Hanging Out with “Scum”

Daily Reflection / Produced by The High Calling
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But the Pharisees and their teachers of religious law complained bitterly to Jesus’ disciples, "Why do you eat and drink with such scum?"

Luke 5:30

Many years ago, while I was an associate pastor at the First Presbyterian Church of Hollywood, I received a frantic phone call from a woman who said she needed to talk with a pastor right away. When I asked her for more information, she said she was a prostitute but wanted to leave her sinful life. She sought pastoral counsel to know how best to turn her life around.

I told this woman I would meet her in a half hour at a restaurant on Hollywood Blvd. After I hung up, I panicked. What if somebody were to see me at the restaurant, a pastor hanging out with a prostitute? What would happen to my reputation? Would I lose my job?

As I considered whether to keep my appointment or not, I remembered the example of Jesus in the Gospels. I thought of stories such as the one found in Luke 5:27-32. In this passage, Jesus and his disciples were sharing a meal with people who were infamous for their sinful lifestyles. Some proper religious leaders challenged them, asking, "Why do you eat and drink with such scum?" (5:30). The original Greek doesn't actually speak of scum, however. Rather, it might be rendered literally, "Why are you eating and drinking with tax collectors and sinners?" Yet, the translators of the NLT rightly capture the tone of this question. From the perspective of the religious leaders, tax collectors and sinners were the scum of the earth. They were people to be avoided. Hang out with them and you compromise your own holiness, not to mention your good reputation.

Yet Jesus not only hung out with such "scum." He even ate with them. This was a double offense in the eyes of Jesus' critics because eating with someone in Jesus' culture conveyed a sense of intimacy, even approval. For Jesus, however, the issue at hand was not his personal reputation or even ceremonial holiness. Most pressing of all was the fact that "Healthy people don't need a doctor—sick people do" (5:31). Jesus came to minister, not only to those who were literally sick, but also to those who were sick in their souls. He came to call sinners to repentance, that is, to turn their lives around and begin to live each day under God's reign. Jesus issued this call, not from a safe distance, but in the context of intimate, personal, immediate relationship. For him, there was no "scum." Thus he risked his reputation and even his "success" in ministry.

I did go to meet with the prostitute, believing that this is what the Lord wanted me to do. I found the very biggest Bible I owned and set it on the table in front of me as I talked with the woman. I hoped this might identify me as a pastor on a mission. After meeting this woman, who was indeed a prostitute and was indeed dressed appropriately for her work, I drove her to the church. After making a few phone calls, I located a Christian safe house for women trying to escape from prostitution. Then I drove the woman to this place and made sure she got in safely. That was the last I ever heard from her.

In retrospect, I know my intentions in this episode were pure. And God surely protected me from harm. Were I to do it over again, I would have brought a mature Christian woman along with me. But, back then, I tended to think of Christian ministry in overly individualistic terms. Nevertheless, I believe my willingness to risk my reputation honored the Lord. Moreover, I am challenged today to think of how easy it is for me today to keep a safe distance from obvious "sinners." Am I willing to imitate Jesus by hanging out with "scum"? Do I live with the conviction that sinful people aren't scum at all to Jesus, but rather those to whom he and his followers (including me!) have been sent?
QUESTIONS FOR FURTHER REFLECTION: Are there people in your life whom you avoid because you don't want to risk your reputation? Are there people to whom God has sent you that you avoid because they're not good enough or clean enough or important enough? How might you imitate the example of Jesus in this story from Luke?

PRAYER: Dear Lord, today I am challenged by your example of hanging out with "scum." Not that you thought of them in these terms. Rather, you saw them as people in need of healing and redemption. Moreover, you saw them, like Levi, as potential disciples.

Help me, Lord, to know how to follow your example here. Give me compassion for people I tend to ignore. Help me to be wise about the ways I reach out to all people. Use me, Lord, wherever I may be, to communicate your Gospel through words and deeds. May I be active in the work of your kingdom, healing the sick and redeeming the lost.

All praise be to you, Lord, because you love the unlovely, because your grace is given to all people. Amen.

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