Beware the Contagion of Sinners and Tax Collectors!
9 As Jesus continued on from there, he saw a man named Matthew sitting at a kiosk for collecting taxes. He said to him, “ Follow me, ” and he got up and followed him. 10 As Jesus sat down to eat in Matthew’s house, many tax collectors and sinners joined Jesus and his disciples at the table.11 But when the Pharisees saw this, they said to his disciples, “ Why does your teacher eat with tax collectors and sinners? ”12 When Jesus heard it, he said, “ Healthy people don’t need a doctor, but sick people do. 13 Go and learn what this means: I want mercy and not sacrifice.t I didn’t come to call righteous people, but sinners. ” (Matthew 9:9-13 CEB).
I stay with the text from Matthew 9, as I continue with my reflections on Richard Beck's provocative book Unclean. As you read and reflect on this brief passage, which speaks of God's preference for mercy over sacrifice, consider why the Pharisees might be concerned about Jesus' table fellowship. As we reflect on this passage, we will do so with the ideas of contamination and contagion in mind. As Richard works with this idea he references the idea of "magical thinking."
The logic of contamination is called “magical” because it makes causal judgments that defy the laws of physics. That isn’t to say that magical thinking has no basis in reality or adaptive value. [Beck, Richard . Unclean: Meditations on Purity, Hospitality, and Mortality (p. 27). Cascade Books, an imprint of Wipf and Stock Publishers. Kindle Edition.]
The Pharisees are worried about Jesus' actions. If he is hanging around with sinners, then surely he is one. It has to be catching -- right? Richard writes:
We find magical thinking at work in Matthew 9. If sin is “contagious,” extending hospitality becomes impossible. This is the psychological dynamic at the heart of the conflict in Matthew 9. What worries the Pharisees is Jesus’ contact with sinners. This worry over proximity is symptomatic of the magical thinking imported into the religious domain through the psychology of disgust. [Beck, Unclean: Meditations on Purity, Hospitality, and Mortality (p. 26).]
Now you might say that by engaging the sinners, Jesus is working to change their behavior -- surely Matthew is changed man because of his encounter with Jesus, but the Pharisees don't seem to be buying this idea. Contagion only goes one way. Richard notes the idea of "Negative Dominance."
When a pollutant and a pure object come into contact the pollutant is “stronger” and ruins the pure object. The pure object doesn’t render the pollutant acceptable or palatable. (p. 28).
Oh, and that contamination is likely permanent. So, what's at stake?
Negativity dominance has important missional implications for the church. For example, notice how negativity dominance is at work in Matthew 9. The Pharisees never once consider the fact that the contact between Jesus and the sinners might have a purifying, redemptive, and cleansing effect upon the sinners. Why not? The logic of contamination simply doesn’t work that way. The logic of contamination has the power of the negative dominating over the positive. Jesus doesn’t purify the sinners. The sinners make Jesus unclean. (p. 30).
So, consider the ways in which the church seeks to be missional. Do we believe that the gospel is the contagion or sin? Do we believe that we can be leaven, or will the world simply leaven the church? If we believe that sin is contagious and that the contagion always contaminates, then there seems little hope of being a missional congregation. But is that the gospel message? Does Jesus become unclean by dining with the tax collector? Or does the tax collector become clean because of the opportunity to dine with Jesus?