I can’t remember where I heard it—perhaps I made it up—but I remember hearing some “expert” say that when a parent is sitting with a child, watching television or a movie, and sees someone on the screen smoking, the parent should gently remind the child that smoking is a bad habit. That’s one way to undo the unspoken influence that seeing a smoker in a prominent role has on a child. So I do it. Every time. Some of my loved ones have died or are dying from smoking-caused illnesses. I’ve heard them wheeze, and watched them suffocate slowly because their lungs can’t exchange carbon dioxide for oxygen. The threat is real to me, and, in age-appropriate ways, I want my children to know it, too.
But I’ve taken that practice out of the den and from in front of the television screen and carried it to the rest of the world. When we’re walking down the street or playing in a park or watching a tee-ball game and we see someone smoking, I quietly say to my children, “Smoking is bad for you. It’s a nasty habit. Don’t ever smoke.” I don’t try to hide that from the person smoking. I figure if they can unleash their bad influence on my child by smoking in front of him or her, I should be able to point out that influence and try to counter it. For the most part, that quiet exchange is a private moment that no one else notices…except when my child sees the smoker first and points at them and yells out, “Oooh! Daddy, that person is smoking! That’s a nasty habit!”
Now, in addition to fighting the smokers’ influence, I’m also fighting the tendency to confuse bad actions with bad people. “Smoking might be a bad thing to do, but it doesn’t mean that a smoker is a bad person.” It’s hard to convince a four-year-old that good people sometimes do bad things, and I feel certain that’s a lesson he’ll learn on his own in due time. Truth be told, it’s hard to convince me, a thirty-three-year-old priest of the same thing. And that leaves me wondering how we as Christians understand that good people can do bad things. How do we escape the taint of original sin even though we live as redeemed children of God?
Jesus spent a lot of his time with the smokers of his day. Worse than that, of course, they were the real sinners of society: prostitutes and tax collectors and lepers and lazy-good-for-nothings. He welcomed them to his table. He went out and looked for them. And every time he did it, he challenged the assumptions of the day—that sinful people were bad people, unworthy of God’s blessing. But that doesn’t mean he didn’t hold them to the same high standard that God’s people had known from their earliest days as the people of Israel.
In today's gospel lesson (Matthew 5:17-20), Jesus said, “Do not think that I have come to abolish the law or the prophets; I have come not to abolish but to fulfill. For truly I tell you, until heaven and earth pass away, not one letter, not one stroke of a letter, will pass from the law until all is accomplished.” It doesn’t surprise me that Jesus hung out with the scum of his day. What surprises me is that he still said things like this—that all that the Law of Moses demanded was still being demanded. Why? Because it’s hard for me to understand that good people do bad things.
Jesus’ life and ministry honored the personhood of even the most despicable sinner of his day. He sat at table with them to show the religious elites of his day that God had a place at his own table for every man, woman, and child on earth—no matter how sinful. But, over and over, Jesus calls all of us—saint and sinner alike—to a life of holiness. He says to us, “Unless your righteousness exceeds that of the scribes and Pharisees, you will never enter the kingdom of heaven.” And he means it. But what we have to remember is that our righteousness comes not from keeping the Law but from being loved by a merciful God. Yet, as God’s righteous children, we are called to live into that righteousness in remarkable ways.
Go and sin no more. Jesus’ love is transformative. He reaches out to those whom religion has given up on and says, “You, too, can be made new.” In many ways, he’s not doing anything different than the most stringent of the Pharisees. His call to holiness is as robust and demanding as theirs. But he issues that call to everyone. And it starts with sinners like you and me. Amen.