Jesus’ radical love toward the marginalized and outcast is shocking. Not just that he loved, but how he loved them. Jesus rarely started a relationship with the law, and he never offered his “stance” on political issues. He usually began the relationship with love and always showed acceptance, especially with those rejected by the religious elite. And this has massive Jesus-shaped implications for how Christians have (mis-)treated the unchurched LGBT community.
Immediately after Jesus preaches the most rigorous ethical speech of all time (Matthew 5–7), he heads off to meet people in the surrounding villages (Matthew 8–9). His approach in relating to these people is astonishing.
In Matthew 8, Jesus meets a military leader of an oppressive empire—a centurion. The Romans had conquered Israel a hundred years earlier, and now the foreign invaders were ruling over the Jewish people. Many righteous Jews had tried to oust the pagans violently from their land and did so with much religious zeal. Many Old Testament leaders fought off and killed their heathen oppressors and were chalked up as heroes of the faith (Hebrews 11). So when the Roman centurion steps up to the Jewish Messiah, everyone expected a righteous rumble.
But they are quickly let down. Although Jesus could have destroyed his enemy and would have been just in doing so, he chooses rather to conquer the centurion with love. When he asks Jesus to heal his servant, Jesus responds not with a sword but with grace: “Shall I come and heal him?” The centurion responds with great faith, and Jesus gladly welcomes him into the kingdom.
No doubt, the religious people were stunned. The Roman military was well known for its debauchery, paganism, and oppressive violence. Although Jesus takes a firm stance against violence in Matthew 5, he doesn’t tell the centurion, “Well, okay, I’ll go ahead and heal your servant, but I must first tell you where I stand on the issue of violence.”
Jesus doesn’t lead with the law. He leads with love—love without footnotes.
Sure, Jesus didn’t applaud the centurion’s past behavior. But he doesn’t feel the need to create a thick wall of moral conditions for the centurion to leap over in order to receive love. Jesus’ love comes without a background check.
The same goes for Matthew the tax collector (Matthew 9:9–13). Jesus sees “a man named Matthew sitting at the tax collector’s booth” and says to him: “Follow me.” Immediately, “Matthew got up and followed him” (9:9).
Tax-collectors weren’t not just shady IRS agents who struggled with greed; they weren’t greasy used-car salespersons with too much teeth. Tax collectors were Jewish sellouts to the oppressive Roman Empire, who had taken over and unjustly occupied their country. Picture something like the Russian takeover in the old Red Dawn movie (or North Korea in the much lamer new Red Dawn movie). Tax collecting was legalized political and religious treason. If God’s grace has a leash, it stopped short of reaching tax collectors, according to Jewish tradition.
What would you say if you stumbled into someone like this?
Jesus says: “Follow me.” Matthew gets up and follows Jesus.
Jesus doesn’t say, “Well, you can attend our church service, but you first need to know where we stand on the issue of extortion.” He doesn’t say, “I can love you, Matthew, but I hate your sin.” Jesus doesn’t lead with the law—and there were a lot of laws he could have fronted with a thug like Matthew. Instead, he fronts love. “Come follow me.” Jesus invites him to be his disciple without rubbing Matthew’s face in his sin.
There was a massive first-century culture war over tax gathering, but Jesus cuts through the clutter with radical love. Love without fine print. Jesus desires obedience, but to get that obedience he fronts love.
Jesus didn’t lead a single tax-collector into the kingdom by giving his stance on tax-collecting.
In no way am I comparing gays and lesbians with tax collectors. Some of the most beautiful, wise, loving, moral people I know are gay. The character of tax-collectors and the gay people I know are miles apart. I’m only drawing a parallel between the way each group was shunned by the religious leaders of the day. Many religious people today consider LGBT people or “the gay agenda” to be sinful and destructive; just like first-century religious people considered FCTG (first-century-tax-gathering) people and “the Roman agenda” to be sinful and destructive. Still, “tax collectors and sinners were all gathering around to hear Jesus” (Luke 15:1). But today, they’re generally not gathering around to listen to his followers.
Religious people always got upset whenever Jesus befriended people who they thought were terrible sinners. If you’re a Christian who is trying hard to love LGBT people, and if this ticks off a lot of religious people, perhaps even those really close to you, then take comfort. You’re in good company. Jesus knows exactly how you feel.
This post was written by Preston Sprinkle, who recently released his new book People to Be Loved: Why Homosexuality is not just an Issue.
Preston Sprinkle is a speaker, blogger, and a New York Times bestselling author. He serves as the Vice President for Eternity Bible College’s Boise extension and blogs at "Theology in the Raw." His books include People To Be Loved, CHARIS, Erasing Hell and Fight.