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Jesus, friend of sinners?

March 25, 2014

For the last week or so I’ve been following a rip-roaring debate among  Christians on the internet.  It was started when Joe Carter of The Gospel Coalition questioned whether Jesus was really a friend of sinners in his article Since Jesus Ate With Sinners, Do I Have To Eat At The Strip Club’s Buffet?.   I urge you to read the full article and not just take my word for it but it seems to me that he is saying that the answer is “no” and that the people Jesus met were really disciples or, at the very least, seekers.  The implication is that Jesus wanted nothing to do with unrepentant sinners.

This prompted a rebuttal from Johnathan Merritt, which in turn prompted a rebuttal of the rebuttal from Carter.  Along the way a number of other Christians chimed in with articles, blogs and rants too numerous to link to.  My wife and I talked about it last night and about whether I should be the 797th (or whatever) Christian to comment and we decided that there seemed to be little point to add my voice to the shouting.

What strikes me however is that the original question is essentially a rehash of the old 1990’s youth ministry slogan “What Would Jesus Do?”  I remember thinking at the time that the question was somewhat ridiculous.  Not only was it arrogant to think that I could actually know from reading the Gospels what Jesus would do in a complex social setting 20 centuries later but it always struck me that this was nothing more than a Christianized version of “Always do the right thing.”  Frankly, a number of times when I heard people ask it I felt they were already in a situation that Jesus would never have gotten into.

But if that is not the right question to ask as we face unrepentant sinners (And OK, I really can’t see myself at a strip club buffet either.) what is it?  It may be a question that keeps us from acting like Jesus.  I am all for studying the life of Jesus; all for knowing how he acted so that we can imitate him.  But we simply cannot know with any certainty exactly how he would react to some of the things we face every day in this century.  When we ask the Bible, let along just the life of Jesus, to be an exact teaching tool for how we can imitate him in specific situations today we will surely end up in the kind of distracting arguments Carter’s post set off.

Here are the principles I take from the life of Jesus:

–          Yes, Jesus befriended sinners.  Trying to decide whether Jesus would do any particular thing in today’s society is futile.  But if I am to imitate him I too need to befriend sinners.  Exactly what boundaries and terms I set on that friendship are individual and flexible and can vary from person to person.  Sitting at a bar having a beer with one may be fine for me but wrong for a recovering alcoholic.

–          Befriending sinners led the religious folks of the day to judge Jesus and disapprove of what he was doing.  I don’t want to let the disapproval of other believers to be my guide.  In fact, if Jesus is the model here I can almost expect it; can almost worry that if it isn’t coming then something is wrong.

–          Befriending sinners can only be done if you truly love them.  Jesus, in an amazing variety of ways, met with sinners where they were.  But he didn’t just meet them; didn’t just try to rescue them from something bad.  He beckoned them to something infinitely better; to the beautiful Kingdom of Heaven.  Only love can communicate that message.

I’ve decided to not only not worry about specific “rules” for befriending sinners but also to heartily distrust people who try and set them.



From → Christianity

One Comment
  1. “It is not the healthy who need a doctor, but the sick” Matt 9:12

    For context: Matt 9:10-12

    ‘Nuff said.

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