“How many prostitutes do you know?” I once sat with a theologian who recommended asking that question to gauge a pastoral candidate’s qualification for ministry. Our conversation took place shortly before my ordination exam. Of all the questions I’d anticipated, this wasn’t one of them. He didn’t mean, “Have you ever visited a prostitute?” He meant, “Are sinners drawn to you like they were drawn to Jesus?” His point was that if we’re going to ordain men to represent Jesus as ministers of the word, they should know and love sinners as Jesus did.
Grumbling Against God
Nothing seemed to frustrate the priests in Jesus’s day more than his interest in sinners. When Jesus called the tax collector Levi to himself, the Scribes and the Pharisees “grumbled at his disciples, saying, ‘Why do you eat and drink with tax collectors and sinners?’” (Luke 5:30). Two chapters later when Jesus was dining in the home of a certain Pharisee, an unscrupulous woman came and wept at his feet, kissing them and anointing them with ointment. Scandalized, the host murmured to himself, “If this man were a prophet, he would have known who and what sort of a woman this is who is touching him, for she is a sinner” (Luke 7:39). Right before Jesus gave the parables of the lost sheep, coin, and son, the same crowd grumbled again, saying, “This man receives sinners and eats with them!” (Luke 15:1-2). Then, in Luke 19, when Jesus invited himself over to the house of Zacchaeus (another tax collector), the crowd that saw grumbled, “He has gone in to be the guest of a man who is a sinner” (Luke 19:7).
The word that’s repeated in those stories is grumbled. It takes us back to Exodus 15-17, where the Israelites grumbled against Moses and questioned God’s provision. In that Old Testament setting, the root of their murmuring was a sense of injustice. The LORD had brought his people out of Egypt, promised to take care of them, but then allowed them to experience suffering in the wilderness. Their response to the trial exposed an alarming belief among the Israelites: They thought they deserved better from God. The attitude of the scribes and Pharisees in Luke’s Gospel isn’t dissimilar. If Jesus was such a mighty prophet (as the multitudes were whispering), surely he’d be giving his time and attention to them, and not to prostitutes. In their eyes, Jesus’s nearness to sinners disbarred him from being a true religious teacher.
Some Christian circles assume that if a pastor or church is drawing in sinners, they must be compromising the message of the Bible. Maybe they’re seeker-sensitive, watering down the more offensive doctrines of Christianity. On the flip side, pastors who have a reputation for castigating sinners, faithfully exposing the sins of society, must be doing something right. But the truth is, neither approach captures the complexity of Christ’s gospel ministry. Jesus had the ability to attract notorious sinners with the offer of grace without ever compromising truth. It wasn’t the outwardly sinful who were typically put off by Jesus, but the sanctimonious! Ministries that repel sinners through so-called boldness can be just as unfaithful as those that attract them through compromise.
The Pharisees treated sinners like a plague to be avoided. They were oblivious to the fact that they were already terminally ill with self-righteousness. Jesus, on the other hand, was sinless, even as he embraced sinners. While the Pharisees wasted their time grumbling about prostitutes from a distance, Jesus drew near to them like a physician to the sick.
Are You a Friend of Sinners?
Do your words convey compassion or contempt for sinners—grace or grumbling? If it’s the latter, perhaps—like the Pharisees—you’ve forgotten about (or simply failed to grasp) the compassion of Jesus towards you as a sinner. The Pharisees couldn’t give grace because they’d never experienced it for themselves.
How can we begin to love sinners as Jesus did? Such a feat is impossible. Jesus was sinless in his love; ours is seriously lacking. We aren’t new incarnations of Jesus on earth, pointing sinners to ourselves by acts of charity. We’re people who have been changed by his incarnation, sacrifice, and resurrection.
The love of Christ for us as sinners is what opens the doors of compassion. Aware of our own sinful proclivities, we can begin to view others with hope. We remember that the believer is simul justus et peccator, a phrase that means simultaneously justified and sinner. While we might be cleansed sinners, the ultimate cure is coming in glory. Until then, we continue to sin daily in thought, word, and deed, yet the good physician still dines with us each time the church gathers to partake of holy communion. Our ability to love sinners is rooted in our grasp of God’s love for us as sinners. As you experience the loving-kindness of Jesus in your own life, may it fill you with compassion for those who have yet to embrace it.