In my church in Chicago I taught a class that examined the life of Jesus, scene by scene, drawing from all four Gospels. Several months into the study we noticed a striking pattern in Jesus’ personal interactions: the more unsavory the character, the more comfortable he or she seemed to feel around Jesus.

These are the people who found Jesus appealing: A Samaritan social outcast whose résumé included five failed marriages, an officer of the decadent tyrant Herod, a quisling tax collector employed by conquering Romans to exploit his own people, and Mary Magdalene, recent host to seven demons. Their ardent responses to Jesus stand in great contrast to the reception he got from more respectable types: A rich young ruler walked away shaking his head, pious Pharisees thought him uncouth and worldly—even the open-minded Nicodemus sought out a meeting under the cover of darkness.

I asked my class if that same principle held for those of us in the modern evangelical church. Do sinners like being around us? Do they seek us out? I recounted a story told me by a friend who works with the down-and-out in Chicago. A prostitute came to him in desperation—homeless, her health failing, unable to buy food for her two-year-old son. As the woman described her plight, my friend asked if she had ever thought of going to a church for help. A look of shock and unfeigned incredulity crossed her face. “Church!” she cried. “Why would I ever go there? They’d make me feel even worse than I already do!”

What was Jesus’ secret? How did he, the only perfect person in history, manage to attract the notoriously imperfect? And why don’t we follow in his steps? These are the questions my class discussed that Sunday morning.

The people Jesus could not stand

Someone suggested that legalism in the evangelical church created a barrier to non-Christians, and suddenly the class discussion took off in a new direction. Survivors of fundamentalist Christian colleges and churches began swapping war stories. I told of my own bemusement in the early seventies when the redoubtable Moody Bible Institute, located just four blocks down the street, strictly enforced a rule against beards, mustaches, and hair below the ears—though each day students filed past a large oil painting of Dwight L. Moody, hirsute breaker of all three rules.

Everyone laughed—everyone except Greg, that is, who fidgeted in his seat and glared at me. I could see his face turn red, then hot-white with anger. Finally, Greg raised his hand, and rage and indignation spilled out. He was almost stammering. “I feel like walking out of this place,” he said, and the room abruptly quieted down. “You criticize others for being legalistic Pharisees. I’ll tell you who the real Pharisees are. They’re you [he pointed at me] and the rest of you people in this class. You think you’re so high and mighty and mature. You find a group to look down on, to feel more spiritual than, and you talk about them behind their backs. You’re acting like the kind of people Jesus couldn’t stand.”

All eyes in the class turned to me for an answer, but I had none to offer. Greg was right. He had caught us red-handed in reverse legalism, a toxic mixture of arrogance and spiritual pride. I glanced at the clock, hoping for a reprieve, but it showed 15 minutes of class time remaining. I waited for a flash of inspiration, but none came. I felt ashamed and trapped.

Then Bob raised his hand. I had never met Bob, but until the day I die I will always be grateful to him. He began softly, gently, “I’m glad you didn’t walk out, Greg,” he said. “We need you here. I’m glad you’re here. And I’d like to tell you why I come to this church.

“Frankly, I identify with the Chicago prostitute Philip mentioned. I was addicted to drugs, and in a million years it wouldn’t have occurred to me to approach a church for help. Every Tuesday, though, this church lets an A.A. chapter meet in the basement room we’re sitting in right now. I started attending that group, and after a while I decided that a church that welcomes an A.A. group can’t be all bad, so I made a point to visit a service.

“I’ve got to tell you, the people upstairs were threatening to me at first. They seemed like they had it all together while I was barely hanging on. People here dress pretty casual, but the best clothes I owned were blue jeans and T-shirts. I swallowed my pride, though, and started coming on Sunday mornings as well as Tuesday nights. People didn’t shun me. They reached out to me. It’s here that I met Jesus.”

In a speech of simple eloquence that lasted less than five minutes, Bob discharged all the tension from that room. Greg relaxed, I mumbled an apology for my own attitude, and the class ended on a note of unity.

Painful admissions

It occurred to me later that Bob had also hinted at a solution to the church’s tendency toward legalism and pride. A.A.’s 12 steps, which have had such a revolutionary impact on so many lives, boil down to two basic principles: radical honesty and radical dependence. These are the very same principles expressed in the Lord’s Prayer, Jesus’ capsule summary of prayerfully living one day at a time.

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A.A. meetings, which do not tolerate a holier-than-thou front, insist on radical honesty from all. Members preface every comment with “I’m an alcoholic” or “I’m a drug addict.” Half of the 12 steps relate to human inability to change, a painful admission for any of us; the other half point to a cure: radical dependence on a Higher Power, and on fellow strugglers.

If we in the church learned those two lessons—a fierce insistence on honesty from ourselves and those around us, a radical dependence on God and on each other in our striving toward health and holiness—perhaps we could create a place of refuge: the kind of place where prostitutes, tax collectors, and even guilt-tinged Pharisees would gladly gather, on equal ground.

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