“An ‘innocent’ Jesus does not overpower sin. A righteous Jesus does. The world needs less innocence and more righteousness.”
–Greg Carey, Sinners
In this week’s New York Times Magazine, Benoit Denizet-Louis profiles a place called St. Anthony’s House, where alcoholics can go and keep drinking. They receive three meals a day, a small amount of cash which they often spend on alcohol, and a place to stay. And they receive acceptance. What would Jesus say?
According to Greg Carey, Jesus would probably be eating dinner with these men (and who knows, maybe drinking vodka with them too). And Jesus wouldn’t be saying anything about their moral deviance. Carey claims that Jesus “never calls ordinary sinners to repentance.” Although Jesus talks about the need for repentance in general terms, according to Carey, he never singles out an individual and directs him or her to repent in particular terms. Carey does not dismiss the need of every individual for repentance. Instead, he points out that Jesus’ righteous and compassionate presence seems to prompt repentance without needing to call for it. The encounter with Jesus and Jesus’ acceptance of individuals as who they are right now (not who they might become if they get their moral act together) empowers those same individuals to change.
I wish Carey had said more about the implications for contemporary Christians of Jesus’ words and actions surrounding the “sinners” of his day. What does it look like to uphold high moral standards, as Jesus did, without condemning individuals? The way in which Jesus demonstrated his acceptance of “sinners” as full and valuable human beings was by association with them, even friendship with them. He hung out with them all the time. They ate dinner together. In other words, for us to be like Jesus in this area would not only mean a theoretical commitment to God’s grace for sinners, but a life lived alongside “sinners” without condemnation and instead with love. Jesus endured great criticism for his acceptance of men and women ostracized by the religious leaders and respectable people of the day. It makes me wonder whether my life and my friends (and our churches) are too respectable. It makes me wonder whether there should be more houses like St. Anthony’s.
But it also makes me wonder whether the reason Jesus didn’t call individuals to repent was because they already knew their sin. They just didn’t know their belovedness. Perhaps the religious leaders and the respectable people needed to understand their separation from God, their sin. The sinners needed to understand their acceptance by God. And all of this leads me to wonder what Jesus would say to a generation that doesn’t really believe in sin (see an earlier post, Our Love-Hate Relationship with the Cross).
In conclusion, Sinners prompted me to think about Jesus, the church, and my own attitude towards social outcasts and people our culture considers morally corrupt. I wish Carey had done more to help me make the connections from Jesus’ day to our own. But perhaps he intended for me to figure that out on my own. Perhaps I need to figure out what it means to follow Jesus here and now as one who believes that all people need repentance and all people need to know they are loved.
Amy Julia Becker is an author and blogs at Thin Places.