There’s an interesting idea that has the flavor of pop theology which I often see used in the context of whatever moral topic du jour is being discussed. This notion usually runs along these lines:
Well, Jesus hung out with sinners, so X…
Now, “X” can be any number of different things, and while Jesus gets recruited for lots of different things, he seems especially prone to be pressed into service for whatever the Zeitgeist requires of him. And this line of argumentation often finds its way into the mix.
For myself, I have little interest in the particular issue for which the perception of Jesus’ relation to others may serve as an exemplar; rather, it’s the off-handed way in which Jesus’ relation to others is appropriated as a functional shibboleth.
There is actually a categorical error in play here that we often fail to see with this sort of popular theologizing and argumentation, largely because it involves a rather glaring anachronism, and as moderns tend to have little historical consciousness, it often catches us unawares.
While this line of argument can no doubt encompass many different meanings, as far I have been able to understand the reasoning is largely as follows:
A. Jesus is described in the Gospels as eating and drinking with sinners
B. This sort of behavior ran counter to religious norms of his time
C. Since Jesus related to sinners in this manner, it is a model of how we should relate to others
D. Thus, since Jesus hung out with sinners, we should do the same
The difficulty with this conclusion, of course, is that it completely elides any potential distinction between what Jesus’ eating and drinking with sinners might have entailed, and what content we tend to apply to “hanging out.” My argument is that when we uncritically engage in this sort of argumentation, we commit a glaring anachronism and thus fall into a categorical error, thereby rendering the reasoning employed on its behalf fallacious.
One serious difficulty is that the terminology of “hanging out” can encompass a wide variety of relations and relationships. You can just as easily hang out with your spouse as with your best friend; at a concert or event with thousands of people you can go to hang out with thousands of your closest friends. The list could go on and on.
However, if we perhaps look a little more closely into how we tend to use this phrase, I think some broad patterns emerge.
As an example, if I am speaking to someone about what I did the previous night, I can give them lots of details about what happened. However, if I don’t want to divulge too much, I will often tend to prepend “just” to hanging out, as in, “we just hung out.” Or if I don’t have anything in particular to do or in mind, I might offer to just go hang out with someone. The examples could be multiplied.
What seems to largely be the case is that we use “hang out” to express a sort of causal relation between oneself and another (or many others). It doesn’t necessarily carry much significance or weight and can be applied to relationships of various depth and intimacy. The idea here is that the being-together-ness doesn’t have much significance; nothing of consequence is intended to happen when we are hanging out; rather, it is casual, relaxed, non-judgemental, etc.
In fact, that seems to be exactly what we intend to mean when we apply this term to Jesus’ relationship to others. We tend to juxtapose the standoffish-ness of the then-contemporary religious leaders who wouldn’t even get near those they deemed unclean with Jesus’ supposedly more causal approach in which there is a familiarity of sorts and a feeling of casualness in which people felt free to approach him.
For us moderns who tend to have many rather superficial relationships, this can be a rather appealing concept of Jesus: an approachableness in which we encounter Jesus like we encounter those we hang out with, without the potential baggage of having to go too deep, having any particular expectations, etc. I don’t mean to say that every time we hang out with someone that this is the state of things, but rather looking more broadly at what we intend when we choose to describe our relation to others in this way.
It seems to me that this sort of picture is much better described as a caricature, and really only makes sense if we anachronistically supplant the content of how Jesus’ relation to others is described with our own modern preconceptions of how we might want those encounters to appear.
But let’s first deal with the anachronism.
It is true, Jesus was said to eat and drink with sinners. This was actually used derisively of him:
When the teachers of the law who were Pharisees saw him eating with the sinners and tax collectors, they asked his disciples: “Why does he eat with tax collectors and sinners?” (Mark 2:16)
It should be noted that this isn’t just the Pharisees’ opinion; rather, this is actually how Mark describes those Jesus was eating with:
While Jesus was dining at Levi’s house, many tax collectors and sinners were eating with Him and His disciples—for there were many who followed Him. (Mark 2:15)
The Pharisees in this account try to beat around the bush a bit by asking why he is doing this; not by asking him, however, but rather passing off the question to his disciples. And in another place Jesus laments that he can’t seem to make anyone happy:
For John came neither eating nor drinking, and they say, ‘He has a demon!’ The Son of Man came eating and drinking, and they say, ‘Look at this glutton and drunkard, a friend of tax collectors and of sinners!’ (Matthew 11:18-19)
It is this eating and drinking that causes us to imagine that Jesus “hung out” with the undesirables, but this is where the anachronism comes into play.
For us, eating and drinking can have very little significance. To be sure, there are times that it matters, and also when who is there matters. But for a large part of our lives meals are a time to refuel or to eat something we like. We can treat it as casually as when we hang out, and a lot of times it even accompanies our hanging out.
It is thus natural that- especially when we juxtapose Jesus’ actions with the Pharisees who seemed (in our minds) to have a stick up their nether regions- we can easily elide this distinction and conflate how we approach eating and drinking with the significance it held in a completely different world and time.
For those in the ancient Near East, sharing a meal with someone was an extremely meaning-laden act. In the ancient tradition of hospitality, to share a meal with the traveling stranger implied (by strong bonds of honor) that you took their concern and their well-being upon yourself. They were largely vulnerable and unprotected and thus relied upon hospitality to not only reach their destination, but also to survive. It was thus a deeply rooted social understanding that hospitality was to be given to strangers, and that for them to accept your hospitality and for you to provide it created certain bonds and obligations between the two of you.
One sees this distinctly in both Abraham’s hospitality to the three strangers as well as Lot’s care and concern for the two angels who visited Sodom. Both felt compelled to not only provide for their guests’ needs, but also to serve and protect them. For both men this hospitality created unanticipated yet accepted bonds between them and their guests, further underlying the importance attached to hospitality and the act of sharing a meal together.
In the book of Sirach this is illustrated in a different manner, in that sharing a meal placed one under certain obligations of prudence and decorum, both during the meal and in the following symposium (the latter of which was more prominent in more hellenized areas of Jewish life). Thus, Sirach advises the diner at the meal:
Sit thou at a rich man’s table, be not quick to remark upon it; it is ill done to cry out, Here is a table well spread! Be sure a covetous eye shall do thee no good; eye is a great coveter, and for that, like no other part of thy face, condemned to weep.
Be not quick to reach out thy hand, and be noted, to thy shame, for greed; jostling goes ill with a feast. Learn from thy own conjecture thy neighbour’s need; take sparingly the good things set before thee, nor court ill-will by thy gluttony. For manners’ sake, leave off eating betimes, or thy greed shall give offence. (Sirach 31:12-20)
And for the symposium:
Keep silence, and give others a hearing; it shall win thee a name for modesty; if thou art but a young man, be loth to speak even of what concerns thee, and if thou art pressed for an answer, give it in brief.
For the most part keep thy knowledge concealed under a mask of silence and enquiry; nor ever be familiar among great men, nor garrulous among the wise. Sure as the lightning is sign of a storm, men’s good word is the sign of a modest nature; they will love thee all the better for thy bashfulness. (Sirach 32:9-14)
The way in which one partook of a meal with others- understanding the conventions, following the cultural norms, etc- often served to parse one’s status as one with whom the group was on good terms or whether one was alien. In this sense:
Eating meals, whether alone or in company, yields information about the conventions and, thus, about the groups with whom one identifies oneself. And so, eating meals decides about identity in general. (Ursula Rapp, You Are How You Eat: How Eating and Drinking Behavior Identifies The Wise According to Jesus Ben Sirach, Decisive Meals: Table Politics in Biblical Literature)
It is thus easy to see why the Pharisees were so taken aback by Jesus’ behavior. To them, eating and drinking were not a sometimes casual action that one undertook with just anyone. Rather, the shared meal in a very real sense served as a delineation of those with whom one identified or would choose to associate and thus intermingle one’s identity.
This seems a strange concept to us given the relative lack of importance we tend to associate with meals. But what is extremely important about this understanding of the shared meal is that by eating and drinking with sinners, Jesus is not simply hanging out with them or having a casual association. Instead, he is effectively identifying with those whom the Pharisees, his disciples, the gospel writer and even himself understand to be sinners.
Once can thus perhaps begin to understand the perplexity of Jesus’ act, and why the Pharisee’s were so offended by it. However, Jesus explains precisely why he is doing what he is doing:
On hearing this, Jesus said, “It is not the healthy who need a doctor, but the sick. But go and learn what this means: ‘I desire mercy, not sacrifice.’ For I have not come to call the righteous, but sinners.” (Matthew 9:9-13)
When we speak of Jesus hanging out with sinners as a way to buttress whatever argument we are attempting to make, we actually do his relationships with sinners a severe injustice. The difficulty thus is easy to see- it’s not that Jesus didn’t hang out with sinners, but rather that the relationships he chose to develop entailed something much deeper, much more important, and much more intentional that the terminology of hanging out simply cannot encompass.
His eating and drinking with sinners was not a casual association like one would have in going out with a friend to dinner; instead, there was a missional purpose inherent to it. His entire intent in eating and drinking with those who were sinners was precisely because he was calling them.
Now, we often trip up here as well, since we tend to reify call into some sort of abstract “hey, Jesus wants you and loves you and you’re being called to that.” That is likely true on some level, but here the call is to a specific thing, and one that our anachronism doesn’t deal well with:
Jesus’ call to sinners was to repentance.
The thing that tends to mystify us and which conflicts with our ideas of Jesus hanging out with people is that Jesus was- at least according to modern standards- likely not exactly a nice person. When he begins his ministry Mark tells us that:
Jesus went into Galilee and proclaimed the gospel of God. “The time is fulfilled,” He said, “and the kingdom of God is near. Repent and believe in the gospel!” (Mark 1:14-15)
It is important to recognize that the “good news” that Jesus proclaimed was an imperative to repent, and this is the “call” that is taken up during his meal with the tax collectors and sinners.
This, of course, seems counter-intuitive to us, as we do not normally associate people wanting to be with Jesus with them also being told to repent. At least that’s not the way in which we tend to present it. Yet in the Gospel portrayals, Jesus’ message of repentance causes people to seek him out- especially those who were the sinners.
We see this illustrated in the well-known account of Zacchaeus. Zacchaeus is a tax collector, which his countrymen perceived as delving about as low into sin as one could go. Not only did tax collectors typically collect more than required (for their “business-related expenses”), but their very employment was an insidious and consistent act of betrayal towards their countrymen in that they were effectively lackeys for an occupying force.
Men like Zacchaeus was thus essentially exiles in their own country, shunned by their compatriots and likely subjected to overt disdain. Granted, given the nature of Zacchaeus’ reforms, he likely was deserving of it as far as it goes. However, that didn’t mitigate the isolation that becoming identified with his sin created.
No doubt he had heard the sermons of his religious betters frequently, and evidently understood that his life of sin was something he needed to escape. But this is where the difficulty came in, and where Jesus’ message of repentance was actually a message of hope for those who sought him out.
Interestingly, when sinners sought Jesus out of their own accord, we don’t find him bringing their sin up to them. Obviously as God incarnate he knew everything already, but on another level he knew what they also knew- sin is its own punishment.
The weight of their sin was a heavy burden to bear, but in his day the law as it was often taught did not give them a way out. They could recognize the wrongness of their acts as much as they wanted, but since they had effectively become identified with their sin, their uncleanness pre-empted the possibility of repentance.
That is why we see Jesus railing against the Pharisees and the teachers of the law, because their misunderstanding of the law made the law into something that convicts and condemns, rather than something that convicts and offers a way to become right with God. Hence, in his invective he hurls this condemnation their way:
They tie up heavy, cumbersome loads and put them on other people’s shoulders, but they themselves are not willing to lift a finger to move them. (Matthew 23:4)
He further indicates how they close off the kingdom of heaven in this way:
Woe to you, teachers of the law and Pharisees, you hypocrites! You shut the door of the kingdom of heaven in people’s faces. You yourselves do not enter, nor will you let those enter who are trying to. (Matthew 23:13)
Yet we can then juxtapose this with Jesus’ message of repentance which the sinners did embrace. He gives the parable of the two sons in which the son who initially refused to obey eventually does, while the one who professed obedience neglected his promise. In summary he declares:
Truly I tell you, the tax collectors and the prostitutes are entering the kingdom of God ahead of you. For John came to you to show you the way of righteousness, and you did not believe him, but the tax collectors and the prostitutes did. And even after you saw this, you did not repent and believe him. (Matthew 21:30-32)
The point is that Jesus’ message of repentance was attractive to sinners because it gave them a way to become right with God. The burden of a heavy conscience led them to seek Jesus out. His message had always been about repentance, and the moral clarity with which he spoke and acted gave them reason to believe that they could be made right with God despite all their sins. In contrast, the message of the religious leaders was that they had become their sins and were intractably identified with it; for them the law only offered condemnation.
In eating and drinking with sinners, Jesus certainly did more than hang out with them- he intentionally brought hope in the form of a call to repentance.
We see this in coming back to Zacchaeus’ story. Zacchaeus climbed the tree to hear what Jesus was saying, and as Jesus passed by he looked up and began speaking to Zacchaeus, which must have been somewhat startling for him. But even more unexpectedly, Jesus tells him: “Get your house ready, because I’m going to eat with you tonight.”
In choosing to identify with Zacchaeus in this way, Jesus does something incredible: Zacchaeus had formerly been identified with his sin; he was a “tax collector,” and thus his sin defined his existence. By choosing to identify with Zacchaeus through sharing a meal, Jesus is able to sever that identity and offer him a new one, one in which neither his sin nor his appetites form his identity but in which “one who eats with Jesus” is now who he is.
Jesus isn’t said to have attached any strings to this offer of a meal, but Zacchaeus knew what he had to do- it was actually what he was looking for all along and why he climbed the tree to listen to Jesus in the first place. On some level he hated his sin as much as it drove him to do the sinful things he did. Never before was there a way out, but suddenly this Jesus is preaching repentance, for the kingdom of God is at hand. Never before had he hoped for the kingdom of God, but Jesus was offering exactly that hope.
Thus, without actually needing any prodding, Zacchaeus of his own accord repents then and there. In fact, it is once the crowds begin to murmur about Jesus going to be the “guest of a sinner” that he finally seems to understand that his identity is now as a friend of Jesus, instead of as the sinner he once was:
All the people saw this and began to mutter, “He has gone to be the guest of a sinner.”
But Zacchaeus stood up and said to the Lord, “Look, Lord! Here and now I give half of my possessions to the poor, and if I have cheated anybody out of anything, I will pay back four times the amount.” (Luke 19:7-8)
Jesus closes out the scene by declaring as he seemed to whenever he dined with sinners:
“Today salvation has come to this house, because this man, too, is a son of Abraham. For the Son of Man came to seek and to save the lost.” (Luke 19:9-10)
St. Augustine comments on this story thusly:
The Lord, who had already welcomed Zacchaeus in his heart, was now ready to be welcomed by him in his house. He said, “Zacchaeus, hurry up and come down, since I have to stay in your house.” He thought it was a marvelous piece of good luck to see Christ. While imagining it was a marvelous piece of luck quite beyond words to see him passing by, he was suddenly found worthy to have him in his house. Grace is poured out, and faith starts working through love. Christ, who was already dwelling in his heart, is welcomed into his house. (St. Augustine, Sermon 174)
We see this echoed by Jesus one final time in the parable of the tax collector and the Pharisee. After describing the self-righteous prayer of the Pharisee, Jesus mentions the tax collector’s prayer:
“But the tax collector stood at a distance. He would not even look up to heaven, but beat his breast and said, ‘God, have mercy on me, a sinner.’
“I tell you that this man, rather than the other, went home justified before God. For all those who exalt themselves will be humbled, and those who humble themselves will be exalted.” (Luke 18:13-14)
In the end, we do an injustice both to the gospel and to our our relationships if we view Jesus’ relationship to people in the reductionistic guise of hanging out with them, especially if we do that as a justification for the “X” that we want to buttress. By doing so we sap the power of the Gospel and in fact become like reverse Pharisees.
Instead of piling up laws on top of people that condemn them, we tend to lack the moral clarity and conviction to even be able to describe sin so tat conviction can occur. We tend to be so afraid of giving offense that we often become complicit in the deadening of someone’s conscience, and like the Pharisees we keep people out of the kingdom of heaven just as effectively. We make the same sorts of sneers about eating and drinking and the identity-creation it brings, but rather do so by taking an opposite tack.
If we want to be like Jesus in our relationships with others, we likely need to take a more missional stance; our relationships are not meant to simply be causal acquaintances but rather to have the purpose of helping people find the kingdom of God, of seeking the lost and the sick and the broken.
We are surrounded by Zacchaeuses; it remains to be seen if we will ever look up, and if there is any reason for them to come down.
At least for more than just hanging out.