Jonathan Parnell Jesus was accused of being a friend of sinners. That was the word on the street in first-century Palestine.
The precise phrase — “friend of sinners” — is mentioned twice in the Gospels, in Matthew 11:19 and Luke 7:34. The naysayers of the day, the religious aristocracy, criticized Jesus as a “glutton and a drunkard, a friend of tax collectors and sinners.”
They called him this because it was true. He was a friend of sinners. Jesus himself said that he didn’t come for the spiritually healthy, but for the sick. “I have not come to call the righteous but sinners to repentance” (Luke 5:31–32).
Just like he greeted children that others thought were a nuisance, he welcomed sinners that others didn’t (Matthew 19:14; Luke 7:37–39). He looked at them, as Mark says he did with the rich young man, and he loved them (Mark 10:21). He had compassion on them. And most glorious of all, he wielded his authority to speak those wondrous words, “Your sins are forgiven” (Luke 7:48).
This is all very important for us because, as some have noted recently, we Christians pattern our lives after Jesus’s example. He has, after all, sent us into the world in the same Spirit of his own mission (John 20:21–22).
If Jesus was a friend of sinners, we should be too, it seems — somehow, someway. And instantly, this discussion can drift into a much bigger one about Christians and culture and all that. But instead of going there, let’s just talk friendship for a minute. Friendship, which is not without its implications, is more practical and relevant than a primer on the church’s posture in society. So in that light, here are three tips on being a friend of sinners.
1. Be okay with marginal.
In the example of Jesus, we need to be all right with marginal all the way around. Be okay with associating with the marginal, the poor, the destitute — those often overlooked in society (Luke 7:22). Go there. Be with this people. Serve them. Learn from them. And be okay with being thought marginal yourself (Matthew 19:6–9), or non-progressive or backwater or against sexual modernity — whatever they are saying these days about the Christian conscience. The truth is that many of our neighbors, especially in urban contexts, will think we’re weird. Or stupid. Or close-minded. Or judgmental. Or just simply out of touch with the new post-Christian world.
Popular opinion will continue to cast Christian ethics as outdated and antithetical to the development of the American self. We’ll often find ourselves, in the coffee shop, on the light-rail, at the theater, to be the only ones there who don’t think same-sex “marriage” is the coolest thing since sliced bread. The number of those who share our convictions, or are open to listening, may continue to dwindle. And, really, this is fine. It’s okay. Our calling doesn’t live or die by societal acceptance.