Thursday, January 9, 2014

Hanging with Sinners

Last March a 13-year-old girl wanted to bring a pear to school to eat at lunch. She has braces on her teeth, however, which apparently makes biting into a pear problematic. The solution is to cut the pear up, but you know how pear pieces turn brown when they are cut but not eaten right away. The solution? The girl packed a butter knife in her lunch.

Later when she was trying to cut the pear using the butter knife, a vice principal happened to walk by. He took her to the office and gave her a one-day suspension. Knives aren’t allowed at school, of any kind. Not butter knives, not plastic knives. The rules are clear, as is the punishment—suspension. It’s mandated. Zero Tolerance.

Most of us have heard stories like this before. It’s been going on for years. The problem is usually that laws and policies are written in such a way that leave no wriggle room, no room for an administrator to use their judgment. They cannot make a determination if a knife is truly dangerous, the child has intent to harm or even has a history of bad behavior. Rules are rules, policies are policies, laws are laws. The must be followed strictly, or the administrators can lose their jobs.

This is the problem with legalism. There is no room for interpretation, no allowance for context; but rules, laws, and policies are always written in a certain context, and when the context changes, the rules, laws, and policies have to be interpreted to apply to the new context.

The Pharisees that Jesus encountered weren’t necessarily bad people. Some undoubtedly were, using their knowledge of the Law to benefit themselves. But most were genuinely seeking to be obedient to the Law of Moses. If the Law said that something—or someone—was unclean, then you had to separate yourself from that person or else you would become unclean. It was very clear, very clean-cut. Zero tolerance.

But the context had changed. At the time that the Law was given, Israel needed to be separate from the nations so that they could learn a new way of living, a new way of relating, a new way of being human. The separateness was never intended to be permanent, however; it was always God’s intention that Israel, once they became the Renewed Humanity, would go back among the nations and be a light to them.

In Jesus, this time had come. Israel as a nation had failed to become the Renewed Humanity, but in Jesus God summed up the entire nation. Jesus was the Faithful Israelite, the firstborn of the Renewed Humanity. It was time to be among the sinners. But no, the Pharisees and the Temple leadership couldn’t handle it. “You’re breaking the rules!” they cried, and since Zero Tolerance was the policy, they delivered him over to the Romans to be crucified.

When I read and listen to people talk about God, I fear that far too many Christians believe that God himself has a Zero Tolerance policy when it comes to sinners. I remember repeatedly being told, “God cannot allow sin into his presence!” So someone has to die in order for sin to be forgiven. There is no wiggle room. It’s more than that God won’t forgive a sinner unless someone dies—that’s bad enough—but that God can’t forgive a sinner unless someone dies, as if God is beholden to some policy, some universal law that determines the people he can and cannot hang around with.

Jesus hung around with sinners all the time. He sought them out. He was in the presence of sin all his life. It was all around him. And if the doctrines of the Incarnation and the Trinity mean anything, then we can rightly say that in Jesus God hung around with sinners as well.

He still does. Zero Tolerance? I’d say he is wildly tolerant of sinners. He is exorbitant with grace, flinging it hither and yon into the rocky places, the weedy places, the devil-ridden places, and the fertile places.

We should follow his example. In fact, I think that is pretty much the point.

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