Wednesday, March 14, 2007

Sinners: Jesus and His Earliest Followers

Jesus was notorious for the company he kept. He ate with sinners, tax collectors, and prostitutes. In fact, this is one of the major criticisms Jesus' opponents weighed against him. Just look up "sinners" and "tax collectors" in the Gospels, and you'll be amazed how often this theme appears.

A careful look at the Gospel stories reveals something even more remarkable: in not one story does Jesus criticize these people -- or even call them to repent. Instead, Jesus invited himself to share meals with them. He enjoyed their company, and he brought them blessing with his presence. It's that simple.

This basic insight lies behind a book project I'm taking on for my current sabbatical. It's called Sinners: Jesus and His Earliest Followers. When early Christians remembered Jesus, they repeated the stories that Jesus enjoyed the company of sinners. They told the stories of Levi the tax collector-apostle, the anonymous sinful woman who anointed Jesus' feet with her tears, and Zacchaeus the tax collector.

They also recalled the "scandal" -- that's what Paul calls it -- of Jesus' crucifixion. Crucifixion indicated Jesus' condemnation as a criminal by the legitimate authorities of the day. Jesus was crucified because of his own teachings and actions. He stirred up a popular demonstration during the politically tense Passover celebration. During that same celebration he created chaos within the temple complex. He dismissed the authority of the empire to collect taxes and demand obedience. So the authorities arrested him and executed him.

Early Christians also knew they were "sinners" in the eyes of their neighbors. They were accused of a variety of offenses, but the main problem was, their values sometimes clashed with prevailing social and religious values. As a result, they found themselves toeing a very fine line between acting respectable in the public eye and celebrating their distinctive values. As 1 Peter tells it, they lived as "strangers and aliens" who avoided public scorn as much as possible.

As I look back upon the "sinfulness" of Jesus and his earliest followers, I realize that my own heroes of the faith were "sinners" too. As a single parent when that wasn't cool, my Mom made tremendous sacrifices so that I could have opportunities as a young person. Faithful white Christians who followed the African American Civil Rights Movement -- people like Clarence Jordan and Ed King -- were widely reviled as sinners in their own day. I think those models are the real inspiration for this project.

First Post

Welcome to NTGeeks, the blog spot of Greg Carey, Associate Professor of New Testament at Lancaster Theological Seminary. Over time, this spot will feature discussion on a variety of topics related to biblical studies. I'll try to keep the conversation timely and relevant.