Jesus at the Margins, by John Frye

Pastors are fascinated by the life of the Good Shepherd. I have been ruminating about Jesus’ life with the marginalized of 1st century Judaism. I am going to ponder in print some of my thoughts. The more we appreciate Jesus’ life and ministry as a 1st century Jewish man, the more relevant Jesus is to us. The more Jesus becomes a timeless theological construct for all people in all times and all places, the more useless he becomes. Let the one who wants to discern, discern.

We often think that Jesus left his suburban bungalow on the green hillside of Galilee and went into the big city and sought out the disadvantaged. How good of Jesus to condescend and go to the marginalized, the outcasts, the rejects, the down-trodden. What a model of servant-leadership. Yet, wait a minute. Jesus, himself, was born into and lived in the shadowy margins of his society. He was the ultimate outcast, the “sinner.” Jesus was the man with disreputable beginnings, unholy (read illegal) practices, and disgusting death.

Good news: Jesus changed the margins. He dared to draw new lines of acceptance with God the Father. Jesus paradoxically made being marginal central. Let me try to illustrate this. Imagine that I announce to the Northview neighborhood where we live that teenagers on the verge of getting their driver’s licenses can meet me in a local school parking lot at a certain time. I will train them for free how to start a car, drive and park a car, learn to operate a manual shift, change a flat tire, and check the oil. I get approval from every authority interested and the area folk think, “How nice. That guy is helping our kids prepare to drive. And he’s doing it for free.”

One day, however, the teens come home, jumping for joy. “Mom, Dad, I got my driver’s license today!”

“You what? Let me see that.”

“Yeah, that guy who’s been training us issued our licenses today. Isn’t that just wicked?!”

“Hey, settle down. This 3 X 5 card with a polaroid picture taped to it isn’t exactly a valid driver’s license.”

Word gets out and soon the Michigan Secretary of State sends some State Police to check out this unusual and illegal behavior. Teens are being arrested for driving with a lumpy 3 X 5 card as their driver’s license.

“Hey, Reverend Frye, you can’t just go on issuing driver’s licenses like this. We appreciate your help getting these teenagers road ready and all that, but you cannot issue a license to any of them. That is the serious task and under the authority of the State of Michigan.”

Jesus is famous for his meal-time habits. His eating habits are one of the most reliable and uncontested features of his life. Jesus ate with people in and from the margins. For a God-fearing Jew, he ate with the wrong people. But that in itself could be tolerated. “Birds of a feather flock together. He eats with ‘sinners’ because he is a ‘sinner.”’

What got Jesus in trouble was issuing licenses, so to speak. He said, “At my table, you are sitting right in the middle of the Kingdom of God. Eat up. Drink. Laugh. The kingdom is here for you!”

“Hey, Rabbi Jesus, we’re the authorities from the Temple…you know, the really big one in Jerusalem. We know you mean well, but you just can’t go around telling people, especially these people, that they are in the kingdom of God. That’s our job.”

Jesus with a furious twinkle in his eye says, “Oh, no, my Temple friends, you’ve got it all wrong. That is exactly my job. And I’m doing it.”

At Jesus’ table Deborah, the prostitute, passes a bunch of grapes to Matthew, a tax-collector, and the cups of wine spark laughter. Anne Lamott defines laughter as “carbonated holiness.” Deborah and Matthew wonder aloud what they will ask Abraham when they sit at the table with him. Jesus had said that they would eat with their ancestors in the faith.

“I never knew there was a place at this table for me,” Deborah says quietly. “I don’t look like a Pharisee. I don’t talk like one and I, for sure, didn’t act like one. I never did learn to talk ‘Pharisee.’”

“Nor I,” laughs Matthew, “but here we are…in the middle of the Kingdom of God!”

Bread, fruit, lamb and wine. Laughter. Heaven and earth meet at the table.

Who are the real marginalized?

About Scot McKnight

Scot McKnight is a recognized authority on the New Testament, early Christianity, and the historical Jesus. McKnight, author of more than forty books, is the Professor of New Testament at Northern Seminary in Lombard, IL.

  • Andrew Dowling

    Nice piece. People often misconstrue that Jesus hung out with ‘sinners’ to “save them” but that is missing the mark. These people were not sinners in the sense that they constantly sinned . . their label as a sinner was basically an outside label imposed upon them by the society they lived in amidst Jewish concepts of clean and unclean. Jesus breaking laws of taboo and spending time/eating with them as a Jewish holy man was basically a way of showing them that God’s reign and love extends to the outcast, and that they can be closer to God than the holiest of high priests.

  • Steve Cuss

    Beautiful, John. Thanks for crafting this one. I love the DL analogy

  • David Dollins

    Love this! Reminds me of some of the stories from Gary Burge’s book Encounters With Jesus. We need a whole new revelation of who Jesus is, that’s for sure.

  • Jean

    Dumb question: Who’s Deborah?

  • Allen O’Brien

    Jesus in his own context, as he actually lived, is much more difficult to stomach than many of us make him out to be. Unless, of course, we’re ready to acknowledge the Spirit whenever (and wherever) it works, which is easier to write about than do.

  • Allen O’Brien

    I’m assuming it’s the “name” of the unidentified prostitute that Jesus forgave at the end of Luke 7. Scandalous in the best way.