Jesus the friend of sinners

Jesus was well known (but not always well-regarded) as a friend of sinners.1

We rightly rejoice in the friendship that Jesus extends – when we see ourselves as the sinners whom he befriends. But the red flags come out when we hear about Christians today who choose to pursue close associations with known sinners. Many church-goers shy away from this sort of thing. We worry about the corrupting influence that friendship with sinners would bring into our lives. We worry about what other Christians would think and say about us if we were to keep company with these sorts of people. Many of us dismiss even the possibility of striking up a friendship with an unbelieving and unrepentant person. We justify ourselves insisting that the sinners of the world would not be interested in our friendship.

Now that we are onto the topic, let’s consider the question: What did Jesus’ friendship with sinners look like?

It was no secret that Jesus kept company with large numbers of people who were known to their communities as sinners. This strange custom of his was gossiped about widely. Three of the four gospels record Jesus’ jealous rivals challenging his disciples about this, saying, “Why does your teacher eat with tax collectors and sinners?”2

For more than three years, Jesus traveled Judea as an itinerant preacher. He went about from town-to-town, from meal-to-meal, and from house-to-house surrendering himself fully to the hospitality of strangers. Those strangers who invited him in became his friends. In Jesus’ culture, sitting down with someone inside their home and sharing a meal, was the primary means of solidifying the bond of friendship. We don’t have a complete record of all of the tax collectors and sinners whom Jesus befriends, but we do know about some of them. Here are a few examples…

On one occasion Jesus flags down the most-notorious sinner he can find, shouting out to him: “Hurry and come down! For I must stay at your house today!” Everyone in town saw this, or heard about it, and grumbled against Jesus. Once again, he had chosen to associate with an unworthy sinner. Of all the possible homes to stay in, Jesus gives his time and energy to the chief tax collector – the patently corrupt businessmen, whom we know as Zacchaeus.3

On a separate occasion, Jesus spends an afternoon with the town prostitute. This woman is startled that Jesus would have the nerve even to speak with her. But he does. And he does even more than this! He asks for, and accepts, a drink of water from her own jar. (Proper etiquette would never have allowed for this.) After a surprisingly dignifying and intelligent conversation this Samaritan woman gathers everyone who will listen. Together she and the crowd she has gathered petition Jesus to stay with them for a few days. And whose home do you think Jesus was likely to have stayed in for those two days and nights?4

On yet another occasion, Jesus was in the home of a devout Bible teacher – surrounded by many of this man’s fine upstanding friends, when a sinful woman quietly comes into their midst. She comes close enough to Jesus to notice that no one had seen fit to wash the dirt and dust of his travels from his feet. (It was a common custom in the day to do this for any houseguests.) This sinful woman then proceeds to wash Jesus’ dirty feet with her tears, wiping them with her hair. Where did she get the nerve to risk drawing so near to Jesus? What would embolden this woman of ill repute to come in uninvited to the home of a devoutly religious man? Why was she so deeply moved, upon seeing the dishonoured feet of Jesus, that she found herself weeping uncontrollably? It is because this unnamed women knew Jesus to be “a friend of sinners” in the best possible sense.5 Jesus was the friend to her that no one else would dare to be.

One more example will suffice. On yet another occasion, Jesus crosses Lake Galilee to the pagan region of the ten Roman cities. There he finds, perhaps the most sinful sort of person we might imagine. A man who is no longer recognisable as a man. Possessed by a legion of demons, this man is a danger to society. He has repeatedly broken out of prison. He sulks about naked and cutting himself. Upon seeing this man, Jesus refuses to turn a blind eye. He will not turn this most sinful-of-men into an object lesson about the wages of sin. Jesus sees this man too. Jesus loves him. The next thing we know, this dangerous and frightening individual is sitting at the feet of Jesus – the posture of a disciple. He too is scandalously numbered among Jesus’ friends.6

The thing that really confused people, the thing that really upset Jesus’ righteous-minded rivals, was not the fact that he interacted with sinners from time to time; but the bond of friendship that Jesus entered into with them. Jesus extended dignity to sinners. He ate their food. He slept in their homes. He gave them his afternoons and his evenings when he could have given that time to “more deserving” people. With a few short sentences Luke summarises all of this for us: “Now the tax collectors and sinners were all drawing near to hear him. And the Pharisees and the scribes grumbled, saying, ‘This man receives sinners and eats with them.’ ”

Genuine friendship is not based on a particular outcome
Now I will admit that this sounds pretty radical to many church-goers today. Ok, we respond. We see that Jesus did this. But we remain uneasy about engaging in this sort of thing ourselves. It seems awkward. Difficult. Uncomfortable. Compromising. Dangerous, even. But perhaps, we suppose, friendship for the sake of evangelism might be alright. Sinful people do need the Lord.

In saying this, we reveal an unspoken assumption that many Christians today have made. Many Christians have determined that friendship with unbelieving and unrepentant sinners – just for friendship’s sake, is morally wrong. The only justification, in this view, for opening the doors of our hearts to sinners is to share the gospel with them. Now, if this is your view, I ask you to please reconsider. Jesus befriended sinners apart from this criteria. True, he wanted to save them. But he does not befriend them in order to secure a decision from them.

A friendship for the sake of evangelism is really no friendship at all. All Christians should eagerly desire to share the good news of grace, forgiveness, and redemption, of peace, hope, and joy with anyone who has not heard – with everyone who has not yet accepted it. However, the prospect of making a transaction, even a gospel-transaction, is a poor basis for friendship. This sounds and smells much more like the thought process of a predatory salesperson than it does the heartbeat of a former-sinner transformed by the grace and kindness of Jesus.

Let’s look again to the founder and perfecter of our faith. This time we ask the question: What were Jesus’ intentions as he befriended sinners? What was his goal? Did he befriend them in order to convert them? What motivation did he have in his heart?

We can’t read Jesus’ thoughts, but we can read his words. (And there is no hypocrisy in Jesus’ words. What he preaches, he practices.) He sends his disciples to be in the world as he is in the world, saying to them: “Whatever house you enter, first say, ‘Peace be to this house!’ And if a son of peace is there, your peace will rest upon him. But if not, it will return to you. And remain in the same house, eating and drinking what they provide… Do not go from house to house. Whenever you enter a town and they receive you, eat what is set before you. ” 8 Our friends are to be the ones we meet along the road – without making use of a checklist of social or moral qualities. The goal appears to be friendship purely for friendship’s sake – without attempting to predetermine an outcome.

If we are going to be selective about whom to befriend, Jesus’ specifically challenges us not to choose friends who are like us. We are not to choose friends who are likely to repay us in kind. “If you love those who love you, what benefit is that to you? For even sinners love those who love them. And if you do good to those who do good to you, what benefit is that to you? For even sinners do the same. ” 9

When challenged directly about his remarkably lax standards for choosing friends, Jesus gave the answer: “Those who are well have no need of a physician, but those who are sick. I came not to call the righteous, but sinners. ”10 Jesus insists upon choosing unsavoury friends – not the righteous, but sinners.

When it comes to this aspect of how Jesus lived – knowingly and intentionally seeking out the worst of sinners and befriending them, we are often unsure about how to proceed. Yet this principle that I am describing is central to Christian discipleship. We must learn to be in the world as Jesus was in the world. Peter teaches us to follow in the footsteps of Christ.11 John tells us plainly: “whoever says he abides in [Christ] ought to walk in the same way in which [Jesus] walked”. 12 Paul echoes the same when he writes, “Be imitators of me, as I am of Christ.”13

For many of us, this concept leaves our heads spinning. Are we really meant to follow after Jesus’ example in our own personal relationships? I want you, dear reader, to wrestle with this question: Am I really called to become a friend of sinners? The answer is: Yes!

How can we know for sure that Jesus’ genuinely loved the people he befriended? – that he is not using friendship as a means of gaining more converts? How can we be certain that he is not manipulating, coercing, sales-pitching, bait-and switching, or gimmicking them into the kingdom?

Consider Jesus’ friendship with Judas Iscariot. Jesus chose twelve friends to share his every waking moment with for the months and years of his preaching ministry. These became his closest friends and Judas Iscariot was one of them. Even when it is revealed to Jesus that Judas ultimately will not answer the call to repentance and faith… Even when it becomes known to Jesus that Judas will betray him into the hands of murderers… Jesus does not terminate this friendship. On the same night that things will later go so horribly wrong, Jesus shares an intimate meal with Judas confirming his friendship with him – eating from the same dish with Judas as his friend.14

Jesus refused to hollow out and cheapen his friendships. They were decidedly not a means of gaining converts. Jesus truly befriended terribly corrupt and sinful people! He did this regardless of whether or not they would join his cause. He befriended people in the world, even the most sinful and unsavoury, simply because it was the good and right thing to do.

Loving our neighbour implies friendship as well
In the perfection of the Garden of Eden, before there was any sin in the world, God had made the ruling: “It is not good for the man to be alone.”15 It was true then. It is still true today. Jesus teaches us with his actions, and also with his words, to do something about it.

In perhaps his most famous parable, Jesus tells a story about a man who is robbed, beaten, and left for dead by the side of the road. We know little else about him, other than the fact that he is alone – dangerously alone. Jesus teaches us that the good and right thing to do is to be a friend to anyone who has a need – who is alone. The ones in this story who are too hurried, too pretentious, too prim-and-proper, too high-and mighty to be bothered with befriending such an obvious sinner, pass on by. They fall short of both the Law of God and the path of discipleship that Jesus calls us to.

In this famous tale of love for neighbour it is an irreligious Samaritan who is the hero. Think about this. The Samaritan is the one person who knows with absolute certainty that his way of life is not only different, but entirely at odds with the Jewish man left alone on the side of the road. But this Samaritan is determined not to be selective about whom he befriends. The Samaritan (who would have been despised by Jesus’ original audience) is the hero of the tale. He is the one whom we are called to imitate, precisely for this reason. He does not look for people who are just like himself to give his time, attention, and care to. He has developed eyes to see sinful people in the world – people who are alone on the road of life and in need of a friend.

But many will respond: Doesn’t it make more sense to stick to the safety, comfort, and community of our fellow church-goers? And especially when it comes to our friendships?

A warning is not a prohibition
For many who will read this article, the words of Jesus’ brother James have already come to mind: “Do you not know that friendship with the world is enmity with God? Therefore whoever wishes to be a friend of the world makes himself an enemy of God”.16

Jesus, the friend of sinners, calls us to his way of life. His brother James, calls us to renounce friendship with the world. The two brothers appear to disagree! These two principles appear to be working in opposite directions! But, in fact, they do agree. As we all know, relationships are complicated, messy, and at times extremely difficult. Together these two principles provide us with exactly the sort of balanced tension that we need.

Let me explain. Jesus is talking about friendship with the people in the world. James is talking about friendship with the principles of the world. According to Jesus, we are to honour, pursue, and embrace people in the world – no matter how sinful they might be. If we would be faithful to Christ and his way of life, we must befriend sinners. At the same time, according to James, we are to resist, reject, and refute the principles of the world – no matter how enticing they might appear to be. If we would be faithful to God as his holy ones in the world, we must reject the ways of the world. This balanced tension is what Jesus has in mind when he prays that we might be “in the world but not of the world”. 17 We must find a way to love the people in the world; while, at the same time, resisting whatever principles of the world our sinful friends have embraced.

This is hard work indeed! We can only succeed in it to the extent that we are walking with our truest friend Jesus – learning from him how to be in the world in his way, and not in our own.

Are you ready to follow Jesus – to become a friend of sinners? Here are a few suggestions:

1. Don’t fill all of your time with churchgoing activities. If your church-going activities are taking up too much of your time and availability, consider speaking to one your elders about pulling back a bit. Relationships take up massive amounts of time and space. You need to make yourself available. How can you be a friend to sinners if you never come into contact with them? – if you never have time for them? If you do give up a church-going activity, be sure not to re-allocate the time that you formerly devoted to God to yourself. Be disciplined about giving that time to the people who need your friendship.

2. Don’t isolate yourself from fellow followers of Jesus. We must be ever-vigilant – watching out for the appealing, but poisonous, principles of the world. In our efforts to befriend sinners we need the mutual support and encouragement of fellow believers. Aware of this danger, Jesus always sent his disciples out in pairs. Christians are to gather often for the purposes of strengthening and encouraging one another in this way of life. If all of your friendships are with sinners, you are walking a dangerous road that Jesus does not want you to be on.

3. Look for ways to improve your friendship skills. Many people today are simply not very good at friendship. We have lots of acquaintances, but very few friends. The Bible speaks about the complexities of friendship in many places (including several well-known proverbs). We can learn from these and from one another. But above all else, know this: A healthy friendship will build you up and draw you closer to God. Sometimes this happens because your friend knows and loves the Lord. Sometimes this happens because you desperately want your friend to know and love the Lord. Work hard at keeping your friendships healthy. Work hard on improving in the art and skill of befriending people both in the church and in the world.

Finally, remember what Jesus, the friend of sinners, has told us: They will know we are Christians by our love. 18 Love – in this case, friendship with sinners no-strings-attached, brings glory to God and honour to Christ regardless of whether our friends choose to follow him or not. May the Lord bless you in all of your friendships!

1 See Matthew 11:19 and Luke 7:34, which both quote Jesus as he references the slander of his enemies.
2 Matthew 9:11; Mark 2:16; and Luke 5:30
3 See Luke 19:1-10
4 See John 4:1-30 and 39-43
5 Luke 7:36-50
6 Luke 8:26-30 and Mark 5:1-20
7 Luke 15:1-2
8 Luke 10:5-8
9 Luke 6:32-33
10 Mark 2:17 (see also Luke 5:32)
11 1 Peter 2:21
12 1 John 2:6
13 1 Corinthians 11:1
14 See Matthew 26:20-25
15 Genesis 2:18
16 James 4:4
17 See Jesus’ lengthy prayer recorded in John 17; especially verse 15.
18 These are the words to a song of the same name based on John 13:35.