While Jesus was having dinner at Matthew’s house, many tax collectors and sinners came and ate with him and his disciples. When the Pharisees saw this, they asked his disciples, “Why does your teacher eat with tax collectors and sinners?” On hearing this, Jesus said, “It is not the healthy who need a doctor, but the sick. But go and learn what this means: ‘I desire mercy, not sacrifice.’For I have not come to call the righteous, but sinners. -Matthew 9:11-14
The Son of Man came eating and drinking, and they say, ‘Here is a glutton and a drunkard, a friend of tax collectors and sinners.’ But wisdom is proved right by her deeds.”-Matthew 11:19
Maybe Lent has been easy for you. You gave up something you shouldn’t imbibe too much anyway and after an initial struggle, you’ve starting to feel the freedom in new routines and habits. But is that really the point? It is possible to keep our little rule and our little fast and fail to follow Jesus—going where he goes and loving who he loved.
Jesus’ critics called him a friend of tax collectors and sinners, indicating he had the wrong sort of friends. He loved the religious outsiders—those colluding in the Roman occupation and profiting from injustice, and those who weren’t welcome in the temple because of their lifestyle. Jesus was a lover of the marginalized, the outsider.
He came from a tiny rural village, conducting much of his ministry in Galilee, far away from the seat of power and the religious establishment. He had friends in low places, and outside of a couple of Pharisee friends, he didn’t have strong relationships with the ‘right’ sort of people. The crowds that came to him were the poor, the disenfranchised, the revolutionaries, the tax collectors, and the sinners. These were those without hope in the socio-political world of the Roman Empire or the religious world of first-century Judaism.
What strikes me as odd, is how a season of Lent, which is all about following Jesus, has become such an insider affair. Ash Wednesday is for insiders. Religious outsiders don’t get it: “You got some grease on your head.” “Dude, wash your face!” Lenten fasting is a strange cultural artifact for the wider culture: “So what are the rules of Lent?” “You are giving up what? Why would you want to do a thing like that?” None of what we do seems to make sense from the outside, and yet the outsiders are with whom Jesus spent most of his time.
If our Lenten fasting helps us apprehend the truth about Jesus and his place in our lives, and if the season is about following him, then we need to be intentional about connecting with the margins. In our age, as in Jesus’s, this means the poor, the widowed and the orphaned. This means the neighbor who wouldn’t be caught dead in church (likely because of bad memories of the hypocrisy she found there). It means standing up for the forgotten and invisible people in the community such as the urban and rural poor, naming injustice and being cognisant of privilege and power dynamics, and cultivating friendships with people who have nothing to contribute to our personal success. It means attending the wrong parties and hanging out with people with the wrong lifestyle.
Of course, Jesus did all this without falling into the temptation inherent in negative peer-pressure but he was denounced as a drunkard and a glutton. He was willing to risk ‘guilt by association’ to love those on the margins. You can’t follow Jesus—go where he goes and do what he does—without making some dangerous connections. If you aren’t friends with the marginalized, who are you following?