Why does Jesus dine with sinners?

Sin is not a popular topic these days, but I think it is a necessary one. The truth is that human beings are often our own biggest problem. We're broken, and we break stuff. Christians classically call this phenomenon 'sin.'

In bringing up sin I don't mean to cause shame and hate and division. I do think those things are evidence of sin - they are symptoms. But I certainly don't want to cause any of those things any more than a doctor wants to make you sneeze when she's telling you that you have a cold. 

Moreover, I should clarify that what I mean by sin is actually not the popular image of sin as "missing the mark." The glossa ordinaria is that in Greek the word for sin comes from an archery term that means to miss the mark, but etymologies don't control the meanings of words (for a banal example, just think about driveways and parkways). Generally when Christians talk about sin as missing the mark, there is the vague idea lurking somewhere in the background of what 'the mark' is. Jesus hit it, and we all miss it. But I don't think there is a 'mark' more fundamental than Jesus; there's no timeless moral law that we all fall short of with the exception of Jesus. I don't think this notion takes Jesus seriously enough. 

What I mean by sin is more rooted in disordered desire. Humans were created to love. We exist to love God, and to love each other. When that doesn't work right, we call that sin. (Jesus is, among other things, what it looks like when it works right.)

And like many things that have to do with our desire, sin is contagious.

If you are around enough violence, there's a good chance you'll become a more violent person. It is difficult - perhaps impossible - to live in a greedy culture such as ours and not have that rub off on you. If you are consistently in roles and around social groups that valorize pride and arrogance, well, you're probably not going to grow in humility. 

I could go on. 

Our sin - our wrongly directed desires and our misplaced loves - is contagious. So one might sympathize with the Pharisees:

Jesus sat down to eat at Levi’s house. Many tax collectors and sinners were eating with Jesus and his disciples. Indeed, many of them had become his followers. When some of the legal experts from among the Pharisees saw that he was eating with sinners and tax collectors, they asked his disciples, “Why is he eating with sinners and tax collectors?"

When Jesus heard it, he said to them, “Healthy people don’t need a doctor, but sick people do. I didn’t come to call righteous people, but sinners.” (Mark 2:15–17 CEB)

If sin is contagious, then what Jesus is doing is patently unwise. Sick people do need a doctor. But sin is a serious condition, and as we've observed in the recent Ebola epidemic in West Africa, doctors can actually get sick too. You have to take precautions if you are going to be in close proximity to such severe sicknesses. Really the best course of action is avoidance. 

Or is it?

Well, it probably is with Ebola at this point. 

But Jesus is vaccinated against sin. Or, better (hopefully without overextending this already quite extended metaphor) Jesus is the vaccine. Sin is deadly, and sin is contagious; the Pharisees are right about that. But grace is yet more lively than sin deadly, and yet even more contagious. 

So, with all the risk of doing so, why is Jesus eating with sinners? Because if they're sick, he's a doctor. Or, less metaphorically, because what's broken about them is their love, and Jesus is the Lover par excellence

A lot of religious people (including more than a few supposed Christians!) are afraid of difference, they're afraid of outsiders, they're afraid of behaviors that they see as questionable. This fear might be perfectly reasonable - unless you're a follower of Jesus. If you're a follower of Jesus, then the question changes, it flips: why aren't you eating with tax collectors and sinners? When you aren't eating with sinners, you aren't eating with Jesus. 

Then, of course, the strange good news here is that you're a sinner too, dear reader. 

a few Wesleyan hurdles: inner/outer, 'heart'

Writing about Wesley is hard. He uses a lot of expressions that I find archaic, and the ways he deals with some concepts rubs me the wrong way. Two related examples. First, his usage of 'heart' is difficult for me because I'm worried about how it might be participating in the popular dichotomy between "head" and "heart" - between emotion and cognition - that I find troubling because of the ways that it ignores desire's essential involvement in how and why and what we think (and all of that's involvement in how and why and what we do).

Second, Wesley employs concepts of "outward religion" and "inward religion", a dichotomy that is easy enough to understand but arguably more troublesome than the aforementioned. My fear here is that the inward will become the realm of Christianity and the outward, 'more serious' stuff will become the responsibility of some other more 'practical' power, be it politics, pocketbook, personal preference, etc. We can tuck God safely away in a little 'inward' box and justify some pretty un-Christlike things. See pretty much anything written by JH Yoder or Michael Gorman if you're not sure what I mean. The gospel isn't 'fire insurance' it's a whole new life - a new creation - here and now. And that's radical, disruptive stuff.

But my concerns are pretty contemporary, and Wesley is not a 21st century man, he is a 18th century man. And so I think he largely predates these misconceptions, at least in their modern form. In fact, I think these misconceptions actually came out of the mixture of Wesley's language, along with parallel language coming from other quarters, and later (and a few concurrent) philosophical developments and fashions.

This claim is bolstered by the fact that much of his energies are spent holding inward and outward religion together, employing the distinction to undercut the distance between the two. For Wesley, inward religion necessarily breeds outward religions, and outward religion fosters and deepens inward religion. The two are of a piece, and can't be separated without doing violence to both.

Furthermore, for Wesley the 'heart' isn't too separate a thing either. The Oxford Fellow just means to point out that our human desires are exactly where God wants to go to work on us. God wants to transform and reform us where we love. Moreover, Wesley is also no adherent of Deb from Napoleon Dynamite's "follow your heart" philosophy (yeah, I just went there).

I noticed these 'hurdles' (and other similar concerns) over the summer as well, but the more I read Wesley the more I am convinced that Wesley is merely a victim of a changing conversation, and that he is not guilty of these modern philosophical and theological crimes.

I want the Goods

At the very beginning of Book II of Plato's Republic, Glaucon, one of Socrates interlocutors, lists three different types of goods: 1. Some things are good purely for their own sake, and not because of anything in particular that comes from them. Joy and 'harmless pleasures' are the two examples Glaucon cites.

2. Other things are good both for their own sake and for the sake of things that come from it. Knowing, seeing, and being healthy are Glaucon's examples here.

3. The third kind of good are things that aren't particularly good in and of themselves, but are nonetheless desirable because of good results that they produce. Examples include exercising, medical treatment, medicine itself, and making money. (357b-c)

This three part typology (which Socrates responds to quite agreeably, if you were wondering) is fascinating to me, because I think our culture has no comparably nuanced language for the good. For us, what is good is just what is desirable. We participate in other activities, we call them "necessary evils", but we do so because they give us things that we do desire. But at bottom we're always only driven by desire. And my hunch is that our desires are more arbitrary and disorganized than we think they are. They have to be in order for capitalism to work.

Plato surely had his own problems (and ends up taking the Republic in a surprisingly totalitarian-esque direction), but nonetheless I think Glaucon's three different kinds of good are helpful, if for nothing else than to help develop for us the vocabulary of the good beyond the language of "I want..." or "I feel like..." For these exercise their own more clandestine form of totalitarianism, deeply and violently sinister, but in ways that kill quietly, with a smile and a helping of the finest delicacy.