Recently a friend shared with me that she knew little about the Bible and has never been inside a sanctuary. I asked if her parents went to church.
“They used to. Then my mom became pregnant. She wasn’t yet married to my dad. Her church shunned her, so they left.”
I sensed the pain of that experience in her voice. A church should’ve been running to her mother, not turning her away. I understood her daughter’s unspoken conclusion: if God’s people, who profess to know and love God treated her mother like that, count her out.
The story of Jesus in the Gospels includes all kinds of interesting people―some who claimed to be saints but proved to be scoundrels, as well as scoundrels who were transformed into saints. In Saints and Scoundrels in the Story of Jesus, Nancy Guthrie provides a fresh look into what shaped and motivated people such as John the Baptist, Peter, the Pharisees, Zacchaeus, Judas, Caiaphas, Barabbas, Stephen, and Paul. Join her as she reintroduces us to these biblical characters, helping us to see more clearly the ways in which they reveal the generous grace of Jesus toward sinners.
The Bible tells us Jesus experienced painful relationships, too. “He was despised and rejected by men, a man of sorrows and acquainted with grief; and as one from whom men hide their faces he was despised, and we esteemed him not” (Isa. 53:3). Despised. Jesus knew rejection. Unlike most of us, Jesus didn’t distance himself from challenging relationships. What can we learn about Jesus by looking at those relationships?
In her new book, Saints and Scoundrels in the Story of Jesus, Nancy Guthrie looks at the people Jesus encountered and shows us both their courage and also their frailty. In so doing, she helps us see ourselves more clearly, too.
Difficulty of Community
We’ve been hearing a lot these days about the nebulous term community—the thing that pulls us either into, or out of, a group designed to meet a need. When we encounter someone who lacks community, we often find both emotional and physical poverty, and a host of broken relationships. As a homeless man once told me, “I ditched my birth family in order to find a real family. I’m 58 and I’m still looking.”
My homeless friend was looking for relationships that weren’t abusive, negligent, annoying, frustrating, or disappointing. By his own testimony, he had yet to encounter anyone who passed that test. In his mind, the relationships in his life were toxins to avoid. All of them.
I found my biography in the pages of both scoundrels and saints in Guthrie’s book.
Listening to his story, I couldn’t help but empathize. I have several painful relationships that, apart from the knowledge they were placed in my life by God’s loving intent, I’d be tempted to ditch. Permanently. In thinking back on these conversations, I began to reassess my relationships, past and present, and the power they possess to point me either to God or away from him. Then I wondered, Have I ever pushed someone away from the God I claim to love? Betrayed a friend to whom I pledged loyalty? Demonstrated God’s grace one day only to fail miserably the next? I found my biography in the pages of both scoundrels and saints in Guthrie’s book.
Scoundrels Who Used to Be Saints
Guthrie—who teaches the Bible to women at her church, Cornerstone Presbyterian in Franklin, Tennessee, and at conferences worldwide—unpacks both the boldness and cowardice of Peter. She shows us the power of John the Baptist’s voice crying out for repentance in the wilderness, and his questions when Jesus didn’t live up to his expectations: “Are you the one who is to come, or should we look for another?” (Matt. 11:3).
While showing us the frailty of saints, she also reveals the good in some of the scoundrels: “The word ‘Pharisee’ conjures up the image of a judgmental conniving, and even murderous men. But, if you and I lived in the time of Jesus, we would not have seen the Pharisees as evil; we would have honored them as heroes” (77). One might assume the Pharisees were admired because of their position in the community. That is partly true, but Guthrie also tells us how they got there.
While the Jews were in exile, the Seleucid empire—a major center of Hellenistic culture—tried to force the Jews to abandon their own laws and customs. The Pharisees led the resistance, even to the point of death in many cases. Men dying for their faith gained the admiration of their people and climbed to power. Somewhere along that journey, their thirst for the approval of God was exchanged for the admiration of men. As Guthrie writes, “The Pharisees were not concerned about the state of their hearts before God; they were enamored by the authority they exercised. . . . They were far more interested in monitoring the behavior of others than sharing the burdens of others” (82).
Guthrie’s takeaways are surgically precise. For example: “We’re going to have to figure out how we can serve Christ by serving other people who have nothing to offer us and then resist dropping reports of our service in conversation or in posts on social media” (85). Equally convicting is her observations about Herod and a pointed question of application: “Herod had loved keeping John around just to hear him preach, even though Herod had no intention of responding to John’s preaching in repentance. . . . Am I putting myself under the authority of God’s Word, or am I merely entertained by God’s Word?” (34-35).
Our Devotion Fuels Humility
One of the most satisfying things about reading any of Guthrie’s books is her dedication to digging deeper into God’s Word for the purpose of growing a deeper devotion to Christ. You hear the passion and praise of her Savior as she explores what must’ve been months of careful study.
Passion for Christ fueled by a right understanding of who he is should lead us to greater humility and daily repentance—and a renewed service to the saints and scoundrels we encounter.