Let’s be honest: wouldn't you much prefer to have had a cup of tea and a good chat with Marie Antoinette, rather than Mother Teresa?
As Jesus was walking along, he saw a man called Matthew sitting at the tax booth, and called out to him, “Follow me.” And he got up and followed him.
When Jesus had dinner there, many tax collectors and sinners sat with him and his disciples. When the Pharisees saw this, they asked his disciples, “Why does your teacher eat with tax collectors and sinners?”
When Jesus heard what they had said, he replied, “Those who are well don’t need a doctor, but those who are sick do. Go away and learn what this means: ‘I desire mercy, not sacrifice.’ For I have come not to call the righteous, but the sinners.”
What is it about sinners that fascinates us so?
We find them irresistible. Charitable works and noble intentions are all well and good, but what we really want to know is: What have the bad guys been doing?
Consider the fasincation that villains have held for us throughout the ages; the romance associated with Blackbeard the pirate, the lure of Count Dracula and his many blood-thirsty decendants, and the enduring popularity of the Klingons, the sworn enemies of Captain James T. Kirk and the crew of the Starship Enterprise.
Far more people know the name (and reputation) of Lucretia Borgia than of Hildegard of Bingen. And — let’s be honest now — who wouldn’t much prefer to have had a cup of tea and a good chat with Marie Antoinette, rather than Mother Teresa?
We may want to be good, and try to be good, and admire those who are good ... but it is the sinners who inspire our most earnest curiosity. This is reflected in the fascination with film stars and performers (and “reality show” characters) when they “melt down.” It is then that their popularity soars: more internet searches are made for their names, more articles are written about them, more photographs published, and the traffic on their webpages increases exponentially. Lindsey Lohan got a lot more attention when she was drunk and disorderly than she did when she was a “nice girl.”
Why is that so?
Could it be, to paraphrase Leo Tolstoy, that “Good people are all the same. Sinners are each sinful in their own way”? Do they intrigue us because of their originality? Are we amazed and astonished by their sheer imaginative power: the diverse things that they can think up, the unique troubles they cause for themselves and others?
It could be that our curiosity is fueled by the sheer novelty of these lives.
But, when you think about it, the variety of “sins” which we see revealed in news stories, entertainment magazines, and on television programs are tediously repetitious. With rare exceptions they fall into four or five general categories: substance abuse, physical violence, marital infidelity, greed ... and more substance abuse.
So why do they remain so central to our cultural consciousness? After all, if you’ve seen one actor arrested for DUI, you’ve seen them all.
Since the individual actions aren’t unique, perhaps it is their personalities that are so intriguing. After all, we don’t get married and divorced eighteen times, treat pets like fashion accessories, drive over photographers’ feet with our cars, or run around town without our underwear like they do.
As the saying goes, “The rich are different from you and me.”
Is that the source of our fascination: the fact that their conduct, impulses, and desires are so foreign to our own? Is hearing about their lives like going to the zoo — a visit to a place where entirely different species are on display?
That could be the explanation: mere idle curiosity. These guys provide us with cheap entertainment. Watching their antics is a harmless exercise, reading about their misdeeds is just a way to kill time, and it is interesting — after all, they’re nothing like us.
Perhaps they serve a more subtle purpose.
I don’t think we really enjoy seeing people deteriorate into madness, drug abuse, and suicide. I sincerely believe that most of us are sickened and saddened by the long list of celebrity “train wrecks.” Yet, as awful as they are, we continue to watch.
I think we watch because they are so awful. We watch because their misbehavior is so egregious, because their sins are so blatant, because they are so easily led into temptation ...
Because they are so awful, we don’t look half bad.
Compared to Ivan the Terrible, I am a saint — and I don’t have to do anything to improve myself! Compared to Lucretia Borgia, my fantasies of vengeance against the guy who tailgates me on the freeway are nothing! Compared to Amy Winehouse, I am the epitome of healthy and responsible living.
See how easy it is?
Without any effort, we can convince ourselves that we’re really OK. Whatever our flaws and failings may be — we’re not THAT bad! We haven’t done anything really terrible. You want to see terrible? Look at what they are doing!
We might call this “putting old wine into new wineskins.” It is simply a variation on the behavior condemned by Jesus when he said, “You see the speck in your neighbor’s eye, but ignore the fence post in your own” (Mt 7:3-5; Luke 6:41-42).
The unending media coverage of people whose lives are clearly and desperately disordered is dangerous. An unexamined fascination with “the bad guys” can put the health of our souls at risk. We are tempted to ignore our own sins and shortcomings — which seem to pale by comparison — and to believe that these “sinners” are utterly different from us, utterly “other,” and unworthy of our pity or compassion.
Our interest in “sinners” is not due to their uniqueness, but to a recognition of our common humanity. As we stand in need of God’s mercy, forgiveness, and love — so do they; as they have fallen short of the glory of the Lord — so have we.
Virtual hugs and real-time blessings,
When you come across an article or news report about a “celebrity” who is acting out, misbehaving, using, abusing, or in any other way in the process of crashing and burning, use it as an opportunity for prayer, healing, and self-reflection.
First, offer a prayer that the person may be infused with Christ’s tender compassion and healing love.
Next, ask yourself what aspect of your life is at risk from a related temptation. For example, if it is substance abuse, you might reflect on the ways you try to avoid or escape from problems. When troubles arise, what do you do? Open a bag of potato chips, or M&Ms, or a bottle of Scotch? Do you seek to blame others? Or try to ignore the issue and hope it will just go away?
Then, invite the Beloved’s healing grace to be present in your life.