Fortunately for us today, the New Testament is a collection of testimonies submitted by people who either took part in the stories themselves or talked to eyewitnesses of the events they report. Still, sometimes, the authors of the New Testament do not speak directly about Jesus but challenge us to discover Him from His words, concerns, and entourage. Those early followers who listened to Jesus play the most important part. Who were they? What were their concerns? What does their presence around Jesus tell us about Him? Could there be a bridge between the minds of the believers of early Christianity who received the gospel and the contemporary readers of the New Testament? Could the latter relate to the attitudes and values of first-century Jews?
You already know the answer is yes. In the “Jesus Remembered” book, theologian James Dunn gives us something more: a plea with morally untouched arguments, capable of enriching the vision of anyone willing to allow the widening of already beaten paths.
“A friend of tax collectors and sinners!”
One of the most resounding reproaches against Jesus from the Pharisees—head spiritual leaders of the Jewish religion and in the Jewish communities of the time—was that He ate with tax collectors and sinners. It is easy for the contemporary reader to see that this reproach was of the “you are who you surround yourself with” type, a way of insulting Jesus through the associations He encouraged. In reality, this was a protest against His mission, based on challenging His credibility, insinuating that He must have had a completely wrong set of values, in order to receive the most detestable members of society with open arms.
It’s true. Jesus ate with tax collectors and sinners. The deeply negative public sentiment towards customs officers was quite widespread in the ancient world, and in ancient Israel, it was reinforced by the fact that the collected taxes were used either to finance King Herod’s “architectural ambitions” or fill his favourite people’s pockets, or to pay tribute to the Roman Empire who ruled Jerusalem and the holy land at the time—this, of course, when the money didn’t remain in the customs officers’ pockets.
Still, although Jesus’ attitude towards the tax collectors does not reflect the contempt of the Pharisees for the corruption of the tax system and its officers, He never approved their immoral behaviour, but considered it, along with the exclusivity of religious leaders, a lack of grace.
The fact that these were His intentions is even clearer concerning the sinners than in the case of the tax collectors. Some theologians have updated the Pharisees’ accusation regarding the entourage of sinners. In “Jesus and Judaism”, EP Sanders argues that Jesus was opening the gate of the Kingdom to unrepentant criminals or people to whom He was denying the status of “sinners”. John Meier seems to agree in “A Marginal Jew”.
However, James Dunn argues that, as in the present, in Antiquity, the word “‘sinners’ was not an absolute term, such as could always be demonstrated in any law-court in the land”. Instead, Professor Dunn continues, the term “sinner” was rather used by people with a certain interpretation of God’s law to critically designate those who did not accept the same interpretation. Therefore, “‘sinner’ also functioned as a factional term, a term of vituperative insult, a dismissive ‘boo-word’ to warn off members of the in-group against conduct outside the boundaries which defined the group”.
In other words, the sinners with whom Jesus ate were sometimes judged as such only by the followers of a certain sectarian interpretation of the Law. That is why Jesus speaks out firmly against those who are ready to condemn sinners. Not to excuse iniquity, but to show that the accusers themselves are sinners. Jesus’ objection was not that those people were not sinners, but aimed at the unspoken substratum of the accusation and He disputed that sinners, of any kind, are outside the sphere of action of God’s grace.
Jesus stayed out of the doctrinal conflicts between the religious factions of the time, just like He avoided the reductionism of class struggle dogmas. His vision of the poor, another social category He often addressed, remained “entirely within the traditional Jewish law and spirituality of poverty”, says Dunn. From the contrast between episodes such as the praise of the poor widow who donated her last two pennies to the temple and the praise of the woman who anointed Jesus’ feet with expensive ointment, Dunn concludes that Jesus did not idealize poverty, but declared the poor co-recipients of the saving covenant that God had made with His people.
Consistent with the wisdom and values present in the Old Testament, Jesus repeatedly warned that wealth brings with it the risk of false security, which, once cultivated, will fatally replace people’s trust in God.
In His preaching, Christ showed that the poor are more willing to be open to God, acknowledge their spiritual needs, and depend on Him for their safety.
A significant number of women were also part of Jesus’ entourage. Counterintuitively to those who quickly see signs of discrimination against women in Scripture, nothing in the Bible suggests that Christ considered women less fit than men to receive the Good News. Dunn notes that the absence of women among Jesus’s disciples has strictly sociocultural causes (the disciples had to go in pairs and preach to the early, and then be received by early Christians as guests where they preached). The author denies that there is any theological assumption about the inadequacy of women for mission, especially since many women accompanied Jesus and the disciples and took care of them and, like Mary of Bethany, spent time listening to the Teacher and enjoying His friendship.
Jesus did not address any special message to the non-Jews (the “Gentiles,” as the Scriptures call them), but He spoke to them on several occasions, healed them, and praised their faith. “Certainly Jesus seems to have been especially concerned to include those whom most others, or the main opinion-formers in particular, regarded and treated as outside the realm of covenant grace. Not just the poor, in line with the deeply rooted priorities of Torah and prophet, but also, surprisingly, ‘sinners’, who ought to be disapproved of by the faithful.”
“Tax collectors and prostitutes are entering the kingdom of God ahead of you.”
Jesus’ message was both revolting and revolutionary to people. How else could He have uprooted old conventions that contradicted the very covenant that God had made with His people? Jesus demonstrated that, in His entourage, there is room for both the tax collectors and the Pharisees, as long as both are willing to give up deceit.
The covenant between God and the people has always been based on grace, not on rules or status. Because God has assumed people’s forgiveness, they no longer have to make amends. God covers the cost of the damage caused by sin. All people have to do is accept the invitation to return to God’s entourage and maintain trust in Him, so that God can restore them. The same message resounded from the books of the prophets throughout the history of Israel.
Alina Kartman is a senior editor at Signs of the Time and ST Network. A version of this article first appeared on their website and is republished with permission.