We are very used to thinking of Jesus as the friend of sinners. He famously ate with tax collectors, prostitutes and others of bad reputation. In the parable of the Pharisee and the Publican, it is the righteous-in-the-eyes-of the world man who misses out while the sinner is made right with God. In the parable of the prodigal son, it is the irresponsible son who gets the hug and the party; the dutiful, never-a-foot-wrong son finds himself outside and grumbling. And didn’t Jesus say he had come not for the righteous but to call sinners to repentance?
Among our Muslim communities, there are plenty of sinners. I am talking about the people who know they are lost, outside the pale, the backslidden, the hopelessly behind in what they believe God expects of them. Failed Muslims make a significant proportion of our prison population. Others stay out of trouble, but for various reasons are known as “not good Muslims.” In a sense, it should be relatively easy to take the good news to them, though it is not as easy as you might expect. However, I am interested in the other end of the spectrum, those seen as righteous.
When speaking of those sinner passages, modern translations often put the word sinner in quotes acknowledging they dubbed sinners by other people rather than by the scripture. Of course, it is quite legitimate to describe them as sinners and to also insist that all the so-called righteous were sinners too. In our zeal to reflect this emphasis of Jesus, we can refuse to recognise “the righteous” as anything but sinners by another name.
The reality is not so simple, neither in the scriptures nor the world today. According to the first chapter of John’s Gospel, Andrew was a disciple of John the Baptist. Whatever he may have been prior to taking the baptism of John, he started following Jesus as a man who was seeking to live a life pleasing to God (John 1:37, 40). Jesus welcomed Nathanael as a true Israelite and a man of integrity (John 1:47).
Jesus called disreputable tax collectors like Matthew Levi and accepted the hospitality of Zacchaeus, but he also welcomed the respectable and the earnest. These were people who were seeking something more from God, alert to what God might do in their time, not necessarily driven by a sense of personal moral bankruptcy.
The Gospels speak of other people who were seeking to know God better, looking for the Kingdom. Anna and Simeon are two examples. In Acts, Ananias seems to have been a pillar of Jewish respectability (Acts 22:12). Cornelius and Lydia were devout God-fearers (Acts 10:2; 16:14). Within our Muslim communities there are people zealous for God and for right living. Sure, there are some who are consumed with making other people behave, like the stereotypical Pharisees, but there are also many with hungry hearts whose desire is to be acceptable to God. I have met some of them.
Ahmad was a former imam who had switched to part-time college chaplain and part-time bitcoin dealer. “It is harder,” he told me, “to practise Islam in Pakistan than in the UK.” I was puzzled. Surely in Pakistan there was a mosque on every corner, a loud call to prayer five times a day, the sound of the Qur’an piped through radios, and a universal expectation that he keep the fast in Ramadan? Surely no one batted an eyelid if you were diligent in your religious duties?
“What I mean is,” he continued, “There is so much corruption and dishonesty. It is hard to live an honest life.” For Ahmad, Islam was not about being a Muslim rather than a Christian; it was about living for God.
In New Testament times, Jesus was good news for “sinners” and he was also good news for at least some “righteous”. I think we are pretty good at showing sinners how Jesus is good news; how about showing sincere Muslims that Jesus is good news for them too? Is the only way to first prove them to be sinners?
Imam N sought out a new teacher a couple of years ago. He was not content with the narrow tradition he was in. There had to be more. He found someone online. One day he sent me a link to a TV programme in which his new teacher was being interviewed on a Christian channel where he was explaining why reading the Psalms was so valuable for Muslims. Imam N is on a journey, prompted at least in part by what he has seen in the lives of Christians who befriended him.
Imam A has been an observant Muslim all his life, but from a young age he started seeking. What he was looking for was a spiritual master, someone nearer to God than he himself was, who could direct him and intercede for him. It is not that he saw himself as a hopeless sinner, but rather that he knew that he fell short. I think what he is looking for will be found most fully in Jesus. When Crispus the ruler of the synagogue in Corinth turned to Christ, he was not leaving a life of godlessness (Acts 18:8).
Mr S is a devout man, often moved to tears as he performs the required prayers whether at home or in the mosque. But he is always eager to respond when an invitation is given to a Christian event. He has often come to church on Sunday when an appropriate opportunity has been given him.
But someone will say, you are not comparing like with like. Jewish people in the first century were steeped in the scriptures and looking for the fulfilment of the promises of God. Yes, they certainly had many advantages. My Muslim friends meditate on the example of Abraham and Moses, but the version they have is from the Qur’an. Some are fascinated by the picture of Jesus painted by the Qur’an. Deeply inadequate and flawed though that image is, for some it has been enough to get them started on a path that leads to the real Jesus.
These people are out there among our neighbours, our work colleagues, our clients and our students. Will we recognise them? Are we equipped to engage with them in ways that are helpful to them? And will they recognise in us the presence of Christ?