I remember when the phrase “What would Jesus do?” took our high school youth group by storm. We branded ourselves with bracelets identifying us as radical Jesus followers seeking to mimic his actions in the world. WWJD became the answer to all our pressing questions. “Should I go to a party?” What would Jesus do? “Should I share my lunch money?” What would Jesus do? “Should I make out with my girlfriend?” What would Jesus do? “All my friends are going to see Pulp Fiction, should I?” What would Jesus do?
On one level this question was extremely helpful. As a high school student it helped me to stop and think critically about how to live as a Christian in the world. For a 16 or 17 year old young man, WWJD was a concrete concept helping me to follow Jesus.
But lately I’ve been wondering about helpful it actually is.
Over the last week, the Christian corner of the internet has been passionately discussing whether or not Jesus would hang out with unrepentant sinner who are sinning. In other words, it has become a internet youth group talking about what would Jesus do?
But a I’m beginning to rethink the helpfulness of this hypothetical question. It seems, at least to me, that I am in no position to decide what Jesus would or would not do. So many contemporaries of Jesus missed out on who he was, they missed God with them in the flesh because they had determined what the Messiah would or would not do. There were expectations about what he would look like, what he would do, and who would do it with him. And when Jesus did not do what they thought the Messiah should do, they rejected him.
When we determine what Jesus would do and who he would hang out with and what he would say, we run the risk of setting ourselves up to miss Jesus.
And we miss the point because we are asking the wrong question.
The question isn’t “What would Jesus do?” but “How do I love my neighbor?” Spending all our time figuring out what Jesus would do is a really effective way of avoiding the more difficult question of how do I love my neighbor. That question is more difficult to answer because it demands me to actually do something difficult. Only paying lip service to loving our neighbors is to be a resounding gong. So rather than engaging our neighbor and focusing on those relationships, we avoid them by triangling Jesus into the conversation and talking about what he would or would not do.
Here’s what I mean by that. Loving our neighbor means we may end up called to love people who are difficult. Who make us uncomfortable. Who have differing beliefs than us. Who do things that we disagree with. Who we don’t want to be associated with. All that makes us anxious, so rather than obediently loving the lepers who make us uncomfortable, we bring Jesus into the conversation, philosophizing about what he would do, in hopes of getting Jesus on our side.
“Jesus wouldn’t hang out with them.”
“Jesus wouldn’t condone that.”
We take ourselves off the hook of discerning how to love our neighbors, and relieve any anxiety we feel about loving sinful people, by focusing on what Jesus might do.
I wonder if, with all our discussions about what Jesus would do, if Jesus wouldn’t say to us the same words he said to his mother at the wedding. “Dear people, why do involve me?” And then, “Love your neighbor as yourself.”
Please do not hear me saying something I am not saying. The life of Jesus is vitally important for those of us who follow Jesus. We need to study his life and know what he did in effort to imitate his life. And that’s the point. We cannot know with any certainty what Jesus would or would not do. All we really know is what he did. Jesus befriended sinners and reconciled them to God.
This means three things. First, Jesus befriended sinners. Talking about whether or not Jesus would go this event, or go that event, or be present in the midst of that is pointless outside of the context of friendship. Jesus was friends with sinners and we should be too. At that point, in the midst of friendship, Christians must determine what the boundaries of what that friendship will look like through discernment, community, and conscience. Placing prescriptive demands on all Christians is not helpful.
Second, by befriending sinners Jesus brought scandal on himself. He made enemies. He was known as a drunkard and a glutton. Jesus was completely comfortable by the scandalous nature of his relationships with those on the margins of religious life.
But let us not forgot that Jesus was comfortable with the scandal of demanding more and calling people into a better life.
Which lead to the third point. Jesus’ friendship and reconciling work with sinners means we will invite our friends into the fully human, fully alive life of Christ. Now, that invitation may look different for everyone based upon the relationship. For some the invitation will come through a conversation. For others it will comes through modeling life in Christ. If we truly believe that people will know Christ by our love, then our love for our friends will be a witness and invitation to know Jesus.
I wonder about that invitation though. Just what are we inviting people to? Are we simply inviting people to give up their sin because it is so bad (which it is), or are we inviting people into life with Christ because it is so good? I think that distinction is important. Jesus describes the kingdom as a treasure, as a beautiful pearl, as a mansion, as a feast, as a wedding celebration, as shalom. Calling people into repentance isn’t just a turning away from that which is bad, it an invitation to that which is better. That’s love and grace. Love befriends people and hopes for the best for them. Love does not let people live a life that is less than human. Less than fully alive. Less than better.
That’s the life I want. And that’s the life I want to invite my neighbors into as I love them.
But I have to befriend them to do that.