Shuck and Jive

Sunday, March 13, 2011

Stop Calling People Sinners--A Sermon

Stop Calling People Sinners
John Shuck

First Presbyterian Church
Elizabethton, Tennessee

March 13, 2011

Gospel of Jesus 8:1-11

On one occasion Jesus happens to recline at table, along with many toll collectors and sinners. (Remember, there were many of these people and they were all following him.) And whenever the Pharisees’ scholars saw him eating with sinners and toll collectors, they would raise the question: “What’s he doing eating with toll collectors and sinners?”

Jesus responds, “Since when do the able-bodied need a doctor? It’s the sick who do. I did not come to enlist religious folks but sinners!”

Now the toll collectors and sinners kept crowding around Jesus so they could hear him. But the Pharisees and the scholars would complain to each other, “This fellow welcomes sinners and eats with them.”

John’s disciples and the Pharisees were in the habit of fasting, and they come and ask him, “Why do the disciples of John fast, and the disciples of the Pharisees, but your disciples don’t?”

And Jesus said to them, “The groom’s friends can’t fast while the groom is around, can they? So long as the groom is around, you can’t expect them to fast.”

Jesus said, “Nobody drinks aged wine and immediately wants to drink young wine. Young wine is not poured into old wineskins, or they might break, and aged wine is not poured into a new wineskin, or it might spoil.”

Robert Funk and the Jesus Seminar, The Gospel of Jesus (Santa Rosa: Polebridge Press, 1999), p. 43, 45. Mark 2:15-17, 22; Matthew 9:10-15, 17; Luke 5:29-34, 37-39; 15:1-2

One of my favorite chapters in Robert Funk’s book, A Credible Jesus, is the one on celebration. Jesus preached about the kingdom of God or the domain of God. Funk calls it
“a fiction to be embraced on trust. To trust means to act as though something were true even when the evidence is ambiguous or marginal….Celebration is the by-product of that trust. In other words, celebration is the endorsement of trust. Celebration nourishes trust. Celebration is the heart of liturgy in God’s domain."p. 38
Later in the chapter Funk writes:
“The affliction of much contemporary religiosity, especially of the moralistic variety, is that it is humorless. If we cannot laugh at ourselves and even about the things we hold dear, then God’s reign has eluded us.” p. 41.
Jesus partied with sinners. He was criticized for doing so. He was called a glutton and a drunk and his companions were reviled with the generic label “toll collectors and whores.”

Jesus eats with them.

Jennifer Wright Knust in her new book Unprotected Texts: The Bible’s Surprising Contradictions About Sex and Desire writes about the slut. She begins her book by recalling a painful time when she was in middle school. She was new to the school and the mean girls started calling her a slut. They made up stories about all the slutty things she supposedly did.

This is a common phenomenon in middle schools and high schools. She said in her case she was lucky. Her parents were supportive, reminding her that she wasn’t a slut and to hold her head high. By eighth grade the popular girls had moved on to someone else. She writes:
“Still, every time I hear people accuse one another of sexual misdeeds, I have to wonder: what is really going on here? My experience at twelve taught me that, when it comes to sex, people never simply report what others are doing or even what they themselves are doing. Those girls called me “slut” not because I was one—whatever that might mean—but because they were afraid of being labeled the slut themselves or, worse, of being asked to become one too. Sex, I have since discovered, can be used as a public weapon.” P. 2
While “slut” is the preferred weapon against girls, “queer” is the preferred weapon against boys. Misogyny and homophobia working in tandem. It is an old, old story that goes back to the Bible itself. For instance, we all know of two characters in the Bible, Queen Esther and Queen Jezebel. We know without even knowing the stories that Esther was good and Jezebel was bad.

However, when we do read their stories, we realize that they were far more alike than different. Both were strong women. Both wanted to hold on to their faith and to the integrity of its practice in a foreign land. Both defended their people. Both had to use their "feminine wiles to advance their goals." Knust, p. 15.

What was the difference between Jezebel and Esther? Jezebel played for the wrong team. The way to slander, dismiss, and ruin the opposing player in biblical times and in the present is to call her a slut. Then, as in Jezebel’s case, have her eaten by dogs. Sexualize your opponent.

Opponents to ordination, marriage equality, and civil rights try to make the argument about sex and so-called moral standards when it has nothing to do with sex. It is about equality and fairness. It is about treating people with dignity and decency and providing equal protection under the law. The tactic of sexualizing one’s opponent is as old as dirt.

With whom is Jesus eating? Who are these people? Who are these toll collectors, sinners, and prostitutes? Scholars have gone to work to identify these people. Robert Funk says that this collection of terms is a generic expression for outcasts and outsiders, for so-called riff raff. It was a way of dismissing Jesus and his mission.

Toll collectors collected taxes for the Roman government so no one liked them. It was a profession that was inherently dishonest. Not only did they work for the Romans, but they became rich doing it, by exploiting fellow Jews.

Prostitutes would be women and perhaps men who were sex workers. I wonder if that term was spread widely like “sluts” is in high school to refer to all women who kept company with Jesus. The most common way to slander your opponents is to sexualize them. Included in Jesus’ retinue were women of means who provided for his needs. Perhaps these were the ones slandered with the label "prostitute".

What about sinners?

From our vantage point, we tend to think that Pharisees are being hypocrites because they are calling people sinners as if they themselves were not sinners. One of the lessons we have learned from church is that we are all “sinners”. Even as there are some a little bit more sinful than I and thou.

But the word “sinner” probably means something more specific when it is used in the gospels.

From the perspective of Marcus Borg, “sinners” were the perpetually “unclean”. That means, they did not or would not keep the purity laws. These were the religious codes outlined in the Torah, especially Leviticus, for being “holy as God is holy”.

There were rules about preparing food and preparing utensils and preparing oneself. Impurity clung and was contagious. An observant Jew, a Pharisee, would eat with those who were also observant.

Eating with those who were ritually impure would make you be contaminated as well. The accusation that Jesus eats with sinners is an accusation that he is not a true teacher of the law. He doesn’t even observe the basics of ritual purity.

But there is another view. A book that has challenged my thinking on the “sinners” is James Crossley’s Why Christianity Happened. He argues that sinners were more than simply the outcasts or the ritually impure. They were not necessarily the poor, exploited, or uneducated. They were actually the exploiters. They were “the lawless rich”. Jesus was associating with people
“deemed to be exploitative, rich, unjust, and possibly in cahoots with the Romans and/or Antipas. Many might not have shown any signs of reforming.” P. 95.
Crossley writes that Jesus focused his mission on provoking these people into repentance and to observe the law on behalf of the poor. A “sinner” would be someone who is behaving beyond law and covenant.” Of course, Gentiles would be “sinners” by default. Jesus mission to Jewish “sinners” eventually resulted in the inclusion of Gentiles.

Jesus practiced an open table as opposed to a closed table. One can imagine that resulted in exciting meals. Imagine if you had at the table, Governor Walker of Wisconsin, film-maker Michael Moore, the owner of Massey Energy, an eco-feminist environmental activist, Rev. Pat Robertson, Richard Dawkins, Rachel Maddow, and Muammar Ghaddafi. That would be an interesting dinner for eight.

Imagine the criticism. Look who Jesus eats with! According to Crossley, Jesus wanted Jewish “sinners” to repent, that is change, and to do justice. His method was to connect with these sinners and change behaviors from within.

From the point of view of Jesus’ opponents, he was sleeping with the enemy. The danger would be that they would not repent but influence him. What happens when the idealistic young politician hobnobs with corporate executives? Maybe she changes the executives. Maybe the executives change her.

When I started this sermon I was under the impression that the Pharisees are snobs and hypocrites and they criticize Jesus for embracing the outcasts, the poor, the hoi poloi, and the untouchables. To some extent that is the case. But what really angers the Pharisees is that Jesus hangs out with oppressors of the poor, those who take advantage of the poor through usury and toll-collecting.

The biggest scandal regarding Jesus is not that he hung out with the poor, but that he hung out with the rich. That actually gives me a little bit of hope. I and perhaps everyone in this room, compared to the population of Earth, would fall into the “rich” category. I am glad that Jesus might come to our dinner parties.

While at our party, he would remind us to do justice. He might tell us a few parables such as the one about the rich man and Lazarus. Or maybe he would tell us the story of the fool who built bigger and bigger barns to hold all of his stuff that he wouldn’t enjoy because the grim reaper was to visit him that night. He might tell us not to worry about what we will eat or drink or what we will wear, but to live with the care of a sparrow.

Jesus held out hope for us. He held out hope that folks could change and that they could develop a conscience on behalf of justice and compassion. Apparently, he did have followers, wealthy and poor, who were inspired by his vision. Think of Zacchaeus the toll collector. Regardless of whether or not that story is historical, it does tell a memory of Jesus being able to transform the most hardened exploiter into a generous and compassionate man.

It is likely that Jesus was an itinerant without a home and in exchange for his wisdom and perhaps a healing or two, he would get a meal. The meal might have been kosher, maybe not. As Robert Funk writes,
“He seems willing enough to take a handout wherever he can get it.” P. 40.
He was grateful for every meal and for the company he shared when he ate and drank. Perhaps he felt that celebration was the way to transform hearts.

I titled the sermon, “Stop Calling People Sinners” and I think we should. The Church has caused a lot of pain by putting people into categories by deciding who is righteous and who isn’t. If Crossley is right, “sinner” probably applies more to me than anyone else.

In actuality, we are all human beings. We get one ride on this celestial ball. How will we ride it?

We could do a lot worse than Jesus who spent his time having meals, healing, making connections, and telling stories about something he called the kingdom of God, where no one is an outsider.



  1. John I agree. If I start by recognizing that I am a sinner then I have a completely different perspective on the issue. Paul called himself the chief of all sinners. Only after we recognize our sin can we see others as sinners - like us. And isn't that the core of the Church's theology down through the ages? Too bad we haven't practiced what we preached.

  2. Hi John

    I just wanted to thank you, for this sermon and all that you share here. I love the grace and humour that you bring to all of your writing and sharing and challenging, and find your sermons an invaluable aide to my journey as a stumbling disciple across the pond in the UK.



  3. @Bob Right! Thanks!

    @Drew Thank you for reading and for taking time for commenting. And for the very nice words, of course! I guess we stumble on both sides of the pond!

  4. Or as the old saw goes: "The ranking of sins is the rankest of sins."