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 ...

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