Of all the attractive qualities about Jesus I want to emulate, the way he interacted with sinners rests near the top of the list. As a redeemed and recovering sinner myself this might seem an odd thing to say. But there was a coexistence of empathy and holiness in the heart of our Lord that I want to learn because, to be very honest, I find it to be exhausting.
Take Jesus’ engagement with the greatest sinners of his day: tax collectors. Tax collectors were both traitors and predators. They sold their Jewish souls to the evil Roman empire and not only collected taxes from their fellow countrymen but extorted extra to pad their own pockets. They were so morally repugnant that about half the time they are mentioned in the gospels it is part of the phrase “tax collectors and sinners.”
We have no transcripts from the meals Jesus shared with tax collectors, but it is almost certain that he did not pronounce a judgment, drop the mic, and walk away. If the story of Zacchaeus is normative, it would seem that these “dinners with sinners” somehow combined Jesus’ listening, gentle manner with his commitment to God’s moral perfection. In Zacchaeus’ case, the tax collector both “received him joyfully” into his home and felt so convicted of his ways that he resolved, “half of my goods I give to the poor. And if I have defrauded anyone of anything, I restore it fourfold” (Luke 19:6, 8).
For me, this challenging mixture of empathy and holiness brews uncomfortably in my heart regarding abortion. Our journey with Samuel has opened my eyes to the travail mothers endure not only in childbirth but in the months before and after delivery. My standard counsel to anyone with an unwanted pregnancy is, “Have the baby and either parent or make an adoption plan.” But a year ago I would have said that with much less empathy for the physical and emotional cost such a course would require.
Likewise, I can now appreciate how abstract an unborn child can be, especially compared to concrete needs like other children or health issues or financial constraints. Even to the point of delivery I did not know what to expect from Rachael’s pregnancy. When I saw Samuel’s birth I was as surprised to seem him as I would have been to see Samuel L. Jackson walk through the door. Now I can understand how pregnant women could make decisions driven more by what they can see than what they cannot.
All of this to say, my experience has allowed me to develop a degree of empathy for some of the factors that lead women to choose an abortion.
What I find challenging is maintaining that empathy when I pause to consider the barbarism that is abortion. Again, Samuel has played a role in this. The other day one of our big kids walked toward him for a kiss, forgetting that they were holding a pencil. There was no real danger, but the very sight of a sharpened object within 10 feet of my baby sent this Papa Bear yelling and lunging. After the adrenalin left my system my thoughts moved toward the sharpened tools in the abortionist’s clinic. Suffice it to say that strong feelings rise in my heart at the thought of those tools coming near my baby, whether inside the womb or out. And those feelings flush out any remaining empathy for those who choose to abort.
Perhaps it is because I am a sinner that I find my impulses toward empathy and holiness to be an either/or rather than Jesus’ both/and. Were my heart purer and my love greater these might coexist more naturally in me. Regardless, the challenge of being like Jesus does not negate the call to be like Jesus. And thankfully the solution is not greater effort but more time spent with him. My hope is that, as I learn from his patience and expectations of this sinner, the Spirit will give me the same instincts with my neighbors who need to experience the fullness of what our great Savior is like.