There was a picture of Israel Folau and his wife having coffee on the streets of Sydney yesterday with a group of people.
But don’t worry. Those people were representatives of the Australian Rugby Union having a stern word with him, so no one was actually putting their cultural credibility on the line by being seen in public with him.
Which raises the question: Who would you be embarrassed to be seen having coffee with in a Sydney sidewalk cafe?
There’s been a lot written in the Australian Christian social media scene these past few days about the fact that Jesus would “dine with sinners”. Not pointing anyone out. Okay, okay, Izzy, we’re pointing you out.
But it’s not that simple is it? We draw up the list of sinners Jesus dined with, and then we correlate that to the types of people that we should dine – or associate – with. For Jesus that was tax collectors, prostitutes etc. So that’s what we should do.
But it’s not a correlation is it? The truly groundbreaking move by Jesus was this:
Jesus was not embarrassed to be seen associating with people that would put him into deficit mode with his cultural and religious tribe.
For Jesus that tribe was a whole nation, the nation of Israel. In Jesus’ day eating with someone was a huge signal of social acceptance. Yet Jesus – the Jewish rabbi – regularly went into “cultural deficit” with his cultural tribe by showing acceptance towards the unacceptable.
Why? Because he had the confidence that his acceptance was not to be found in his cultural tribe’s approval of him, but in his Father’s approval of him.
When it came to approval Jesus was convinced he was always in “credit mode” with his Father. And that gave him incredible liberty. Jesus was emotionally capable of going into that contested space, confident in God’s approval of him regardless of the cultural deficit it racked up with his tribe.
In the modern West, our nations are made up of not one tribe, but many fractured – and increasingly fracturing – tribes. And tribes that are increasingly mediated through social media.
I reckon we’ve all got a tribe that we are – consciously or subconsciously – acting out our lives before in terms of seeking approval.
Indeed it would only take me a day or so looking through your social media accounts to tell you what your tribe values, what it disdains and who it considers to be a sinner and, conversely, who it considers to be a saint.
Here’s our problem: We genuinely fear falling in to cultural deficit mode with the tribe to which we belong. If we do we get worried, fearful, and anxious. We become plagued by self-doubt. We desperately seek to find ways to get back into credit, overcompensating at times to do so.
So here’s the test: Think of that person, or that type of person, that you would feel embarrassed to be seen with if your cultural tribe unexpectedly walked around the corner and past the cafe where you and that person were seated.
You say hello, reddening up, and cursing yourself inwardly. They say an awkward hello back as they walk past staring slightly, and you can just tell they’re wondering why on earth you’re with them!
What would be your next move? Excuse yourself and fire off a quick group text: “Yeah, I know right!” with a sarcastic emoji?
Jesus was indeed showing love to the cultural outsider when he dined with them. But more than that, Jesus was also displaying the sweet fruit of the deep confidence he had in his relationship to the Father.
He had the Father’s eternal approval. Why would he crave anyone else’s approval? Why would he fear anyone else’s disapproval? He was completely free to eat with whoever he wished, approval or not. Now that’s true liberty!
The primary reason many of the Jewish leaders did not publicly identity with Jesus, even though they believed in him, was this:
“They loved the praise that came from humans rather than the praise that comes from God.” (John 12:43).
They were truly bound! They were constantly looking over their shoulders seeking approval, instead of looking above their heads and realising that, as God’s children, they already had it! What a tragedy!
Don’t be so foolish to think that you are beyond this. Which humans’ praise do you seek? Which humans’ disapproval do you shy away from? Let the one who stands on this point, take heed lest they fall.
We live in an always “on” world of social media and hashtags. And it is not liberating, it is binding. Suffocatingly so. Everyone is watching everyone, poised to pounce. We’re the most self aware we’ve ever been – on the surface. And the least self aware under the surface.
Whose approval matters to you most? Whose rejection do you fear the most? Here’s how you’ll know: Go and check out the list of saints and sinners on their social media accounts. It shouldn’t be too hard to figure out which is which.
From there, it’s a case of doing a simple mathematical formula to see if you risk falling into cultural deficit mode.
Say you come from a more conservative tribe. If Izzy is in the list of saints in your tribe, then when you have coffee with him you’re actually not having coffee with a sinner. You are not at risk of going into cultural deficit mode. The locus of your approval remains untested.
And since you don’t care for the approval of those who do in fact consider him a “sinner” – those from the progressive cultural tribe for example – then there’s a bonus point available for you as well.
How so? You can now revel in the fact of how transgressive you are, how much disapproval you are garnering from those whose approval means nothing to you anyway. The other term for this is “self-righteousness”.
But if your cultural tribe disapproves of Izzy, then having coffee with him is truly having coffee with a sinner. You are at great risk of going into cultural deficit mode with that tribe if for one moment your actions signify social acceptance of him. And then, if that happens, you’ll start to understand where your locus of approval lies.
If your approval is not located in your Heavenly Father at this point, then your reflexive action will be to try and compensate and move back into credit mode by taking some action or display that indicates your tribal allegiance. That could include over-playing your disapproval.
I’ve used Izzy because, let’s face it, he’s an easy “here’s one I prepared earlier” example. But you can put in any name – or type of person – and see how it pans out. For those on the conservative right, what about the gay ex-Christian who bags out the church on a constant basis for the harm it did them?
For those on the progressive left, perhaps the business person whose political and economic credentials are scorned by every Facebook friend you have?
Or, more likely – and more boringly -, the socially awkward, annoying person who never gets invited to parties or weekends away, and who your friends would never consider befriending, but who is in desperate need of a friend.
Jesus was, after all, the “friend” of sinners, and the socially awkward friendless seem to be the biggest group of sinners in our self-curated social media age.
If that person is a “sinner” to your cultural tribe – or simply someone they just won’t countenance hanging out with – then associating with them in public – a sign of your approval of them – will put you into deficit mode.
It’s at that point you get to test where the locus of your approval actually is – with humans or with God.