The Contagious Gospel: Jesus as a Friend to Sinners
Christopher J Wiles
writer | speaker | servant
To finally put the last piece on this week’s series of posts, we need to go back to Luke 5. It’s right after Jesus heals the paralyzed man who’d been lowered through the window. And, as we saw, Jesus calls Levi away from his life as a tax collector to be a disciple of Jesus – and the “establishment” is a bit concerned about the company that Jesus seems to be keeping.
If your memory is really good, you’ll remember that we learned in Luke 4 (when Jesus read the selections from Isaiah) that Luke’s gospel intertwines the ideas of forgiveness and healing. It’s what Wright calls “the gift of shalom:” restoring God’s original goodness, or shalom, to each individual, both physically and spiritually.
But the metaphor of healing can be taken another way, too, can’t it? You could easily see how sin might be viewed as a contagion – something “dirty” in that culture. That was the attitude of the Pharisees. They’d already started whispering rumors about Jesus behind His back. Jesus even picks up on it: The Son of Man has come eating and drinking, and you say, ‘Look at him! A glutton and a drunkard, a friend of tax collectors and sinners!’ (Luke 7:34)
See, the central lie of religion is this: when the sacred encounters the profane, the profane always wins. Jesus spent time with some people religion tended to frown upon. The religious leaders assumed that if Jesus spent time with these people, He must be one of “them.”
Religious moralism is so concerned with keeping up appearance that it avoids broken people at all costs. The problem, as Jesus identifies it, is that healthy people don’t need doctors; sick people do.
Which means that when we look at Jesus, we don’t find a guy who’s actively trying to pursue the “wrong crowd.” He had a message of hope and healing, and that naturally drew people to Him. Craig Blomberg, a New Testament scholar, writes:
“Jesus thus defies the conventions of his world by his intimate association with a group of people deemed traitorous and corrupt in his society. Still, he does not condone their sinful lifestyles but calls them to repentance, transformation and discipleship.” (Craig Blomberg, Contagious Holiness, p. 102)
There is no “quarantine” procedure for Jesus. He gets right in and heals their brokenness. And He does so not by overlooking their sin, but by absorbing it.
JOHN COFFEY: ABSORBING EVIL
Most are familiar with the film The Green Mile, the film based on Stephen King’s serial novel. The main character is John Coffey, a death row inmate who proves to have an extraordinary power to heal. When the prison guards discover this power, they sneak Coffey from prison temporarily to see if his power can heal the warden’s wife, who is dying of terminal brain cancer in her home:
The clip shows an unexpected healer, bringing a shocking level of intimacy to this broken woman’s home. The fracture of the clock, the shaking ground – these things almost seem to call to mind the events of the cross: the earthquake, the tearing of the temple curtain. John Coffey’s initials are no accident, allowing the film to present us an unlikely Christ figure who absorbs the evil around him, bringing wholeness and purity.
We don’t have time to analyze all of the films themes (including where the film ceases to harmonize with Christianity), but Jesus does something like this: He can offer healing only because He takes evil on Himself through His sacrificial death on the cross. “The deformity of Christ forms you,” wrote St. Augustine. “On Him is the punishment that brought us shalom, [wholeness, goodness, peace].” Isaiah wrote. “By His wounds, we are healed.”
HOW GREAT A DEBT
This is something that no other religious system before was capable of. Even the various sacrifices of the Jewish legal system were meant only to point to the day when Christ would be sacrificed once-for-all.
In Luke 7, we see Jesus interacting with a “sinful woman.” The scene is right after Jesus’ complaint that the Pharisees think Him a “drunkard.” Luke places the story here because he has a point to make: the lie of religion is not always right. The Jewish laws stipulated that certain people were clean and unclean, just as we saw yesterday. But when the profane encounters that which is most sacred, the sacred wins. Jesus brings cleanliness through forgiveness of sins: He is the true and better sacrifice who can do this.
So it’s actually quite shocking when a woman of a “sinful” reputation (many believe her to have been some sort of prostitute) is associating with Jesus. She anoints Jesus’ feet not only with expensive perfume, but her own tears. But here’s where it gets messy: she lets her hair down. In Jewish culture, this was a level of intimacy that was potentially scandalous:
“The woman’s actions…need not be viewed as inherently erotic, but the observers would have viewed that at best as culturally inappropriate…and at worst as so sexually suggestive as to be shameful. [One commentary writer] points out that loose hair did not in and of itself link a woman with prostitution, and if she were unmarried it produced no stigma at all. But Simon’s response…clearly implies that her behavior here gave the assembly reason to disapprove of it.” (Craig Blomberg, Contagious Holiness, p. 133)
When questioned, Jesus tells a story about the magnitude of forgiveness. Two men owe a great debt: one owes just over two months worth of wages. The other owes two years. Obviously the one who had been forgiven the greater debt was the one who showed greater love. Jesus acknowledged the woman’s “many” sins (7:47). But because of this great relief she could show love in a way that the Pharisees could not.
INFECTING WITH LIFE
In chapter 8 we see this pattern continue, and Luke gives us two stories back to back in Luke 8:40-56. One is a woman with some type of bleeding disorder – apparently some type of menstrual issue. The other is a young girl, only 12, who dies before Jesus can even get there.
Both women remain nameless. Both are ceremonially unclean: the woman because of her menstrual bleeding, the daughter because she is dead. And notice in verse 43 that the woman had been bleeding for 12 years, the same amount of time the little girl had been alive.
But despite her uncleanliness, she reaches out and touches Jesus’ robe. And that’s when the miracle happens. Jesus does not become unclean from her touch, but by touching Jesus she becomes clean. When she confesses what she had done, Jesus tenderly calls her “daughter.”
Jesus’ healing does not stop there. When he gets to the little girl’s home, she has already passed on. But a touch of Jesus’ hand and the command of His voice lift her from the dead.
The Pharisees were worried that the unclean would infect the clean. Jesus infects everyone around Him with life.
SPREADING THE CONTAGION
This means that we have a whole new paradigm to look through. We don’t have to be like the Pharisees, sneering at others while we perform our quarantine procedures. The gospel teaches us that there is no division between the “good” people and “bad” people, only a division between the proud and humble, the forgiven and the broken.
This is a powerful theme of Luke’s gospel, one that is central to his entire portrait of Jesus. It is a message that Jesus’ followers are to carry out in their own day and age – to spread Jesus’ message of hope and healing in our own communities.
We’ll close with the testimony of Brian “Head” Welch, former guitarist for the band Korn, now a follower of Christ:
Christopher J Wiles
writer | speaker | servant
Chris is a writer and speaker from the Charlottesville area. He regularly serves as a research writer for Docent Research Group in addition to doing some guest speaking.