“Those who are well have no need of a physician, but those who are sick. Go and learn what this means, ‘I desire mercy, not sacrifice.’
For I have come to call not the righteous but sinners.”
Today we begin our annual 40-Day Spiritual Adventure, traditionally called the season of Lent. It’s a time each year in which Christians around the world spend six weeks preparing spiritually for the celebration of Easter. Lent remembers and echoes the 40 days Jesus spent in the wilderness preparing for his earthly ministry. This season of preparation can include the following:
- deeper and more fervent prayer
- greater contrition over sins that push us away from God and neighbor
- deliberate curtailing of distractions and time-wasters
- expanding practices of generosity toward those in need
- voluntary fasting from some of our typical comforts
- redirecting of our appetites toward the things of Christ
- the pursuit of reconciliation in broken relationships
Our Lenten sermon theme for this year is “Jesus, A Friend of Sinners.” I’m curious if you remember who first called Jesus “a friend of sinners?” It wasn’t his disciples! Nor was it the crowds who followed him! It actually was his detractors! In Luke 7:33-35, Jesus compared those who resisted his message to a group of peevish kids who keep shooting down suggestions their friends make about games they might play. “Let’s play a happy game.” “No, that’s dumb.” “OK, let’s play a sad game.” “No, we’re not in the mood.” Jesus applied this story to the reception given to John the Baptist and himself: “For John the Baptist has come eating no bread and drinking no wine, and you say, ‘He has a demon’; the Son of Man has come eating and drinking, and you say, ‘Look, a glutton and a drunkard, a friend of tax collectors and sinners!’”
Jesus didn’t seem to object to this nickname, “friend of sinners;” and he certainly did not downplay the painful impact of sin in human lives. But his posture toward the so-called sinners around him was generally one of engagement and fellowship. This enabled his detractors within the religious establishment to insinuate that Jesus was careless about holiness, hanging out with people who did not maintain ritual forms of purity and who, more significantly, had morally compromised characters.
What was unique about Jesus was that he didn’t wait for tax collectors and other “sinners” to repent before sharing meals with him. This distinguished him from contemporary Pharisees, who had turned meals into a practice of ritual holiness and separation. Jesus, instead, turned meals into a practice of the coming of God’s kingdom, embodying God’s love for those who needed liberation from unclean spirits, healing from sickness, and forgiveness of sin. My invitation during this season of Lent is for us to model Jesus’ willingness to befriend others who are not presently living the life of faith and who do not share our beliefs and practices, manifesting Christ-like love and welcome in the process.