I learned most of what I know about living, at least in the first instance, from my mother. I’m sure she had learned them from her mother. In fact, I often heard the two of them say exactly the same things about what I needed to know about the world growing up. Both of them had pretty good sense about things, and I paid attention. In general, it has served me well.
One of the things I learned was that memorable advice about birds of a feather. “Birds of a feather stick together,” they often repeated. It had some variations. “You’re known by the company you keep.” There was also a longer version about being with people doing something wrong and being guilty just by being with them even if I didn’t do whatever it was myself. I’m not sure that’s just, but I’m pretty sure they were right about how the world works. Most of the time.
Now, as a bishop and priest, I do wonder about one such event, the scene at Calvary. Three crosses. Three men being executed. Jesus himself saw it coming. “For I tell you, this scripture must be fulfilled in me, ‘And he was counted among the lawless’; and indeed, what is written about me is being fulfilled.” (Lk. 22:37) The question is what this tells us about Jesus. About God.
Being brought up, as were my cousins and I, to be good little Southern ladies and gentlemen, I have wondered about this scene. We are known by the company we keep. Jesus kept some unsavory company at the end. Birds of a feather flock together. What feather did Jesus share with the two other condemned men? I can hear my Sunday school teachers say, emphatically, “None!”
Still, I wonder. Are the prophetic words of Isaiah Jesus quoted (Isa. 53:12) nothing more than a prediction of events in the future? Are they but a lucky guess? Somehow, I think not.
I think the jarring quality of Isaiah’s prophecy and the reality Jesus himself saw coming was more than a foretelling of details yet to unfold. They are a statement of the way God’s world works, much more than a one-off prediction of the future.
In God’s world, the righteous are indeed known by the company they keep but not necessarily as my mother and grandmother had in mind. In fact, the more I think about it, given the way that Jesus lived his life, where else would he have been found at the end than with the lawless, the criminals, the discarded, the utterly outcast, the ones with absolutely nothing, not even the shirts on their backs.
The ones with whom our Lord was found in life were not so different—outcasts and sinners, tax collectors, women of the city (as the Gospels politely put it), the poor, the hungry, the homeless. We should not be so surprised to find out those among whom Jesus chose to draw his last breaths.
I think Jesus referred to Isaiah not so much to foretell events as to ground his vision, and to teach it to us. Jesus was found among the lawless not as a victim of circumstance but as a matter of his choice.
My mother and grandmother were right, of course. Birds of a feather do flock together. The feather is humanity itself. Jesus didn’t want there to be any doubt about that. We are indeed known by the company we keep, as was he and as Isaiah pointed the way.