The day Jesus encountered a tax collector named Matthew and invited him to become one of his disciples, a number of notorious sinners joined Jesus for a meal. This scandalized respectable people in the area who avoided the company of sinners. They accosted his disciples and asked them why their master cared so little for ritual purity. Their question was an accusation, hurled, perhaps, with raised voices and pointed fingers. They believed ritual purity earned them God’s favor. Sinners who did not share their purity were a source of contamination–non-persons, unworthy of courtesy, much less compassion.
Perhaps because of their raised voices, Jesus overheard their insulting comments. Matthew remembered the events that afternoon, and recorded in the Gospel that bears his name, that Jesus looked directly at them and said, “It is not the healthy who need a physician, but they who are sick. “ He then told them to go away and learn what their sacred scriptures told them about God: “I desire mercy, and not sacrifice.” His work, he said, was to
seek out sinners, not the just.
In the Gospel of St. Luke, Jesus acknowledges that respectable people call him a glutton and a wine-drinker who is a friend of sinners. When he accepts an invitation to eat at the home of a religious scholar named Simon, a sinful woman comes to the table and washes his feet with her tears. The scholar is appalled by the woman’s impurity and Jesus’ indifference to the way she might contaminate him. Jesus, in turn, points out the woman’s love and tells the scholar that it is her love, not ritual purity, that has earned for her God’s forgiveness.
Over and over again the Gospels reveal a Jesus who seeks out those that respectable people have shunned. They draw on psalm verses that describe him as a worm, not a man, when they recount his suffering and death as a common criminal on a cross. And when St. Paul carries his message to communities that ring the Mediterranean, he tells the first Christians that most of them are neither wise nor mighty nor noble according to respectable standards. Rather, God has chosen what is foolish and base.
The example of Jesus guided the early Church. Experiencing his presence through the Eucharist engendered faith that unified communities scattered geographically. When disputes arose about their faith, leaders of the scattered communities gathered in the first ecumenical councils to bear witness to the faith their people lived. It was only from the end of the seventh century that councils began focusing on a new sort of law, in many ways analogous to the Mosaic.
Today most people who call themselves Christian concentrate on a series of moral precepts we have gleaned from the Bible, rather than the example of Jesus’ life. We have tamed the challenge of the Gospels to fit the needs of our egos. Like Jesus’ contemporaries, we have standards to judge our purity so that we know when we have appeased a god whose approval and sympathy we need to survive. The “Way” of the early Christians has become a natural religion for us, filled with superstition and taboos, like any other natural religion.
One of the tragic results of taming the Gospels is that we now know, or think we know, who God’s enemies are. Like followers of any other natural religion, we feel free to exclude them from our midst, to punish them, willing sometimes even to destroy them. In our art we depict a dreamy, sentimental Jesus who is no threat to our status quo.
The parable of the Good Shepherd speaks eloquently of God’s boundless love. Jesus compares himself to a shepherd on a wild mountainside who leaves all his obedient sheep in order to find one that has wandered away. Leaving the others risks losing them to thieves or predators. His concern for a single sheep is as prodigal as that of the father with two sons in another parable he told. He is telling us that God’s love is, in fact, prodigal—that there has never been a human being who has not been precious to him. Greek Fathers like Gregory of Nyssa, Maximos the Confessor, and Dionysus the Areopagite speak of God as Eros. Nicholas Cabasilas even dares to speak of God’s “mania of love.” Even before sinners call upon God for forgiveness, God has already called them.
In this icon Brother Robert has chosen an adult male goat, feisty and reeking of musk, for the animal that has wandered away from the Good Shepherd’s flock. Unlike the cuddly lambs artists have usually placed in the arms of the Good Shepherd, this goat looks as though he might bolt again if Jesus removed his arm. Jesus is not a dreamy, well-groomed European man in this icon, but a swarthy Middle Easterner, used to the desert sun. The inscriptions on the icon are in Arabic, a language startling to many Christians. There is nothing to comfort our complacent egos. “Go and learn what this means: ‘I desire mercy and not sacrifice.’” (Matt. 9:13) How will we answer?