That’s what religious leaders in Jesus’ day called the people who were at a party with Him one evening.
Jesus had invited this guy named Matthew to be one of His disciples. Matthew was a tax collector. That means he was basically a traitor and a thief because he was collecting taxes for an occupying Roman government. Matthew was excited, so he threw a party and invited Jesus and all the other disciples plus everybody Matthew knew.
The issue was that the only people Matthew knew were outcasts like him.
That’s the group of people Jesus was hanging out with when the Pharisees asked the rest of the disciples, “Why does your teacher eat with such scum?”
Part of the Problem
Most of us probably have at least one story we could tell about a time religious people made us feel like scum.
In church one week as a kid, I got called out from the pulpit in front of maybe 600 people for wearing a T-shirt and jean shorts. I already hated going to church, so this was just one more reason to dislike the place. I kept wearing shorts and a T-shirt whenever my mom dragged me along.
I didn’t like the feeling of being judged by someone in a place of spiritual authority. But years later, I became part of the problem before trying to be part of the solution.
After I had made the choice to follow Jesus, I attended seminary to study Scripture and theology. I gradually got to the point where I wasn’t sure whether other people really “understood” the Christian life the way I understood it, and I was quick to criticize people who were “doing it wrong.”
I wouldn’t have admitted it to anybody at the time (especially myself), but I was miserable, and I’m pretty sure I made a lot of other people miserable, as well. I had become like the minister who had tried to shame me. I had become like the religious people who couldn’t understand why Jesus would want to be around “scum.”
I’ll never forget the day where, during prayer, I felt like God took a wrecking ball to the prison of expectations and self righteousness I had constructed around myself brick by brick. God showed me a freedom I had lost in the midst of all my rules and striving, and I vowed never to go back.
Here are some perspectives I work to maintain to help me be more like Jesus, who was accepting of imperfect people, rather than being like the Pharisees, who were on the wrong side of the coming of a new movement from God and refused to deal with the broken, flawed people who filled the world.
The Gospel is Good News, Not a Rulebook
Jesus is always far more accepting than anyone around Him is comfortable with. People’s lives are changed after being around Jesus. On more than one occasion, even His own disciples are confused about why Jesus is interacting with outsiders, which is funny since they are absolutely not the kind of people a renowned rabbi would normally select as his followers.
The Kingdom of God is a party everyone is invited to. Christians are not the door bouncers, we’re the promoters, getting the word out to everyone.
In Galatians 2:18, Paul writes, “I am a sinner if I rebuild the old system of law I already tore down.” If we just create new “Jesus rules,” or standards someone has to meet before we let them in to our Christian circles, we’re completely missing the point of why Jesus was born, lived, died and lived again.
No one ever has to be an outsider again.
Acceptance Isn’t the Same Thing As Approval
Several times, Jesus ends an encounter with some form of “go and sin no more.” The difference between the way Jesus does this and what we tend to do is that Jesus did it in a relational manner. It was only after He showed how much He valued people through acts of acceptance, salvation, healing, etc that He said this.
We can only hold people accountable to the level we have influence with them. Influence comes from relationship, and relationship is gained by demonstrating genuine care over the course of time.
When Jesus told people to go and leave their sinful life, it didn’t come across as a threat, but rather as a caution. “Hey,I want you to have a better life. Stop doing things that hurt yourself.”
We need to love well before we can disciple well.
We Don’t Know the Full Story, But God Does
C.S. Lewis tells a story in the last book of the Chronicles of Narnia series wherein a soldier fighting against Aslan is welcomed into paradise because Aslan knew that the soldier’s devotion was in search of truth and Aslan accepted that as worship.
Before you worry about me being a universalist, remember that I’m just telling you something C.S. Lewis considered. Lewis also wrote a book called The Great Divorce where he suggested that anyone can leave hell anytime they want, but the vast majority want to stay.
I have no clue whether C.S. Lewis is right in either of these cases, but here’s why I love what he has written: He’s taken a two-sided issue and found a new side. If a human being can do that, how much more can God do that?
My point here is that our gauge of who has it together and who doesn’t may not be calibrated all that well. The ones we consider imperfect may be closer to the Kingdom than we ourselves are.
It is in keeping these perspectives in mind that I try to live on a footing of humility. Often, I fail spectacularly, but here’s the beauty: When I’m more willing to accept imperfection in others, it doesn’t devastate my own sense of value and worth.
When I screw up and Jesus doesn’t zap me with a lightning bolt, it reminds me of His great love.
In those moments, it becomes easier to remember to love others, as well.