A typical response to the idea I've been presenting about treating the least among us humanly, rather than humanely, is one of utter disbelief. Don't I know that they are criminals for a reason? Don't I understand the meaning of "unclean"?
I do. But I find these no good reasons to treat a man with lesser dignity than he is entitled as an image of our loving God.
We're all guilty at one time or another. We all fall short of the glory of God. We all find ourselves in need of mercy or in need of ministry. And yet, we do not condemn ourselves. We do not look in the mirror and determine that we are evil people. Most of us won't even call ourselves sinners. We're "good people, trying to do the best that we can." We "mess up sometimes, but nothing big." Yet when we look at those who messed up bigger than we did, we are quick to think that their hearts are somehow fundamentally different.
We are quick to caricature-ize them, as though when they look in the mirror, they see the depths of their own evil. They laugh as little devil horns appear over their heads. They plot their next atrocity, their next act, as though they just thrive on this sort of thing. Why? Because if we thought these men were just like us, we would find that we are just like them. And if we find that we are all like one another, we have to offer grace to those it is easier to condemn.
I've heard some say that it's not worth it, even if these men are just like us. That grace rejected is grace wasted. Is it? Specifically as regards the criminal, they say, these persons have given up their right to be part of our communities. To trust them is naive, to forgive them is foolish. If I dare think differently, would I have them around my table?
Jesus had Judas around His table, knowing full well what the betrayer would do. Because there's more to Judas than this one thing we all remember him for.
There's more to everyone than we're willing to remember them for. A few years ago, we had a young woman hanging around the neighborhood. She was clearly down on her luck (and it was clearly related to a drug problem she was struggling with, to one degree or another), but she ended up working for a few of my neighbors, neither of whom seemed to understand the depth of her addiction. Every time I encountered this woman in my neighborhood, she was doing something...neighborly (even though she did not live here). She was standing on one neighbor's house, cleaning out hard-to-reach gutters, sitting on another's porch and talking and laughing and sharing stories. She became the official cleaning lady at one house, had a key and everything. And then one day, her addiction got the better of her, and she committed a heinous criminal act (a robbery with battery, aggravated maybe). And in the blink of an eye, as my neighbors felt the betrayal, they came to remember only one thing about this young woman - the headline.
Does that mean that all the hard work she'd done for them was a farce? I don't think so. They all worried that she had been setting them up for something, maybe to rob them or take advantage of them. Yet, not one of them could say that she'd ever done such a thing. Not one had anything missing from their homes or purses. And when this woman did succumb to a darker thing, she did not come to this neighborhood to do it. My neighbors suddenly regretted the time they'd given her, the conversations they'd shared, the opportunities they'd extended. They felt like a waste. One neighbor told me she felt naive, was worried that she hadn't seen what now seemed so obvious, and was not sure she would ever trust anyone again.
This kind of reaction is not uncommon in our world. It's far easier for us to wall ourselves off than to grieve our broken hearts. But let me say this - love is never naive, and grace is never wasted. All those hours that this little neighborhood invested in that young woman, for just a brief moment, she had a glimpse of something different. She wasn't strong enough, at least not then, to break her addiction, but she had enough power to say to it that this neighborhood was off-limits. Whatever drugs would do to her, they would not ransack this place. That is not a waste. She knows, at least, one place where she was loved.
Jesus talked with so many sinners, some small and some big. A woman was brought to Him in adultery, an executable offense, and He spoke tender words of love and forgiveness to her. We don't know what happened after that. Maybe she went away and never sinned again, but that's unlikely; she was still human. Maybe she went away and ran right back into the arms of another lover. The Bible doesn't tell us. But I'll tell you this - the Bible also doesn't tell us that when Jesus saw a sinner, He was angry. The Bible doesn't tell us that when Jesus saw a sinner He'd already forgiven, that He was furious.
No, He was broken-hearted. He cures ten lepers and only one comes back to Him. Is He angry with the nine? No. He grieves.
We have to get better at grieving.
It's how we get better at grace.
Love is never naive; it knows that others will sometimes betray it. It knows that the darkness of this world sometimes seems to overcome the light. It knows that sometimes, persons will turn love away and do something lesser, that it is going to be betrayed and disappointed from time to time. But grace is never wasted. Never. Even if a man turns his back on grace, his heart has taken it like a sponge, soaked it up, soaked it in, and in the darkest times of his life, he has this moment to turn back to . When he looks in the mirror and can't believe in himself, he remembers that one time, someone believed in him. And maybe, just maybe....
Would I have them around my table? You bet. I'm not naive; I know exactly how things might turn out. But I'm willing to take that chance.
Because I know exactly how things might turn out.