees we're talking about, and they were preoccupied with a pretty precise observation of religious rules and expectations throughout every area of one's life. With them, you could become a sinner in about a thousand different ways, and a lot of them had absolutely nothing to do with what we would call moral or immoral action. If you were a peasant farmer living far from Jerusalem, for instance, you simply did not have the luxury of going to Temple as prescribed. You had to work that land or watch your family die.  Boom -- sinner.  Ka-blam.

Other groups, the same way.  "Sinner" involved not simply some external, objective moral code, but subjective, non-moral standards.  And Jesus had really no time for that.  Sinners were unclean; you had to be careful what sort of contact you had with them.  You certainly didn't go out to Starbucks together.  But Jesus was like, "Heck, Starbucks? Let's go to your place! I hear you do a vicious bread pudding!"

Or perhaps a delicious gazpacho!
  
Let's just admit it.  We're all like the Pharisees.  ("Hi, I'm Jim, and I'm a Pharisee." "Hi, Jim.") We all have people we marginalize on the basis of some subjective sense that they're bad or not right.  And our reasons can be very compelling, even hard for us to see as subjective.

But Jesus sees things differently.  Twice in Matthew he quotes Hosea: "I wish mercy and not sacrifice."  That is, I want forgiveness, not a billion rules of yours that people have to live up to for them to be allowed a place at your table.

So, this week, let Jesus help you see differently, too. Ask him to show you who you call sinner.  And then, ask him to help you let some of that go.

I didn't say it would be easy.  Hence the asking Jesus to help us part. 

(Actually, I did say it would be fun.  And I was lying.)

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