Jesus: “Friend of Sinners”
This is a response I gave to a statement posted by someone as part of a Facebook discussion. As my response was lengthy, I thought it might interest you to read and reflect on.
This is what the person wrote:
“Hey Simon, I don’t know you and you don’t know me, so hopefully this won’t get awkward or personal. Contemporary ‘Christians’ like to make a point that Jesus was both about holiness and compassion, and that we should always remember that Jesus emphasised repentance as much (or more so) than compassion/embracing the sinner. However that is a modern filter we apply. Yes, we can apply the title of Judge or ‘Son of God’ to Jesus, but the title he preferred was ‘Son of Man’. He was overwhelming known as the ‘friend of sinners’ and one that spent most of his time in the company of them. He was not seen as judgmental to these people. His presence wasn’t conditional on them repenting, or changing anything. Sure many made different life choices after, but not as a condition of his friendship. But Jesus wasn’t afraid to name sin as sin – but the sins he targeted was not the ones the current (or past) religious institutions likes to target (except Pope Francis). The sins Jesus spoke most against were against those that thought they were religious in the ‘right’, the well resourced and comfortable. He was scathing about those. If only more people were Jesus-like to target those sins first and foremost before going for those that are already victimised. Loving God means loving others. Jesus and the Prophets saw these as intrinsically linked. Happy to be corrected by how Jesus lived.”
This was my response:
“Hey [name], thanks for your comment. I have a few responses if you’ll let me.
Firstly, I don’t want to take away from your valid point that Jesus spoke most against religiously self-righteous people rather than the victimised. I think we should do so as well.
I think you have said a few misleading things though.
I don’t think that “Contemporary ‘Christians’ like to make a point that Jesus was both about holiness and compassion, and that we should always remember that Jesus emphasised repentance as much (or more so) than compassion/embracing the sinner.” I don’t think they say that at all. Maybe that’s what you hear, but at least, in regard to myself, I don’t think that. The message of “repentance” and the message of “compassion/embracing the sinner” are not mutually exclusive. In fact, they are one in the same. There is nothing more loving than calling someone to repent from sin. To think otherwise, is maybe to misunderstand repentance. Repentance is turning away from rejecting God and turning to trust in God. Repentance and embrace from God are not two separate thing. Repentance is called because embrace is offered.
Now, I don’t think that Jesus emphasised repentance more than other things, but it seems you might be implying that unless you were in a position of religious power or were as you say, “well resourced and comfortable”, then Jesus wasn’t calling you to repent. This just isn’t accurate. Jesus calls all people to repent, both the powerful and the powerless. When Jesus started his ministry, he went around proclaiming the “good news”. And what was the good news? Well it was pretty simple, “The time has come. The kingdom of God has come near. Repent and believe the good news!” (Mark 1:15) To remove repentance from Jesus message is to miss the good news.
Then you say: “Yes, we can apply the title of Judge or ‘Son of God’ to Jesus, but the title he preferred was ‘Son of Man’. “
The first thing to say to that is, it is not “we” who apply those first two titles to Jesus. Jesus applies those titles to himself. And again, like “repentance” and “compassion”, the titles of “Judge” and “Son of Man” are not in conflict. In fact, the one is the basis for the other. As Jesus himself says, “[The Father] has given him authority to judge because he is the Son of Man.” (John 5:27).
I may be wrong, but I think you misunderstand the title “Son of Man”. It seems you think of it as a term that is referring to Jesus’ humanity. It is actually the complete opposite. Jesus uses the term because it is a fulfillment of the prophecy in Daniel 7:13-14. I’ll let you look it up, but it basically is saying that the “Son of Man” is a title for the Messiah who will be given all power and authority to rule God’s Kingdom. It’s an awesome image. Jesus shows that this is what he means by using that title in passages like Luke 22:67-69, Matthew 16:13-17 and all the places where he talks about the Son of Man having the authority to do this and that. This is why it is so shocking that he would say that “the Son of Man did not come to be served, but to serve, and to give his life as a ransom for many.” (Mark 10:45). If the “Son of Man” means just a person like you and me, this statement makes no sense. Jesus embraced the title “Son of Man” because he was the Messiah – not one that they expected, but no less than the Messiah either.
The last thing I want to respond to is where you say:
“He was overwhelming known as the ‘friend of sinners’ and one that spent most of his time in the company of them. He was not seen as judgmental to these people. His presence wasn’t conditional on them repenting, or changing anything. Sure many made different life choices after, but not as a condition of his friendship.”
There is such a mix of truth an error in these words, I’ll try to articulate my issue with them.
Firstly, Jesus never called himself a “friend of sinners” and he wasn’t overwhelmingly known as this. That is a term Jesus says the crowd accuses him of. In Luke 7:34, Jesus says: “The Son of Man came eating and drinking, and you say, ‘Here is a glutton and a drunkard, a friend of tax collectors and sinners.'” This is the only occasion the term is ever mentioned in the bible. In fact, I couldn’t even find the words “friend” and “sinners” used in the same verse anywhere else! Hardly something Jesus was “overwhelmingly known as”. In fact, if you want to say this is an appropriate title for Jesus, you’d have to also say that “glutton” and “drunkard” are also appropriate titles.
Clearly, “friend of sinner” is an accusation. So what are people accusing Jesus of? Well, as you know Jesus does eat and drink with those considered “sinners” and the Pharisees are often upset with Jesus for this. But why does Jesus eat and drink with sinners? Is it because, as you suggest, he just wanted to spend time in their company and he didn’t judge their sin or expect them to repent or change? No. I think quite the opposite.
When asked point blank “Why do you eat and drink with tax collectors and sinners?”, Jesus responds quite simply: “It is not the healthy who need a doctor, but the sick. I have not come to call the righteous, but sinners to repentance.” (Luke 5:30-31). The sinners who he ate with were not the marginalised victims of power imbalance and religious oppression. They were the spiritually sick and he was the doctor. And part of his medicine was that he was calling them to repentance.
Repentance wasn’t an afterthought for Jesus. It wasn’t as you say: “Sure many made different life choices after, but not as a condition of his friendship.” No, repentance was the heart of his call to sinners. He ate and drank with people to tell them to repent and enjoy God’s friendship.
I don’t want to come down to harsh on you, as I think you have a wonderful heart for people, but I think you have too small a view of sin. Of course, repentance is a condition of friendship with God. If someone was a Nazi soldier during WW2, it would be wonderfully Christian to offer them them amnesty and the opportunity to surrender without fear of punishment, but they would have to stop fighting for the Nazis to make that possible.
Consider the parable of the Prodigal Son. The father throws a big party and welcomes his son home because he “was dead and is alive again; he was lost and is found” (Luke 15:24), but this was only possible because he had “come to his senses” (v17) and acknowledged that he had “sinned against heaven and against you.” (v21).
Jesus tells this parable as a judgment against the Pharisees who were muttering, “This man welcomes sinners and eats with them.” (v2), but he explains that repentance is the reason why he does this. Twice in this chapter he says: “I tell you that in the same way there will be more rejoicing in heaven over one sinner who repents than over ninety-nine righteous persons who do not need to repent.” (v7 & 10).
Repentance is a condition of forgiveness and reconciliation with God. And it is a good and loving thing to call people to, because sin is a killer. It kills our relationship with God and in the end, it kills us. Repentance is the path back to the loving arms of the Father who wants to celebrate our return home.
My encouragement to you is, don’t be scared of calling people to repent. Jesus wasn’t. And don’t limit your call to just the rich and the powerful. To do that is to not love to poor and the powerless, who are just as much in need of the gospel of forgiveness and mercy.
Sorry, this was a bit long! But I thought it was a good and important topic to address properly.