Very often these days, professing Christians will defend their affirmation of the LBGTQ community, cohabitation, casual use of recreational drugs or other sinful practices by arguing that many friends of Jesus lived in openly sinful lifestyles. They strengthen their case by adding that He reserved His harshest words for members of the religious establishment. Their hope is to shame us into affirming sinful behaviors, implying that Christlike love would never so much as suggest the idea of repentance from desires that feel so natural. Indeed, they demand that we can show Christ’s love only by condoning those desires and their consequent actions.
Their strategy usually works because we know that the Pharisees delighted in calling Jesus out for dining with sinners and tax collectors. We certainly don’t want anyone to equate us with the self-righteous Pharisees! So we hem and haw, trying to find ways to soften our stance (or, more accurately, protect our reputations). After all, our critics rightly say that Jesus hung out with sinners.
So we must agree with them to some degree. But then we must ask them whether or not Jesus actually gave His approval to the sin of the people in His company. If so, He compromised His Father’s righteous standards, giving us license to disregard everything He taught about holiness. If our critics maintain that He really did lend approval to the sin of those at table with Him, we should open our Bibles to Matthew 9 to provide a little context to Jesus’ actions.
10 Then it happened that as Jesus was reclining at the table in the house, behold, many tax collectors and sinners came and were dining with Jesus and His disciples. 11 When the Pharisees saw this, they said to His disciples, “Why is your Teacher eating with the tax collectors and sinners?” 12 But when Jesus heard this, He said, “It is not those who are healthy who need a physician, but those who are sick. 13 But go and learn what this means: ‘I desire compassion, and not sacrifice,’ for I did not come to call the righteous, but sinners.” ~~Matthew 9:10-13 (NASB95)
Jesus’ response clearly indicated that the sinners and tax collectors had something wrong with them — something that needed to be corrected. Ignoring the clause about sick people needing a physician, our critics latch on to His desire for compassion. If we dare to bring their attention back to the analogy of sick people needing someone to cure their ills, they dismiss our reading of the text. They prefer to keep their emphasis on Jesus’ affiliation with those who bore the stigma of undesirable reputations. Therefore, they minimize the remark about the sick and physicians. To them, it’s a minor point. Aren’t we drawing an inference instead of dealing with the passage itself?
That charge would have merit if Matthew had been the only gospel writer to record this incident. In fact, I think it’s good when people challenge our presuppositions by forcing us to look at what the text actually says. While the passage in Matthew 9 certainly implies that Jesus spent time with the tax collectors and sinners because they needed some sort of healing — they needed the care of a Physician Who could correct their spiritual maladies — it never explicitly says anything about Him calling those sinners and tax collectors to repentance.
But Luke recorded the same incident. His account sheds light on Jesus’ purpose in dining with sinners and tax collectors.
29 And Levi gave a big reception for Him in his house; and there was a great crowd of tax collectors and other people who were reclining at the table with them. 30 The Pharisees and their scribes began grumbling at His disciples, saying, “Why do you eat and drink with the tax collectors and sinners?” 31 And Jesus answered and said to them, “It is not those who are well who need a physician, but those who are sick. 32 I have not come to call the righteous but sinners to repentance.” ~~Luke 5:29-32 (NASB95)
Verse 32 makes Jesus’ purpose unmistakable! In Luke’s account, Jesus draws a clear correlation between the analogy of sick people needing medical attention and sinners needing Someone to call them to repentance.
I know the pressure Christians face to condone sinful behaviors these days. So many of us have been told that loving others requires us to overlook their sin. Better yet, we should celebrate it. We live in a time when love may not offer anyone freedom from sin, but instead lulls sinners into believing that their bondage is liberating. We’re told that Jesus hung out with sinners without ever confronting their sin, and that we must follow His fictitious example.
This pressure, however, confirms the importance of knowing what His Word actually says. When we realize that Jesus dined with tax collectors and sinners for the purpose of calling them to repentance, it changes our perspective on our own interactions with unbelievers. Like Jesus, we can befriend them, but not to affirm their sin. Rather, we must pray for opportunities to show them that Jesus died to forgive that sin, sending His Holy Spirit to empower them towards repentance. That is ,why He hung out with sinners, and why we should.