Jesus' Bad Friends
"Later, Jesus was having dinner at Levi's house. Many tax collectors and 'sinners' were eating with him and his disciples. They were part of the large crowd following Jesus." —Mark 2:15 (NIRV)
When the HBO series The Sopranos first started getting popular, I began tuning in. I love movies and TV shows about the mafia so I thought The Sopranos was fascinating. A bit too fascinating, it turned out. I found myself thinking about stuff like sex and power in unhealthy ways long after each episode ended. I decided to stop watching the show, not because it was evil, but because of what I saw it doing to me.
Stupid is as stupid does when it comes to the things we watch. What you see and hear influences what you think, say and do. The same applies to the people we hang around with. You hang around with a group that smokes dope or plays around sexually, sooner or later, you're probably going to start acting like that. It's just human nature to adopt the values of the group we're with.
So we Christians are smart to not hang around with the "wrong crowd," right?
Except that our Lord did this all the time.
Like the writer Mark tells us, Jesus spent a lot of time with "tax collectors." In Jesus' day, these guys had a reputation for being cheats and traitors. They were Jews who turned on their fellow Jews to collect taxes for the Romans. And they earned their pay by charging way more than the Romans asked for—and keeping the extra for themselves.
We also know that Jesus spent time with prostitutes. Prostitutes are—well, enough said. They too are not the crowd that respectable religious people should be hanging around with.
In fact, there were so many disreputable people around Jesus that Mark just lumps them together and calls them "sinners." These are people who seemed far from God. They led immoral lives. They were a bad influence. They were people everyone else, especially the religious, looked down on. It'd be like your pastor hanging around with the Sopranos. Doesn't quite fit, huh?
So why did Jesus spend time with such people? Simple: He loved them. He loved them more than he loved his reputation (which wasn't so good after he started hanging around them). He loved them even though he would become tempted to act like them.
Say what? Yes, Jesus was tempted to sin—just look at passages like Matthew 4:1-11. This temptation in the wilderness wasn't the only time he was tempted, but just one example of how he was tempted time and again. Every time he was with the wrong crowd, you can be sure, there was someone trying to break him down.
So, if Jesus loved the "wrong crowd," aren't we supposed to love them too? Yes. We're not called to love only people like us, or only people who are mostly good but just don't know Jesus. We are called to love the hard cases, people who seem to be far from God, people in the "wrong crowd."
If Jesus took risks to reach out to this crowd shouldn't we—his followers—do the same? Yes and no.
No—if we think we can do this all by ourselves. Very few Christians can place themselves in immoral situations and come out clean. Maybe once or twice, but keep it up, and eventually we'll find ourselves compromising our values.