“You know, the Pharisees criticized Jesus for hanging out with sinners, too.”
I’ve heard/read comments to that effect many times. It’s usually trotted out any time one Christian criticizes another for being too involved with the world. It’s used as the Biblical basis for relationship evangelism, “investing in the lives of unbelievers” (whatever that means), seeker-sensitive churches, and generally any level of involvement with unrepentant sinners or ungodly culture.
But how applicable, or even accurate, is this? If we want to imitate Christ, we’d better be sure that we know what He did. If we’re going to ask, “What would Jesus do?” we must first know the answer “What _did_ Jesus do?”.
As I examine the Bible, I find that Jesus did not “hang out” with unrepentant sinners, at least not in the way we usually mean that when we want to do so.
First, I will examine the Pharisees’ accusation that Jesus was “hanging out” with sinners to discover just _what_ Jesus was doing, and _who_ the “sinners” were.
h4. The Calling of Matthew/Levi
Matthew 9:9-13, Mark 2:14-17, and Luke 5:27-32 all tell the same story. Luke’s account is the most complete, so I will relate it:
After that He went out and noticed a tax collector named Levi sitting in the tax booth, and He said to him, “Follow Me.” And he left everything behind, and got up and began to follow Him.
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. The Pharisees and their scribes began grumbling at His disciples, saying, “Why do you eat and drink with the tax collectors and sinners?” And Jesus answered and said to them, “It is not those who are well who need a physician, but those who are sick. “I have not come to call the righteous but sinners to repentance.”
h4. At Simon the Pharisee’s House
Luke 7:36-50 relates the account of a sinful woman who repented and fell at Christ’s feet while He was dining with Simon, the Pharisee. It is unlikely that this is the same account as a similar one found in Matthew 26:6-31, Mark 14:3-9, and John 12:1-8.
Now one of the Pharisees was requesting Him to dine with him, and He entered the Pharisee’s house and reclined at the table. And there was a woman in the city who was a sinner; and when she learned that He was reclining at the table in the Pharisee’s house, she brought an alabaster vial of perfume, and standing behind Him at His feet, weeping, she began to wet His feet with her tears, and kept wiping them with the hair of her head, and kissing His feet and anointing them with the perfume. Now when the Pharisee who had invited Him saw this, he said to himself, “If this man were a prophet He would know who and what sort of person this woman is who is touching Him, that she is a sinner.”
And Jesus answered him, “Simon, I have something to say to you.” And he replied, “Say it, Teacher.”
“A moneylender had two debtors: one owed five hundred denarii, and the other fifty. When they were unable to repay, he graciously forgave them both. So which of them will love him more?”
Simon answered and said, “I suppose the one whom he forgave more.” And He said to him, “You have judged correctly.”
Turning toward the woman, He said to Simon, “Do you see this woman? I entered your house; you gave Me no water for My feet, but she has wet My feet with her tears and wiped them with her hair. You gave Me no kiss; but she, since the time I came in, has not ceased to kiss My feet. You did not anoint My head with oil, but she anointed My feet with perfume. For this reason I say to you, her sins, which are many, have been forgiven, for she loved much; but he who is forgiven little, loves little.”
Then He said to her, “Your sins have been forgiven.”
Those who were reclining at the table with Him began to say to themselves, “Who is this man who even forgives sins?” And He said to the woman, “Your faith has saved you; go in peace.”
h4. Parable of the Lost Sheep, Lost Coin, and Prodigal Son
Luke 15:1-2 serves as the preface to the parables of the lost sheep, the lost coin, and the prodigal son.
Now all the tax collectors and the sinners were coming near Him to listen to Him. Both the Pharisees and the scribes began to grumble, saying, “This man receives sinners and eats with them.”
Luke 19:1-10 tells us the story of Zaccheus’s conversion.
He entered Jericho and was passing through. And there was a man called by the name of Zaccheus; he was a chief tax collector and he was rich. Zaccheus was trying to see who Jesus was, and was unable because of the crowd, for he was small in stature. So he ran on ahead and climbed up into a sycamore tree in order to see Him, for He was about to pass through that way.
When Jesus came to the place, He looked up and said to him, “Zaccheus, hurry and come down, for today I must stay at your house.” And he hurried and came down and received Him gladly.
When they saw it, they all began to grumble, saying, “He has gone to be the guest of a man who is a sinner.”
Zaccheus stopped and said to the Lord, “Behold, Lord, half of my possessions I will give to the poor, and if I have defrauded anyone of anything, I will give back four times as much.” And Jesus said to him, “Today salvation has come to this house, because he, too, is a son of Abraham. For the Son of Man has come to seek and to save that which was lost.”
That’s it. That’s every case I could find where Jesus was criticized for associating with “sinners”.
In _every_ case, the “sinners” Jesus was associating with were either converts or seekers.
* Matthew was a convert. The folks invited to his reception for Jesus were presumably seekers, or at least curious about Jesus.
* The woman at Simon the Pharisee’s house was clearly repentant, and Jesus confirmed her salvation. She is our sister in Christ.
* The people mentioned in Luke 15:1-2 “were coming near Him to listen to Him”. They were seeking Him.
* Zaccheus went to great lengths to seek Jesus, and Jesus confirmed that he’d repented and was saved.
When we use these stories to claim Jesus “hung out” with sinners, we are using the Pharisees’ definition of a sinner! From their self-righteous and legalistic point of view, the tax collectors and all were wicked, vile, without hope. From our Christian point of view, we can see them as Christ did – repentant sinners whose backgrounds in no way disqualified them from being adopted as children of God.
We cannot use the ungodly Pharisees’ definition of a sinner to describe these people. They were either saved, or seekers. It is dishonest to substitute Biblical definition of “sinner” – meaning an unrepentant sinner – for the incorrect definition the Pharisees were using.
When we examine the Biblical account, we find Jesus associating with converts and seekers. We certainly do _not_ see Him “hanging out” in taverns with unrepentant sinners.
While one may be able to build a Biblical case for all sorts of involvment with ungodly people and ungodly things, ostensibly for the purposes of transforming souls and changing the culture, one cannot build such a case out of the Pharisees’ incorrect criticism of Jesus for spending time with those who were seeking Him and those who had already come to Him.