As a Dominican student brother, I have lived in the cities of San Francisco, Berkley, and now Oxford, all three of which can be characterized as rather secular cultures.
Occasionally I meet Christians in these places who say they have the goal of being positive Christian influences on the secular people they encounter in the classroom, workplace, and various social settings. Sometimes such Christians take inspiration from the well-known story in the Gospels of Mark, Matthew, and Luke in which Jesus dines with sinners despite the objections of the Pharisees. As many of us know, Jesus answers the Pharisees’ objections by stating that the healthy do not need a physician while the sick do need one. In light of this Gospel, many followers of Christ ask, if Christians are unwilling to mix with those who are sick from sin, how can the sick become well?
While those of us operating in secular environments from time to time can indeed learn much from that Gospel lesson, it can be easy to find ourselves in relationships with secular people whose secularism influences us far more than our Christianity influences them. As a way of preventing this from happening, I find it helpful to remember that the story of Jesus dining with sinners is a story about healing only Jesus was capable of accomplishing. While reflecting on the fact that Jesus dined with sinners, we should make a point to identify first and foremost with the sinners he healed rather than immediately casting ourselves in the lead role of Jesus the healer. We do have a role to play in Christ’s healing, but it is Christ who reaches non-Christians through us as instruments of his healing work. To remain an instrument of Christ, especially in secular environments, I find it helpful to ask myself routinely if it is truly Jesus I am esteeming or the worldly people around me. I cannot be much of an instrument for Christ if I am hooked on the lure of the secular world.
If we truly esteem God above all others it is easier to stay focused on pleasing God rather than pleasing others. If we stay focused on pleasing God over all others, we will also be less likely to waste too much time socializing with people who are totally closedminded about our faith. Saint Jerome, commenting on the Gospel of Matthew, insists the “sinners” Jesus dined with were no longer holding on to their sins once they chose to dine with Jesus. The Gospels certainly never depict Jesus responding to having been rejected by trying to figure out how to get a dinner invitation from those who rejected him. Indeed, according to Matthew, Jesus tells the apostles to kick the dust from their feet and leave places where Christ is outright rejected.
If my experience in secular cities like San Francisco, Berkley, and Oxford are any indication, you will probably not need to dismiss any city you reside in as a total lost cause. Repeatedly in the cities named above I have found myself pleasantly surprised by people genuinely open to the Christian message despite broader cultural trends. My guess is that wherever you live, there are similar people God aims to heal through you. When evangelizing, however, just remember to stay focused on being an instrument of the only one who can truly heal anyone, our Lord Jesus Christ.
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