By John D. Pierce

Unlike Jesus, many modern American evangelicals — who at times feign affection for this particular first-century messiah — fear getting soiled by contact with those considered to be social, racial and economic outcasts.

So they work hard at keeping their holy hands and superior souls clean — from such dirty work as providing professional services or ministry to persons who might have a different sexual orientation, gender identity, religious background or citizenship status.

In an effort to stay ceremoniously pure, they seek government help for their “rights” to legally discriminate at will. And these purity efforts may carry over to the churches’ ministries as well.

For example, two Southern Baptist congregations in Knoxville, Tenn., recently disengaged from an ecumenical ministry that temporarily houses homeless families — since doing could mean serving families that include same-sex parents.

Had Jesus been as self-righteous and unloving, and bought into such guilt-by-association fears, a lot of people from scheming little Zacchaeus to the Samaritan woman Jesus encountered at the well would have had his compassion withheld.

However, American evangelicals who are uncomfortable with Jesus’ wider embrace and his rejection of legalism, do have a biblical precedent for keeping ritually pure by avoiding contact with the lowlife of society based on race, religion, reputation and other defining factors.

These religious elite of Jesus’ time, as well, stood firmly and proudly on a pinnacle of purity from which they could condemn others — including Jesus who made a mockery of their religious purity by hanging out with all kinds of so-called sinners.

These clean-handed, law-abiding religionists could never get comfortable with a lowly Nazareth carpenter’s son who ran around claiming to be from God while ruining God’s good reputation of holiness.

So it is comforting today to know that if the model of Jesus’ radically embracing, unconditional love is too threatening there is always another approach one can take and still be deemed biblical.

Just keep the faith — I mean, the rules. And make enough noise to drown out the echoes of “Woe unto thee…”

But, whatever you do, don’t dare read the Gospel of Matthew chapter 23.

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