‘Friend of Sinners’: the Christmas Vision of Jesus

‘Friend of Sinners’: the Christmas Vision of Jesus

Glynn Cardy

Mon 25 Dec

Jesus had a number of critics.  He was not popular in many quarters.  Those interested in radical change seldom are.

One of the derogatory names he was called by his critics was ‘friend of sinners’.   Today, it doesn’t really sound too bad.  Most politicians are called far worse things than that. 

And, for many religious people, to be called a ‘friend of sinners’ has a paternal compassionate overtone.  You aren’t calling the person a ‘sinner’ but a ‘friend of sinners’ – a friend of those poor unfortunates who have gone off the rails.

But in Jesus’ day ‘friend of sinners’ was a gross insult.  Sinners were the outsiders.  And to befriend was to become one.

Every society has ways of demarcating between those who engage in acceptable behaviour and those who don’t.  Sometimes this is extended to groups of people.  So, prostitutes and shepherds in Jesus’ day were seen as engaging in unacceptable/outsider behaviour, even if the individuals themselves had little choice in becoming a prostitute or shepherd.

And sometimes it is not just behaviour based.  Sickness, and the fear of sickness, has often led societies to demarcate – and blame – those who were suffering; erecting social and physical barriers to keep the sick away.  Many of us remember the early responses in our country to AIDs and HIV.

Sometimes too the division between acceptable and unacceptable, insiders and outsiders, was racially and/or religiously based.  In Jesus’ day the unacceptable included Romans, Samaritans, and other Gentiles.  In our day, those of the Islamic faith, or of middle-eastern cultures, often experience considerable prejudice.

In Jesus’ day the debate around who was acceptable  and who wasn’t, was given, and driven, by a religious overlay.

In some of the readings from the Hebrew Bible often used at Christmas there is the idea that Jesus would be the saviour.  Indeed, Jesus’ name in Matthew’s gospel is translated as the one who would save his people from their sins.[i]   As in Isaiah 62:6-12, there was the idea that Jesus would gather, like King David of old, a ‘holy people’ and turf out the sinners.  The anointed ‘King’ Jesus would create a new set of holy insiders and reject the sinful outsiders.  Or so they hoped.

In the Christian gospel texts, written in the late first and early second century, there are three strands:

Firstly, there is a critique of what would later be called Rabbinic Judaism, and particularly its purity laws.  ‘Acceptable’, or holy, meant keeping to those laws – laws about what you ate, who you came into contact with, washing, behaviour etc.  So, for example, one of the problems with shepherds, being out in the fields for long periods of time, was that they didn’t adhere to the purity codes regarding washing.  Thus they were ipso facto sinners. 

But the related problem was that a sinner could ‘pollute’ a non-sinner by coming into contact with them.  So, if Mary, Joseph and baby Jesus were visited by shepherds and if one, or more, shepherds gave the baby a cuddle (which I hope they did), or ate with the ‘holy family’ (which I’m sure they did), then Mary, Joseph and baby Jesus would likewise become unclean sinners.

Of course, being in a manger is major danger in the purity stakes!  The Luke nativity story has uncleanliness at the heart of it.  As does Matthew’s story with those three heathen Magi, read: ‘unclean sinners’, from the East. 

This clean/unclean holy/sinner divide is loaded against those in poverty.  It was much harder for those of insufficient means to comply with purity codes.  It was much harder for those consigned to occupations that the respectable ‘holy’ folk won’t touch.  To be poor was and is to have little choice.

Jesus sided with the poor, and flouted the purity codes.

The second strand running through the Christian gospel texts is a new divide that the Christ communities were beginning to develop in the late 1st Century.  For what we would later call the Church also saw the practical use of categories of acceptable and unacceptable, holy and sinner.  And that practical use was control.

This strand is around belief – beliefs like Jesus literally being born of a virgin, dying on a cross and literally being raised back to life 3 days later, and literally retuning in the future to judge the world.  This last belief about end-time judgement involved categorising everyone as fit for either heaven or hell.

So, the Church, ironically, critical of Rabbinic Judaism’s set of purity laws developed its own set of laws.  If you believed the right, orthodox things you were one of the holy people, destined for heaven, and if you were a hetero-orthodox sinner, you were destined for hell.  After the Church married the Empire in the 300s this insider/outsider divide had imperial policemen to enforce it.   Who determined what was ‘right’ was the religious hierarchy, who not surprisingly were at critical times [like the Council of Nicaea] influenced by the imperial hierarchy.

Today, while the rise of secularism thankfully has diminished the Church’s authority in this regard, and most churches allow for some diversity around doctrine, there is still an insider/outsider, acceptable/unacceptable divide that the Church maintains.  Although God might be largely unknowable, the Church still thinks it knows enough to label some as sinners, and some beliefs as heresy.  And in this respect I think the Church doesn’t understand Jesus.

The third strand in the Christian gospel texts is reflected in the behaviour of Jesus, and in his response to his critics.  Jesus exhibited an alternate reality to that of the insider versus outsider.  He mixed with people of ill repute – like wealthy tax-collectors.  He praised women who wanted to break with social convention and engage in roles preserved for males.  He mingled with those who were sick and excluded, like lepers.  He dined with Pharisees.  He helped a Roman Centurion. 

Jesus deliberately crossed the boundaries of acceptability and disregarded the categories on offer.  He was a friend of sinners, and was considered polluted by them.  He was also willing to engage with anyone, not just so-labelled ‘sinners’, and dine with anyone.  Dining, as in many parts of the Middle East today, is a way of extending the hospitality of God – hospitality being God’s true nature.

Jesus told stories that exemplified his boundary-crossing ethic.  The parable of the Good Samaritan is one example.  The hero is a despised ‘half-breed’, a social and religious outsider.  For the beaten in Jesus’ society, and I’m thinking of those who identify with the man beaten up and lying in the ditch, help does come.  But it can come from a surprising and unexpected source, a Samaritan.  Note that though Jesus in this story is implicitly critical of those who didn’t stop to help the man in the ditch, he is not creating a new category of outsider/sinner.

For Jesus’ vision and practice embraced everyone – Jew, Gentile, slave, free, male, female, oppressed and oppressor, insider and outsider.  For those pushed out by categories like ‘sinner’ this was heaven.  For those who did the pushing, well this was hell.

Those invested in the categorizing of people as sinners, tried to co-opt God as the final arbitrator.  But Jesus wanted to free God from this prison fence.  God, in Jesus understanding, was about mending not condemning.  The world was fractured enough without encouraging more.  Jesus purpose was to heal the fractures by dining with and including everyone – living the hospitality called God.  His vision was of a huge inclusive party, sharing what we have, with room for all.

Many churches, like St Luke’s, have Christmas Pageants.  The infancy narratives, and the legends they engender, are spliced together and acted out.  On the stage of Christmas there are shepherds, Magi, an angelic choir, an evil king, cousins and singing, oxen and sheep, an unwed mother, a dreamy father, and sometimes even Santa and some elves.  The message is that we are all there: the lonely and lost, the found and the floundering, the rich and the poor, humans and animals, the socially acceptable and those who are not.  We are all there.  As I said, for some this is heaven and for some its hell.

And the baby is there – the centre of the tableau.  The baby is the real symbol of Christmas.  For a baby defies our categories.  We don’t know what a baby will grow up to be or do or say or think or act or vote.  And, really, it doesn’t matter.  A baby is simply there to be loved and accepted, looked after and cared for.  A baby is not a sinner, or an outsider, or unacceptable.  Rather a baby, every baby, is a gift – a gift of God – for us to have our hearts touched by.

[i] Matthew 1:21