Jesus’ life was surrounded by controversy. From the impoverished town of Nazareth and the disrespected region of Galilee, Jesus was an unexpected leader. Yet the controversy surrounding Jesus only began with his origins. The true controversy—the one that led to Jesus’ death on a cross—was how often he questioned religious leadership. Jesus loved the unlovable and commanded other leaders to do the same.
“Then children were brought to [Jesus] that he might lay his hands on them and pray. The disciples rebuked the people but Jesus said, ‘Let the little children come to me and do not hinder them, for to such belongs the kingdom of heaven.’ And he laid his hands on them and went away” (Matthew 19:13–15 ESV).
The disciples’ response is understandable; Jesus is a busy rabbi. Jesus was constantly traveling, for three years, and had many people requesting his attention. But Jesus shows the disciples that they lack understanding of the true purpose of his ministry: to love people and show them the way to salvation.
Jesus wasn’t looking for those in power, or for those who could give back to him. He wasn’t in search of a donor, benefactor, or bigger platform. Jesus was in search of opportunities to offer mercy and justice. So what does Jesus do? Receive the children. Jesus ministers to those at the bottom of the social latter, who literally could do nothing for him. This shows true love.
Jesus’ decisions to love the unlovable were controversial. He didn’t act like the ordinary rabbi and didn’t put up with the viewpoints of ordinary rabbis. At one point, Jesus said the following of his contemporary religious leaders:
“Woe to you, scribes and Pharisees, hypocrites! For you tithe mint and dill and cumin, and have neglected the weightier matters of the law: justice and mercy and faithfulness. These you ought to have done, without neglecting the others. You blind guides, straining out a gnat and swallowing a camel” (Matthew 23:23–24 ESV).
The scribes and Pharisees focused on small matters to the neglect of larger principles. They pointed to the Law (the first five books of the Bible) and demanded giving as a result. Yet they neglected the principles behind the Law. In essence, Jesus was saying: You’re choking on your own words.
Standing here today, it is easy to accuse the Pharisees. But it is much more difficult to realize how we are the same.
We too often ignore mercy and justice. Just think of the children whom Jesus so openly embraced. And now think of all the orphans in our world, and all the mothers who cannot provide for their children. These are real and manageable problems that we can do something about, but we fail to act. We may give and tithe, but there is so much more to do.
Truly loving other people is inconvenient. And loving the unlovable, or those who could never love us back, is difficult and painful. Yet we must make justice and mercy our priority, lest Jesus also call us hypocrites.
Let’s embrace the controversy of loving the unlovable.