First Century Pharisees (Jewish religious leaders) classified people into two categories: righteous people and sinners. You were either one or the other. The righteous were those that successfully checked all the boxes on their religious to-do list. It didn’t matter if they were jealous, vengeful, greedy, proud or judgmental. What mattered was that they followed the Mosaic Law to the letter.
The sinners… well, they were like the rest of us. They didn’t quite get it right. It didn’t matter if they were kind, generous or humble. All that mattered was that they just didn’t make the cut. And they would never be a part of the “in crowd.”
But there was one especially wicked group of sinners: tax collectors. These were Jews that worked directly for the Roman occupation – collaborators. They had the same reputation as the mafia. If you crossed a tax collector you would be turned over to the Romans, who were especially harsh with the Jews. The Romans basically told them how much they were required to charge their fellow Jews. Anything a tax collector could get above this amount (through manipulation, intimidation or other means) was theirs to keep. In the mind of a First Century Jew, there were few, if any, occupations lower than this one. You can see it plainly in Luke’s account of Jesus’ life:
After this, Jesus went out and saw a tax collector named Levi sitting in the tax collector’s booth. Jesus said to him, “Follow me!” So Levi got up, left everything, and followed him.
Then Levi gave a big dinner for Jesus at his house. Many tax collectors and other people were eating there, too. But the Pharisees and the men who taught the law for the Pharisees began to complain to Jesus’ followers, “Why do you eat and drink with tax collectors and sinners?” – Luke 5:27-30
Modern-Day Tax Collectors (And Our Judgemental Attitudes)
I find it interesting that the same basic social groups exist in churches today. The modern-day Pharisees, namely the and judgmental attitudes and prejudices of Christians, are alive and well. They are just as judgmental and self-righteous as those in First Century Palestine. They decide who is in and who is out. Most churchgoers are afraid of offending them because of the shame and guilt they pile on dissenters. They look down their noses at anyone they deem less spiritual than them.
Modern-day Pharisees seem to have found a new group of “tax collectors” to persecute: the LGBT community. Please understand… accepting and welcoming a person with a lifestyle that stands in opposition to the biblical standard isn’t the same as agreeing with or condoning their choices.
Recently I was with a church leadership team as they discussed “what to do with gay people that come to our church.” It is an especially divisive issue. This is a difficult subject to deal with because of the cultural baggage attached to it. It is easy to single out this sin because it isn’t one most churchgoers struggle with. The American church has, by and large, decided to look the other way when it comes to living together before (instead of) marriage, lying and gossip. And judging others, although sometimes preached about, is a normal part of the culture in most North American churches, even though Jesus warned people about having a judgmental attitude.
But homosexuality and transgender issues are anathema. They make an easy target. Most people that preach against LGBTs are simply preaching to the crowd. Which creates discussions like the one I found myself in. When Robin and I were asked how the church should respond to “them” I reminded this group that the Jesus I read about in the Bible was known as “a friend of sinners and tax collectors.” (Luke 7:34) I told them I’d rather an LGBT person hear about/experience the love of God inside a church rather than feeling judged outside of it. But often when an LGBT person visits a church all they feel is judgment.
I believe it’s time believers started being known for what we’re FOR rather than what we’re AGAINST. And the first step is to form genuine friendships with people that identify as LGBT. I’ll be the first to admit it may feel weird if you’ve not been exposed to such a lifestyle before. But I also believe it’s exactly what Jesus would do.
How do you actually do this? I just ask God for opportunities (with whoever He wants me to connect with). I was in Wal-Mart a few weeks ago and asked a young employee to help me find something. He was friendly, so I started a conversation. It was obvious that he was gay. As we talked he asked what I did for a living. I told him I’m a minister. He said he and his (male) fiancee were looking for a church that wouldn’t condemn them for their gay lifestyle. In his own words, “Look, we know it’s sin. We just want to hear the Word of God.” It was SO INCREDIBLY SURREAL, but awesome!
Praying for God to use you gives Him permission to challenge your prejudices. It also places you smack dab in the middle of His will, positioning you to represent His heart to a very broken world!