Downton Abbey, Prostitutes, and Contagious Holiness

I love me some Downton Abbey. The slightly over the top storylines, the historical setting, the upstairs-downstairs dynamic—my wife and I really enjoy it.

The storyline of Ethel, the housemaid turned prostitute, has intrigued and frustrated me. Forced to leave Downton after being caught having sex, she ended up a single mother unable to support herself, and so turned to prostitution. She is able to find a better life for her son by giving him away to his grandparents, but it still leaves her in tough straits.

This past episode, though, she got a second chance to be a servant, a prospect she welcomed, though she suspected others wouldn’t greet it in the same way. And her fears prove well-founded, as the cook Mrs. Bird shows here (start at 8:03).

“If I tolerate her, I will be tarnished by her. . . . I’m a respectable woman.” Ethel’s impurity, her sin and her shame, are contagious. The social stain she bears will rub off on those around her.

In a way, Mrs. Bird is right. Bad company does corrupt good character. The people we spend time with will deeply shape our lives, whether for good or bad. That’s why significant Christian friendships are so important. Those relationships really do spur us on to love and good deeds (Heb 10:24–25).

But this whole attitude is also sub-Christian in some ways. Who did Jesus spend time with? Precisely the prostitutes, the sinners, the shameful. He did more than tolerate them, he sought them out, ate with them, made them his followers. And it did tarnish him in the eyes of the religious leaders. They accused him of being a drunkard and a glutton (Matt 11:19). Mrs. Bird’s fears do have a point.

But in God’s kingdom, it’s holiness that proves contagious, not just sin and shame. When Jesus accepted these “sinners,” it changed them. Grace receives someone where they are, but it doesn’t leave them there. It transforms them (Tit 2:11–14). That’s what Jesus demonstrates when the leaders bring a woman caught in adultery to him. They’re hoping to trap him by getting him either to condemn her or say that sexual sin doesn’t matter. But Jesus surprises them on both counts. He doesn’t condemn the woman yet tells her to go and sin no more (John 8:11). Jesus shows us how to welcome people where they are and at the same time, to call them to a different life.

It’s not just Jesus who can show this grace, this contagious holiness. We can do it too, precisely because he was tarnished and made disrespectable. He took the ultimate shame of dying like a criminal on a cross. Because he became sin for us, we are reconciled to God and become God’s righteousness (2 Cor 5:21).

The call, then, is for us not to follow Mrs. Bird but Jesus (not shocking there). Who is outside our circle, below us, or someone we’re afraid to love lest we end up contaminated and tarnished like them? Maybe it’s the prostitute, or the prisoner, or maybe even the sanctimonious person. What would it look like to reach out, unconcerned for appearance’s sake, and love them? To genuinely meet them where they are and accept them? It may well be that in loving the ‘sinner’ we’ll discover a deeper awareness of grace in our own lives too.

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