THE MOST SCANDALOUS GESTURE
Without doubt, Jesus’ gesture that most provokes and scandalizes was his way of welcoming sinners with special affection – those who had been excluded by religious leaders and socially stigmatized by their conduct outside of the Law. What was most irritating was his custom of eating meals with them as a friend.
Usually we forget that Jesus created a situation that was surprising in the society of that time. Sinners didn’t run away from him. Rather, they felt themselves attracted to his person and to his message. Luke tells us that «tax collectors and sinners were all crowding round to listen to him». It seems that they find in him a welcome and an understanding that they find nowhere else.
Meanwhile, the Pharisees and the doctors of the Law, the men of highest moral and religious ranking in society, only know to be scandalized and to criticize Jesus’ conduct: «This man welcomes sinners and eats with them». How can a man of God eat at the same table with those sinners and undesirables?
Jesus never paid any attention to their criticism. He knew that God isn’t the severe and rigorous Judge that those teachers talked about so smugly as they sat in the front seats of the synagogue. He knows well his Father’s heart. God understands sinners, offers forgiveness to them all, doesn’t exclude anybody, forgives everything. No one needs to hide or dissemble God’s deep and free forgiveness.
That’s why Jesus offers them his understanding and his friendship. Those prostitutes and tax collectors need to feel themselves welcomed by God. That’s first. No one should be afraid. They can sit down at his table, can drink wine and sing songs right next to Jesus. His acceptance is curative for them deep down. He frees them of shame and humiliation. He gives them back the joy of living.
Jesus accepts them as they are, without expecting anything of them ahead of time. His peace and his confidence in God spreads to them whether or not he is sure that they’ll respond by changing their conduct. He does it trusting totally in the mercy of a God who is already waiting for them with arms wide open, as a good father who runs out to meet a lost son.
The first job of a Church that is faithful to Jesus is to not condemn sinners, but rather understand them and welcome them as friends. In Rome, a few months ago, you could ascertain that whenever pope Francis insisted that God forgives always, forgives everything, forgives everyone… people applauded enthusiastically. What is certain is that this is what many people of little faith and of wavering faith need to hear clearly from the Church today.
José Antonio Pagola
Translator: Fr. Jay VonHandorf