|Bonaventure Cemetery outside Savannah GA|
Some scribes who were Pharisees saw that Jesus was eating with sinnersThis little story about the earliest stage in the ministry of Jesus holds particular meaning for those of us who are Christians in 21st century America. These few lines are significant because they present to different, even contradictory, approaches to living a life of faithfulness. The scholars who question the disciples are members of a sect of Jews we have come to know as Pharisees. We don't know a lot about this sect. It was not a large group. It did not have all that much influence. Its power was based on its approach to a righteous life which focused on detailed compliance with the rules and regulations of religious practice. Jesus once criticized them for laying heavy burdens of observance on ordinary people. They were particularly concerned with the laws of purity and the necessity of living within a community of believers and excluding non-believers.
and tax collectors and said to his disciples,
"Why does he eat with tax collectors and sinners?"
Jesus heard this and said to them,
"Those who are well do not need a physician, but the sick do.
I did not come to call the righteous but sinners." Mark 2:16-17
They were scandalized by Jesus' insistence on fellowship with a diverse set of people, especially non-Jews, publicly recognized sinners like prostitutes and tax collectors, lepers and others concerned unclean, and the poor and imprisoned. This was made even worse by his failure to abide by rules of ritual purity and the sabbath. His very existence and life was an affront to the central self identity of the Pharisees. While the Pharisees sought to influence people through their detailed and rule-based religious observance, Jesus was generating a large following by seemingly living in direct opposition to their rules and judgments. His popularity was an indictment of their core principles. This dynamic helps me understand the intensity of their opposition to Jesus, culminating in his death. He was a threat to their existence.
So there are two approaches to living a righteous life. The first focuses on rules and regulations and a life enclosed within a community of "true believers." The other focuses on relationships with all kinds of people and does not make "righteousness" a requirement of fellowship and acceptance. It was not the case that Jesus was sharing table fellowship with former sinners and tax collectors. He clearly intended to all include all especially those who were "sick" and just those who were well. The love of his father was not exclusive and he was intent on living a life that reflected that all inclusive love.
During my lifetime, Catholicism in the United States has grown from a "ghetto" religion into one squarely in the mainstream of American culture. That transition is a challenge and is on-going. It is easier to maintain your identity within a community of like-minded true believers but that is not the world into which we are called to be disciples. How to maintain our identity and spontaneity in a world whose values are inimical to ours is our central challenge. The message of Jesus, to me at least, is not to turn our backs on the world and retreat into closed communities but rather to trust the inclusive love of the Divine One.