There is a story in the Gospel of Matthew of Jesus sharing a meal with tax collectors (widely regarded as crooked agents of the Roman government who embezzled funds from the taxes they collected from the people of Israel) and sinners. The Pharisees, religious leaders, were shocked and outraged that he would associate with them. Jesus’ response was that he had not come to call the righteous, but sinners.
This story emphasizes Jesus’ mercy. He was present with people that religious leaders avoided or even disdained. His love wasn’t conditional; people didn’t need to have everything together before he would embrace them.
I wonder what this table would look like today. Who would Jesus invite? Would there be drunkards? Thieves? Murderers? Drug dealers? Abusive spouses? Racists? Rapists? Child pornographers? Pedophiles? White supremacists? Members of ISIS and al-Qaeda? Part of me would be horrified to find them at the table. I would think “They don’t belong to be here! They are evil people!” Yet that’s what mercy is, understanding that we are not defined by our worst deeds.
Jesus’ embrace, of course, doesn’t mean approval. He did start his ministry with the word “Repent!” Yet he knew that before others would heed his words, they would have to trust his voice, and they would only trust his voice if he was near to them. Paul wrote in Romans that the kindness of God is meant to lead us to repentance. Jesus embodied that principle.
What would it look like if I embraced this teaching? If the church embraced this teaching? What would it look like if we were people that the outcasts, the disturbed, the demonized, and those haunted by their former evil deeds could turn to for help? Would we not then have the privilege to bear witness to the remarkable power of transforming love?