Part 1: Ecumenical and Interreligious Dialogue is a Respect Life Issue
“Why does he eat with tax collectors and sinners?”
One of the most astounding things about Jesus' earthly ministry 2,000 years ago was how he encountered people.
Jesus loved and talked to anybody and everyone. However, he seemed especially concerned about going directly to those most marginalized by the rest of society. He was always living the Beatitudes (Matthew 5:1-12) by including the excluded and making the last one first.
So for example, if he were approached by two people, and one had a comfortable and established place in society and the other was an outcast, Jesus probably would go to the outcast first. He loves them both equally, and he goes to the outcast, first.
Today, we have a fancy way of describing that. We call this the preferable option for the poor in the Catholic Church. We are to love everybody, but when we have the option, we prefer the poor (and we always have the option).
It's like saying all people are equal—especially the poor and forgotten. This is a logical conundrum perhaps but it makes sense through the eyes of faith!
If that's confusing, you are not alone. The elder brother in the Prodigal Son (Luke 15:11-32) story had difficulty understanding this, as well. There was such a lavish reception for the return of the younger son that it didn't feel like the love was equal, especially for someone who didn't seem to deserve it, in the eyes of the older son.
There's a modern way of looking at that: Yes, of course all lives matter, and because all lives matter, that's why we say "black lives matter." It's an example of "the last shall be first." We are lifting up the ones most put down. Like Jesus, we love everyone and we go to the poor first. We anxiously await the healing and wholeness of our society by witnessing to it this way.
Sometimes we make this out to be more difficult than it is. If you are a parent with a son and daughter, I'm sure you love them both equally. But if the son had just fallen and broken his leg, you would drop what you were doing with your daughter to get your son to the hospital.
Our categories have changed somewhat since Biblical times. Our world is not divided between Samaritans, lepers, tax collectors and the "possessed," these days. We just don't understand the world in those terms, anymore. However, those same dividing lines are there, just termed differently. Our world today is one of Muslims, immigrants, black people referred to as "thugs" and LGBTQ+ persons. Just like in Jesus' time, not only are people unfairly excluded by they are blamed on top of it—they are called "sinners" even though they are not necessarily any more sinful than anyone else. But mainstream society wants a way to rationalize their treatment, after all, no one wants to think of themselves as unfair or cruel.
Further, our world is divided is between conservatives and liberals, Christians and atheists, Catholics and evangelicals, the university educated and the street smart, pro-choice and pro-life, you name it. Each side has demonized the other. The less we know of each other, the easier it is to demonize each other.
Who are those that society wants to relegate to a lesser status—a lesser class—a lesser caste? Those seemed to be the groups that Jesus went right toward. After all, the Samaritans, lepers, tax collectors and the possessed were considered the lowest of the low when Jesus walked this earth.
Jesus was constantly witnessing to the God-given dignity of every person and the equality of all. He moved through society as if he didn't recognize at all its labels, statuses, privileges and restrictions on recognizing human dignity. But in a sense he did recognize them, because witnessed against them. He just kept putting the last first, turning tables and shocking everyone. After all, he had developed quite a reputation for hanging around with "sinners and tax collectors" (Matthew 9:10-17,Mark 2:15-22,Luke 5:29-39). He did this to such an extent he became known for associating himself with society's discards.
I can almost hear Jesus saying through his actions:
Jesus: "Yes, even "these people"!"
Bewildered disciples: "Even them??"
Jesus: "Yes, especially them!"
Can you get to know some unpopular, hated group of people to such an extent that you get known as one of them? That you suffer along with them? Eschewing society's labels and getting to know people directly is still as radical and life-affirming today as it was when Jesus walked this earth two millennia ago.