There’s Eating With Sinners, and There’s Eating With Sinners

During his time here on earth, Jesus made a habit of “eating with sinners.” The authors of all three synoptic gospels make it a point to tell the stories multiple times, and they use these stories as a vehicle to draw a stark contrast between Jesus and the religious leaders of the time. Just how stark that contrast is, however, has been lost today as the modern Church stumbles over itself debating the foolishness of just how far it’s okay to go when we interact with folks in our day.

At risk, folks argue, is legitimizing or condoning sin. Everyone must know where we stand on every sin issue, or – supposedly – we are by default saying sin is okay. In short order, we find ourselves unwittingly on the side of the Pharisees rather than the side of Jesus.

Here’s how it went down back in Jesus’ day: Jesus meets people the religious folks have deemed immoral or unclean. Jesus goes to their house and eats with them. Religious folks enter, get pissed off, and Jesus rebukes them. It’s a good formula for a “speaking truth to power” kind of moment. But it goes even deeper than that.

When the gospel writers wrote these stories (for example, in Luke chapter 5), they recorded an even greater contrast in the Greek. When they note that Jesus is eating with these people, they use the Greek word katakeimanoi, which translates into the rich Jewish notion of “table fellowship.” Table fellowship was an extension of the vitally important value of hospitality in Jewish culture, and it was understood to be much more intimate than simply physically eating a meal. It meant sharing life with someone, entering into their world, showing you cared and showing you loved them. Table fellowship to the Jewish people, writes Craig Blomberg at Denver Seminary, “created intimate friendship, so it was reserved for those whom a person deemed the right kind of companions.”

According to the Jewish teachers in Jesus’ day, “the power of the unclean to defile the clean far outstripped the ability of the clean to sanctify the unholy.”

Sound familiar?

Jesus took that entire notion, said “Screw that,” and proceeded to have table fellowship with all the worst kinds of people.

So there, religious leaders.

But this is where it gets even better: when the Pharisees came in and got upset, they weren’t upset that Jesus was sharing table fellowship with immoral people. They couldn’t even see that far. No, the writers used a completely different Greek word to describe what the religious leaders were upset about: esthiete. Literally, to put food in your mouth. The physical act of eating while someone was beside you. Nothing more.

And so we get to the point of these stories. Jesus is katakeimanoi — having table fellowship with sinners, becoming intimately involved in their lives — and then the Pharisees come in and ask why Jesus is esthiete — physically eating food with them.

Did you catch it? The Pharisees, in their quest for holiness, simply did not get it. It’s like the gospel writers were saying, “These religious people could not possibly miss the point more than this.” They were mad at something so little, when Jesus was up to something even more scandalous that they couldn’t even see!

We miss the point a lot of the time today, too.

We put up walls, protect ourselves from the unclean, and expect others to do the same. In the name of purity and holiness we look suspiciously on anyone who would dare even esthiete with “sinners.” Meanwhile, Jesus is inviting us — expecting us! — to go so much further than that and katakeimanoi with them! Screw the rules. Screw this false sense of holiness and purity. Get down in the mud with people and show them you actually care about them.

It seems to me we worry so much about legitimizing sin, we miss the fact that we are delegitimizing grace.

We’ve somehow subscribed to this awful sin-focused “gospel” which forces us to care only about ugliness and purity. Instead, we need to become re-enamored with a grace-focused gospel which forces us to care only about people.

Somehow, after enjoying table fellowship with Jesus, I seriously doubt the tax collector got up, left the house, and thought, “Huh. That Jesus fellow didn’t say anything about my tax business. That must means it’s totally legit! Sweet!” No, I imagine he left that house in awe of being accepted, cared for, and welcomed as a human being. And because of that, he was changed.

It’s time we stopped worrying so much about legitimizing sin and lived our lives in a way that legitimizes grace.

Actually, Homosexuality is a Gospel Issue

After World Vision announced its decision to expand their employment practices to include married gay couples, a lot of Christians lost their ever-loving minds.

Thanks to this whole uproar over World Vision, the hypocrisy of the modern, western Christian majority has been laid bare for all to see – and the resulting chaos is not pretty.

Here’s why: after World Vision announced their policy change, thousands of Christians canceled their World Vision child sponsorships. In the first day, over two thousand people abandoned children. In the following days, thousands more followed suit. In other words, conservative Christians were so upset about gay people serving children, they more or less said: children need clean water, education, food, and medical supplies. Unless those things are provided by gay people. In that case children don’t need anything.

The counter argument from the conservative evangelical camp was quick: just because we are giving up on these specific children doesn’t mean we can’t go sponsor other children through other organizations. That logic, of course, is faulty, distant, and remarkably impersonal — as shown by several bloggers who pointed out that children are not merchandise, like cell phones and used cars, that we have the luxury of simply “trading in” for a different model.

Not only did Christians treat children – children! – as merchandise, they also treated them as bargaining chips, pushed to the middle of the poker table in order to force World Vision to fold. Entire denominations of churches, including the Assemblies of God and leaders of the Southern Baptist Convention, threatened to pull child sponsorships if World Vision continued on with the new policy.

Facing this incredible backlash, World Vision blinked and reversed course. Many evangelicals expressed their happiness at the reversal. Russell Moore, President of the Ethics Committee at the SBC, even declared it time to “rejoice.”

Now that the dust has settled a bit, let’s take a look at the scoreboard. Gay people: demonized. Children: dehumanized. Evangelicals: celebratory.

That pretty much sums up what’s wrong with the western “church” – and why so many prominent authors, speakers, and leaders have publicly divorced themselves from evangelicalism after this train wreck. I can’t blame them. A big part of me wants to as well.

The idea of abandoning a child who needs support over a doctrinal difference with those providing the support is unfathomable to me, and I still cannot understand at any level of humanity where anybody would think that was okay… least of all people who claim to be following Jesus. My wife and I supported a little girl named Ivis for several years. We chose her because she shared a birthday with one of our sons. We received letters from her, pictures from her, drawings that she had made. She told us about her life, her family, her home. She asked us about our pets, our boys. We developed a relationship with her. When we found out she no longer needed support, we switched our support to another little girl named Lizzi and have been supporting her for several months now.

I cannot fathom a universe in which we would walk up to Ivis or Lizzi, look them in the eyes, and tell them, “Sorry. I know you need food and medicine and schooling and clean water. But the people who give those things to you? They hire gay people now. So we’re going to have to take those things back — oh, and this relationship? It’s over.

This whole uproar has conclusively proven something that I have fought so hard not to believe for the past several years: apparently, Christians can be as big of jerks as the world says we are. Apparently, a wide swath of us actually do care more about doctrine than people, more about purity than love. And apparently, there are a lot of Christians who just cannot get over their obsession with sex and what happens in other people’s bedrooms.

The Gospel Coalition and the Southern Baptist Church both put out statements on the issue, declaring homosexuality to be a “gospel issue” and therefore, non-negotiable. To bend or compromise would be to negate the gospel itself.

The argument, of course, is ludicrous. But here’s the surprising twist: in what may be the first and only time I’ve agreed with anything written over at the Gospel Coalition, I actually do think that homosexuality is a gospel issue. Just not exactly how they meant it.

The gospel is infinitely bigger than simply separating the world into sinners and saints, the hellbound and heavenbound. The gospel is about all of creation being put back together, with agape love holding it all together and redeeming everything. Therefore, how we treat gay people (and all people!) is very much a gospel issue.

If we think whether or not someone is gay is more important than whether a child eats…

If we stand idly by and watch as a segment of humanity is demonized and persecuted, or worse, actively participate in those actions…

If we do not stand up for gay teenagers, among whom suicide rates are skyrocketing because of the abuse they face from their peers as well as from religious groups…

…then we are not only not living out the gospel, we are denying the very thing we claim to be defending.

If we do not possess the ability to even extend common human decency, then we are far worse than unbelievers – for even the “sinners” do that. We are called to do so much more… to extend the very selfless love that Jesus extended to us.

I say this all as someone who still believes that homosexuality is a sin. I’ve read all of the arguments and contextualizations and articles explaining why it’s not, but I can’t convince myself that I can take that leap and remain intellectually honest. But I also understand this: believing something is a sin does not give me the ability, the opportunity, or the right to be a douchebag.

Jesus has called me, called us, to love. Unconditionally, without pause, without question and without demands. His earliest followers declared that loving other people (which requires us to first see them as people!) to be the fulfillment of His “law.” And therefore, I concur: the complete and utter inability of the Church — a large or at least highly vocal portion of it — to truly love gay people is a gospel issue. And it’s one that must be resolved.

Tiger

When news of the Tiger Woods scandal first broke, my initial thoughts were akin to those of Jon Acuff regarding the Kanye West VMA incident: Tiger deserves grace. In the midst of everybody in the media piling on him right now, with him being the butt of every late night joke, with his marriage in shambles and his career on hold, with everything in his life falling apart, the one thing he needs more than anything right now is grace. And when the story first broke, I thought (and wrote) that none of us could say we would have done any better had we been in his shoes. It’s not a story of the fall of Tiger – it’s the story of the fall of man. And we can all relate.

That was at the beginning.

Then it came out that it was more than one woman. Then it was 3. Then half a dozen. Then a dozen. Now, the tally is up to 14 different women that Tiger had affairs with.

It really made me stop and question: what is the fullest extent of grace? How many women can Tiger have cheated on his wife with and still deserve grace?

And that’s when the obvious hit me – he doesn’t deserve grace. None of us do. That’s the scandalous and uncomfortable nature of grace, and what makes it so incredibly and deeply powerful. And the higher the number of women goes, the more scandalous and powerful that grace becomes. Which is why I wrote the following letter to Tiger Woods and sent it to him via his website:

Dear Tiger,

You don’t know me. To be honest, I’m not much of a golf fan, and I’ve only watched you play on TV once or twice. So it doesn’t make much sense for me to be writing you, I suppose. But I wanted you to know that I am for you. And more than that, God is for you.

You’ve been taking a beating in the media and the press lately. Late night comics have been having a field day with your mistakes. You’re probably getting letters from people condemning you, and even some from folks claiming to be Christians or writing in the name of their God. For those that fall in that last category, I’d like to sincerely apologize. Sometimes those of us who are trying our best to follow Jesus get our heads stuck in our hind quarters and fail miserably in living out the values that run deep in our souls.

I’ve never cheated on my wife, Tiger, but I know all too well the temptation to do so. And I don’t think any of us can say with any modicum of honesty that we wouldn’t have done the same things you did had we been in your position. I know what it’s like to do the things you don’t want to do (even if at the time, you really want to do them). I know what it’s like to carry the immensely heavy burden of secrets, and then to feel the bizarre mix of relief, shame, and anger when those secrets are uncovered. To some extent, if we’re honest, every one of us can relate to your story.

And since I would guess there’s not a whole lot of folks who are saying this right now, I want to say it again: I am for you. I am for you as a fellow human being journeying through this life trying to figure it out. I am for you because I know that as humans created in God’s image, we all are – and you are – infinitely more than the sum of our mistakes and indiscretions. I am for you because I’ve tasted and experienced the powerful and scandalous and undeserved grace of God, and because I long for you to experience it now as well. I am for you because while your actions may deserve a degree of the judgment you are now receiving from all sides, I believe there is a better way to live than one filled with judgment.

This is undoubtedly going to be an incredibly difficult holiday season for you and your family. I don’t even know if you will spend it together or not. And I know you and I do not believe the same things when it comes to religious matters. But this holiday season, I hope that you would give some thought to the millennia-old story of God pouring himself into human form to declare that he was here with us. Feeling our pain. Willing to erase our shame and take the weight of our guilt. Because in that story, there is peace. In that story, there is a God saying, “I am for you.”

You are valued and loved as a human created in the image of God, Tiger Woods. May the attacks and judgment that you are receiving right now never cause you to forget that.

With grace and peace,
Matt Coulter

Tiger

When news of the Tiger Woods scandal first broke, my initial thoughts were akin to those of Jon Acuff regarding the Kanye West VMA incident: Tiger deserves grace. In the midst of everybody in the media piling on him right now, with him being the butt of every late night joke, with his marriage in shambles and his career on hold, with everything in his life falling apart, the one thing he needs more than anything right now is grace. And when the story first broke, I thought (and wrote) that none of us could say we would have done any better had we been in his shoes. It’s not a story of the fall of Tiger – it’s the story of the fall of man. And we can all relate.

That was at the beginning.

Then it came out that it was more than one woman. Then it was 3. Then half a dozen. Then a dozen. Now, the tally is up to 14 different women that Tiger had affairs with.

It really made me stop and question: what is the fullest extent of grace? How many women can Tiger have cheated on his wife with and still deserve grace?

And that’s when the obvious hit me – he doesn’t deserve grace. None of us do. That’s the scandalous and uncomfortable nature of grace, and what makes it so incredibly and deeply powerful. And the higher the number of women goes, the more scandalous and powerful that grace becomes. Which is why I wrote the following letter to Tiger Woods and sent it to him via his website:

Dear Tiger,

You don’t know me. To be honest, I’m not much of a golf fan, and I’ve only watched you play on TV once or twice. So it doesn’t make much sense for me to be writing you, I suppose. But I wanted you to know that I am for you. And more than that, God is for you.

You’ve been taking a beating in the media and the press lately. Late night comics have been having a field day with your mistakes. You’re probably getting letters from people condemning you, and even some from folks claiming to be Christians or writing in the name of their God. For those that fall in that last category, I’d like to sincerely apologize. Sometimes those of us who are trying our best to follow Jesus get our heads stuck in our hind quarters and fail miserably in living out the values that run deep in our souls.

I’ve never cheated on my wife, Tiger, but I know all too well the temptation to do so. And I don’t think any of us can say with any modicum of honesty that we wouldn’t have done the same things you did had we been in your position. I know what it’s like to do the things you don’t want to do (even if at the time, you really want to do them). I know what it’s like to carry the immensely heavy burden of secrets, and then to feel the bizarre mix of relief, shame, and anger when those secrets are uncovered. To some extent, if we’re honest, every one of us can relate to your story.

And since I would guess there’s not a whole lot of folks who are saying this right now, I want to say it again: I am for you. I am for you as a fellow human being journeying through this life trying to figure it out. I am for you because I know that as humans created in God’s image, we all are – and you are – infinitely more than the sum of our mistakes and indiscretions. I am for you because I’ve tasted and experienced the powerful and scandalous and undeserved grace of God, and because I long for you to experience it now as well. I am for you because while your actions may deserve a degree of the judgment you are now receiving from all sides, I believe there is a better way to live than one filled with judgment.

This is undoubtedly going to be an incredibly difficult holiday season for you and your family. I don’t even know if you will spend it together or not. And I know you and I do not believe the same things when it comes to religious matters. But this holiday season, I hope that you would give some thought to the millennia-old story of God pouring himself into human form to declare that he was here with us. Feeling our pain. Willing to erase our shame and take the weight of our guilt. Because in that story, there is peace. In that story, there is a God saying, “I am for you.”

You are valued and loved as a human created in the image of God, Tiger Woods. May the attacks and judgment that you are receiving right now never cause you to forget that.

With grace and peace,
Matt Coulter