Thursday, January 12, 2012

Thinking about "sinners"

I noticed something really interesting this morning. In the book of Mark, right after Jesus had walked by the tax collector's booth and invited Levi (later called Matthew, one of the other Gospel authors) to come along, he was having dinner at Levi's house. And it was a motley crew--not the typical upper eschelon of guests you might expect at a dinner party with a popular teacher. The curious thing to me is that the word sinners appears in this passage (Mark 2:15-16) in quotation marks.

I've been an editor for 20-some years, and we typically use quotation marks to set off a word used in a common way that might not be a completely accurate fit for what you're trying to say. The quotation marks mean "we don't really mean it quite this way, but this is what people call it." Like "debt-free," when they mean, well, not quite. And "low-calorie," when they are hoping you'll think the product is good for you, but they know it chocks you full of your sodium allotment for the day.

So "sinners" to me means, well, this is a word everybody uses, but we don't really mean it. The commentary in my NIV defines sinners (no quotation marks) as "Notoriously evil people as well as those who refused to follow the Mosaic law as interpreted by the teachers of the law. The term was commonly used of tax collectors, adulterers, robbers and the like."

Ouch. Notoriously evil people? But not really (because of the quotation marks). Perhaps those quotes mean "some people" thought of them as "sinners." But not Jesus. And not me.

Have you ever been in a church where the preacher spewed fire and brimstone and talked about how we're all sinners and don't deserve the grace given us? I have. It's not fun. Besides my own inner resistence to that type of spewing, I don't think it honors God to tell God's children they are inherently bad.

But think about this--wouldn't it take the sting out of that angry preacher's words if he stopped and made the little "air quotation mark" sign whenever he said the word sinners? It would for me! What a great image. I feel the tension fade away. Nobody's really a sinner, those little air quotation marks say. We are just in different points of understanding as we continue to wake up to our divine relationship with God.

So let's relax. And love. And have dinner with Jesus and the other disciples. I notice the word disciples doesn't have quotation marks around it. And that's got to be saying something.

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