A Friend of Sinners
The Son of Man has come eating and drinking, and you say, ‘Look, a man who is a glutton and a [heavy] wine-drinker, a friend of tax collectors and sinners [including non-observant Jews].’
Jesus never forgot the reason He came. After a few years of ministry, He could have closed ranks, gathered His followers, and lived a comfortable life as a respected rabbi, but He kept taking risks to reach out to sinners-and He caught a lot of flak for it.
The religious establishment ridiculed Jesus because He spent so much time with “unclean” people, sick people, and people with questionable reputations. Associating with them, they were certain, couldn’t possibly be God’s Will. If those people straightened out their lives and did all the right things, maybe then they would be acceptable. Before that, though, the riffraff were off-limits.
How do addicts, adulterers, agnostics, and homeless people feel when they walk through the doors of our churches? How do they feel when they sit next to us at church or stand next to us at the coffee shop? Do we look down our noses at them, judging them as inferior? Even those furthest from God didn’t feel rejected by Jesus. They delighted in His presence, not because He lowered His standards of righteousness, but because He raised His standard of authentic love for them.
Who are the “tax collectors and sinners” in your neighborhood with whom few people want to spend time? Who are the outcasts at work, or maybe in your family? Jesus proved to be the friend of such people. You can too.
While dining with sinners, Jesus was dreaming of their becoming saints.
Have you ever wondered why the religious people were afraid to hang out with sinners but Jesus wasn’t? Could it be they were afraid that the sinner’s unrighteousness would influence them rather than their righteousness influencing the sinners?
I’m sure our parents expressed that they didn’t want us becoming friends with certain people for fear that they would influence us to make poor choices. Immature people are often easily influenced and much of the time that influence isn’t good. We all know the stories of those who were “talked into” things. I’m sure our parents wanted us to gain some maturity before we were exposed to making good choices over not so good ones.
Some would say that Jesus could be around sinners because He couldn’t be influenced by them but that’s not our case. It is true that we should think about our environment especially when it has the potential to add to our temptations. But Jesus never called us to isolate ourselves from the world and create an elite members-only club. That what the Pharisees and Sadducees in Jesus day had done. None of those who were less than they were invited or wanted. They wanted a safe place where they could practice their rituals without fear. They wanted to be with people just like themselves so they developed the idea that not even God wanted to be near the “tax collectors and sinners” until they changed their lives. The only problem is that no person has the power to change themselves especially changing to become righteous. How could they ever change if no one would help them change?
So Jesus came with the sole purpose of connecting those to God who would work the necessary transformation in their lives.
Imagine being a leper. Not only do you have an incurable disease, but it has isolated you from family and friends. You can only be with those who have leprosy and anytime you come near anyone else you have to ring your bell and cry out that you are a leper. You are not only separated from people but if you were a leper in Jesus’ day you were also separated from God for going into the temple was forbidden.
If you were a tax collector you were branded as a traitor and a thief, and no one wanted anything to do with you. You were despised by the Romans and hated by the Jews. Outright sinners and their lifestyles were certainly those no self-respecting Pharisee wanted anything to do with.
So Jesus comes and to all those who were outcasts, He targeted to become His friend. When we read that “while we were yet sinners, Christ died for us,” do we read that to mean just us or is it all inclusive? God has placed us in our communities, work places and among those who have little or no hope of ever changing so that we might become “a friend to sinners.” You see you can become a sinner’s friend without accepting or embracing their conduct. That’s what Jesus did. Again and again we read that after Jesus became someone’s friend, met their need, He would instruct them as He did with the woman taken in adultery to “go and sin no more.” His influence was so powerful that His acceptance of Zachaus’ invitation to dinner resulted in Zachaus having a transformation. Gone was the greedy tax collector who took advantage. Here was a man who experienced such a change that he was willing to make things right.
So what about us? Can we lose our fear of being around sinners? Can we become their friend without engaging in their habits? Won’t they “rub off” on us? What effect would they have on us and would they ever fit into our social or religious groups and gatherings? Have we forgotten that some of us were such and somebody and Jesus took a chance on us? Yes, it’s a risk, but it’s worth it. How can we fear if we truly believe it when the Bible says that “greater is He that is in us than he that is in the world”? The Great Influencer is the Holy Spirit and as believers we have Him with us constantly. In spite of opposition from the religious, Jesus never forgot His mission. We shouldn’t either.
Dr. John Thompson