9-6-16 - The Company You Keep

Jesus was often under scrutiny by the religious leaders of his day – and the more so because they didn’t approve of many whom he welcomed into his company.

Now all the tax collectors and sinners were coming near to listen to him. And the Pharisees and the scribes were grumbling and saying, “This fellow welcomes sinners and eats with them.” (This week's gospel passage is here.)

Why are “tax collectors” and “sinners” so often lumped together in the Gospels? Tax collectors of Jesus’ time were no mild-mannered IRS accountants. They were Jews who made a living by “collecting” taxes for the Romans from their fellow-Jews. As such, they were collaborators with a hated regime and enforcers of cruel and often capricious extortion. And the Romans didn’t pay them for this – they allowed them to tack on a “fee” or surcharge. The meaner and tougher they were, the higher the “fee” they commanded. Tax collectors were easy to loathe.

Yet Jesus invited one of these, Matthew, to be a disciple. He ate at the home of another, Zaccheus. He seemed to be a magnet for them – and he didn’t just dine with them. He invited them to repent and be renewed. Many saw their lives transformed, as did other “sinners” who spent time with Jesus. Who better to hang around with than someone who talks about forgiveness and the love of the heavenly Father? Who sees you as a human being despite the despicable way you’ve treated others?

And what about these Pharisees and scribes? They weren’t bad people. Pharisees deeply loved the Law of Moses and strove for lives of great holiness. In the process, they often became self-righteous, judgmental, and tipped into a compassionless legalism that – Jesus felt – caused them to focus on minute laws at the expense of God’s greater command to care for the poor and defenseless. The scribes were temple leaders, and regulated the apparatus of worship and sacrifice. They had limited power under Roman authority, and like many such people, excelled in making others feel even more powerless.

So we have, on the one hand, notorious sinners and low-lifes, and on the other, hypocritical and arrogant “holy” people. If all the lowlifes were in one room, and all the religious people in another, and you HAD to pick one, which room would you go in? Why?What would you say to those gathered in each room?

What kind of people do you find yourself judging, even condemning (we all do it… let’s just bring it to the surface so we can look at it…). Think of some examples of individuals or groups. Bring them to mind. Now bring Jesus into that picture. What does he do? Say? How do you feel?

What kind of people do you feel are hypocritical? How do you suppose they got that way?
Think of some examples of individuals or groups. Bring them to mind. Now bring Jesus into that picture. What does he do? Say? How do you feel?

Those who flout the rules and those who cling rigidly to them are both living outside the sweet spot of God's grace. Jesus invites us all into the center.

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