I was recently informed by a fellow Christian that it’s perfectly OK for a follower of Christ to march in a gay pride parade because, as he explained it, “Jesus hung out with sinners.” It was far from the first time that I’ve heard a clearly objectionable act justified on these grounds. This is just one of the many dubious slogans that has overwhelmed and suffocated the faith in our country. For many of us, our faith is really nothing more than a collection of these empty mantras, which we confidently shout over and over again, hoping repetition will make them true.
Of course, “Jesus hung out with sinners” is a loaded statement. There’s always some erroneous insinuation or conclusion attached to it. “Jesus hung out with sinners, therefore [xyz].” Jesus hung out with sinners, therefore it’s OK for me to do whatever it is I’m doing right now. Jesus hung out with sinners, therefore I need not follow whatever commandment or moral teaching we’re currently discussing. Jesus hung out with sinners, therefore this sin that we’re discussing isn’t as bad as you suggest.
I’ve heard “Jesus hung out with sinners” as a sincere justification for going to strip clubs and gay bars. I’ve seen “Jesus hung out with sinners” trotted out during debates about pornography. Somehow “Jesus hung out with sinners” tends even to enter discussions of abortion. “Jesus hung out with sinners, therefore killing babies is alright.” Generally, whatever the application, the argument is always that Jesus “hung out with” such and such a sinner, which means He didn’t mind such and such a sin.
Last week I wrote a piece about misconceptions around the idea of Christian compassion, and many of the critical responses hinged on this theme. One example:
“Matt, this was nothing but a badly disguised anti-gay diatribe. Jesus would have hung out with the people you are judging. Jesus wasn’t judgmental and in your face like you. He didn’t shove religion down people’s throats. Jesus hung out with sinners….” Etc. and so forth.
Leaving aside the bizarre contention that any discussion of Christian morality is automatically “anti-gay” (I didn’t mention gays in the post at all), what we have here is just your standard “Jesus hung out with sinners” formulation. Jesus “hung out” with people who sinned, ipso facto Jesus had no problem with the sins they committed. And if it were true that Christ merely “hung out” with people, this line of logic would hold a little water.
After all, “hanging out” is an inherently accepting, or at least indifferent, act. It’s casual and trivial. It has no purpose beyond itself. The phrase “hanging out” is almost never used to describe a deep, meaningful, or intimate interaction between two people. We use it precisely to signify the opposite. “Oh, we just hung out.” In other words, there wasn’t much going on. There was no agenda. We were just sort of occupying the same space together.
There’s a reason why many people in my generation, as deathly afraid of commitment as we tend to be, will often reject the term “dating” and instead say of our romantic partners, “We’re just hanging out.” Meaning, this isn’t necessarily going anywhere, nor do I intend it to. So, if that’s the only reason Christ came to Earth — to “just hang out” with us — then, sure, I guess your favorite sin isn’t so bad. If the Son of God didn’t mind “hanging out” around it, how terrible could it be?
But that’s not what happened. That’s not what Jesus did. Jesus didn’t hang out with sinners, and since we’re all sinners, it must be said that Jesus didn’t hang out with anyone. This is not semantics. The phrase has certain connotations, and those connotations are dangerous and misleading. Let’s look at the two most dangerous implications of this popular saying:
1) “Hanging out” implies approval or indifference.
If I first learned about Jesus from the people who typically put forth this vision of the “hanging out” Christ, I’d come away with the impression that He was a super chill dude who meandered around Galilee constantly flanked by rowdy drunks and scantily clad hookers. I’d think that Our Lord was some sort of deadbeat who ran with an edgier crowd because He was bored and it was something to do. I’d imagine Him sitting on the curb with His posse making banal small talk and watching the day go by.
Ultimately, I’d conclude that Christ was not someone who shepherded the lost and the aimless, but who actually was lost and aimless. This is the conclusion I’m meant to draw. It’s why these people rather conspicuously choose the phrase “hung out with” instead of more accurate options like “taught” or “guided” or “ministered to.”
It’s true that Scripture tells us of Christ eating with sinners (Luke 15:1) and publicly coming to their defense, as was the case with the adulteress who faced public stoning. And, yes, in simply speaking up for them, or to them, He was defying social customs of the time and causing heart palpitations in the poor Pharisees who’d never before witnessed such a thing. The New Testament tells several stories along these lines. But it certainly doesn’t tell any stories where Christ accompanies a sinner in his sin, or sits by while a sin is being committed, or forgoes an opportunity to call a sinner to a life of holiness.
Christ dined with sinners in order to draw them closer to the truth. To the adulteress He said, “Sin no more.” To anyone who came to Him, He said, “Pick up your cross and follow me.” Christ instructed. He exhorted. He commanded. He showed the way. He did not “hang out.” There was a purpose to all of these encounters, and the purpose was always to bring the sinner out of his sin. The purpose, in other words, was to heal them.
If we say that Christ “hung out” with sinners, then we must say that a doctor “hangs out” with his patients. But we wouldn’t say that about a doctor, would we? You may enjoy making friendly conversation with your physician, but that’s not why you schedule an appointment with him. You go to him to be treated. And it’s for the same reason that we sinners go to Christ. “They that are whole need not a physician; but they that are sick. I came not to call the righteous, but sinners to repentance.” (Luke 5:31)
Something else to keep in mind: Christ dined with and interacted with those sinners who came to him. They were repentant. They sought Him because they desired holiness. Jesus was not ever seen fraternizing with unrepentant evildoers who had no interest in salvation. Really, Our Lord wasn’t even polite to those types of people. He excoriated them as “hypocrites” and “vipers.” Christ wouldn’t so much as speak a word to Herod. When He came across the money changers in the temple, He drove them out violently. He rebuked and corrected at many other points, often using the sort of language that would earn Him a stern lecture from the weak-kneed Christians of today.
Remember, also, that St. Paul tells us not to eat with someone who is “guilty of sexual immorality or greed, or is an idolater or drunkard.” Is the Apostle contradicting Jesus? Or is he contradicting our silly ideas about Jesus? I’d say the latter. St. Paul is warning us against consorting with those who are impenitent and boastful in their sin. Christ would not have shared a table with those sorts, and neither should we. And that means Christ would not have dined at a strip club, and, no, he would not have accompanied homosexuals as they were marching in a gay pride parade. He would not have walked compliantly along as people were literally announcing their “pride” in their sin. He would not have “hung out” while sin was committed and promoted in His presence. And neither should we.
2) It makes our relationship with Jesus seem trivial and casual.
This is one of the great problems in the church today. We have created such a casual image of Christ that it borders on profane. We portray our Lord and Savior as just one of the guys. There is no awe, or fear, or submission in how we approach Him. We speak of Him like we’re His equals.
I think a lot of this stems from the “Jesus is my friend” idea that’s grabbed a hold of western Christendom in recent decades. And there’s truth to it, in one sense. Jesus calls us His friends on several occasions in Scripture, most notably in that beautiful line from John: “Greater love has no man than this, that he lay down his life for his friends.” But Jesus is entitled to call us whatever He wants to call us. It is through His radical humility and perfect compassion that He deigns to dignify us with such a label. We should not take it as a license to treat Christ as we would treat one of our friends here on Earth. Yes, He chose to be a friend to us, but He is still, first and foremost, our God and our Master.
Look at it like this: I would say that I’m a “friend” to my children, but I’m not “one of their friends.” I’m a friend to them in that I care for them and want what is best for them. In that way, I’m more their friend than any friend they have or will have, until they get married. But I’m still their father, and my “friendship” with them will always be in that context. If my son ever introduced me to his friends as “My buddy, Matt,” I would pull him immediately to the side and reprimand him. And if he said, “Well, I thought you were my friend,” I would respond, “Yes, but I’m your father first, and never forget it, son.”
We, as Christians, have forgotten it. That’s why there is so little reverence in our modern Christianity. Even in our churches you see few hints that those assembled understand that they are assembled to worship the Lord of all Creation. From the plucky, ridiculous music, to the way they’re dressed, to the way the pastor carries himself, you can find scant evidence that anyone involved has even the faintest appreciation for what’s taking place. It’s all so casual. We’re just there to hang out, I guess.
I wonder, how do we think we’d react if Jesus appeared before us in the flesh? Do we imagine we’d saunter over to Him, confident and casual, and give Him a high five like some drinking buddy we haven’t seen in a few years? “Hey, Jesus, my man! Great to see you!”
Or would we fall to our knees in wonder and terror, feeling unworthy to look upon the face of the living God? And, if we were able to speak at all, would we only be able to stutter the words of St. Thomas, “My Lord and my God”? Would we greet him like a “friend,” or would we tremble in His glorious presence? Would we stand before Him as equals, or would we collapse on the ground in total submission? Would we want to “hang out” with this Almighty Being, or would we desire only to lie at His feet and worship Him for all eternity?
Well, I suppose we’ll find out soon enough. We’ll all be brought before the throne of God one day. And there will be nothing casual about our interaction with Him then. God won’t be sanitized or made “safe” with dumb slogans and bad music and bland sermons. All of that will be stripped away, and there will be only Him there before us, bigger than the universe itself, with eyes like planets and a face like the Sun. If the thought of this moment doesn’t fill you with an indescribable mix of fear and joy, then I question whether you even believe in God at all. That’s the problem with an irreverent and casual faith: it’s not a faith. At least, it’s not a faith in the God that actually exists.
There is nothing casual about any of this. The Christian mission has nothing to do with “hanging out.” The only kind of hanging that Christ did was on the Cross, for the redemption of mankind. That’s what He did for filthy sinners like you and me. He didn’t just “accompany” us or chill out in the background while we marched headfirst into Hell. He died in agony to release us from our sin. How quickly and how often we seem to forget that fact.