By: Hedwig Lewis SJ
“Friend of sinners” strikes one as a captivating caption to any portrait of Jesus Christ. The irony is that this phrase which appears twice in the gospels (Luke 7:34; Matthew 11:19) was not a compliment but a caricature of Jesus sketched by his opponents, the Scribe and Pharisees, to ridicule Jesus’ frequent association with people they deemed to be undeserving of God’s mercy.
The scribes and Pharisees, interpreters and custodians respectively of the written Law of Moses, considered themselves as the religious elite. They were self-righteous and ostentatious, flaunting the Law as it suited them. They looked down on most others as damned sinners!
Jesus did not refer to himself as a friend of sinners, nor refuted the charge. However, he made no secret of “eating and drinking with prostitutes and tax collectors.” Though they were despised and discriminated against, Jesus approached them with compassion, not with condescension. They were children of his Father, deserving of his unconditional love and acceptance.
“No prophet had gone to them with an attitude of respect, friendship and sympathy. What Jesus did was unheard of. … John the Baptist had denounced sinners. He had reminded them of the punishment that awaited them, and had introduced a major rite of purification and penance to free them from sin. His activity did not scandalize anyone. It was what one expected of a prophet. … Jesus did not threaten them or urge them to undergo a baptism of repentance. He would invite them to sit at table with him, and he invited them to follow him” (José Antonio Pagola).
In Jesus’ time people took hospitality seriously but were guarded with whom they ate. Most cultures had dietary restrictions and taboos; and, in some instances, eating the wrong food could render a person ritually unclean. The Pharisees avoided contact with “sinners” for this very reason.
Jesus’ overpowering love, religious conviction and mission, ruled out all fear of contamination, and made an example of it. “Jesus insisted on eating with everyone. There was no need to be pure. It was not necessary to wash your hands. Disreputable people could share his table, even sinners who lived outside the Covenant. Jesus excluded no one” (Pagola).
When asked point blank “Why do you eat and drink with tax collectors and sinners?” Jesus responds quite simply: “It is not the healthy who need a doctor, but the sick. I have not come to call the righteous, but sinners to repentance.” (Luke 5:30-31). The sinners who joined Jesus for a meal were not the marginalized victims of power imbalance and religious oppression. They were the spiritually sick and he was the doctor. He diagnosed “sin”, indicated its unhealthy consequences, and prescribed repentance. Jesus’ approach was redemptive.
Jesus was not merely friendly; he was a friend to “sinners”. His holiness was contagious, and people experienced inner transformation in his company.
Jesus welcomed “sinners” as they were – broken, hurting, and alienated. He accepted them and healed them; he addressed their pain and restored them; he replaced their feelings of estrangement with peace and reconciliation. He conversed with them, and often used words of t, comfort and encouragement. He offered them the opportunity to accept and experience God’s forgiveness, and the courage to overcome the sin that enslaved them.
In keeping with his constructive, proactive approach to people, Jesus made a paradigm shift from the negative dictum of “love the sinner” to the more humane “love your neighbor”, We must perceive others (sinners included) as equals, all prone to sin as humans, and saints in the making if treated with respect and dignity, and LOVE. Love allows room for God to work in a person’s life.
God created us in His own image (Genesis 1:27). God considers each and all of his children as deserving of His love. God “makes his sun rise on the evil and on the good, and sends rain on the righteous and on the unrighteous” (Mt 5:48). Likewise, though God despises sin, it was because “God so LOVED the world that He sent his son” (John 3:16) to befriend us and lead us to God.
When we label people as “sinners” we intentionally alienate “them” from “us” – the wrong-doer against the righteous, as it were. Consciously or unconsciously we operate from a mindset which divides humanity into sinners and non-sinners.
Jesus cut off all negatives with his dictum “Love your neighbor.” Simply Love. No conditions. No disclaimers about what to do if your neighbor happens to be a “sinner”.
Instead of judging the negative behavior of others, finding fault or justification, Jesus challenges his followers to take the positive approach of seeing in them a ‘neighbor’ who needs their unconditional service at any given time.
The teachings and interactions of Jesus make it evident that his focus is on LOVE. “Love covers a multitude of sins” (1 Peter 4:8), “for love is of God” (1 John 4:7).
Where do you find yourself today? Among the admirers of Jesus living out his message, or among the self-righteous ready to cast aspersions on those you deem as sinners? It is important to know.
(Fr Hedwig Lewis, a Jesuit priest, is a former college professor and principal. He is an author of international repute, with over 40 psycho-spiritual and professional books to his credit, including the bestsellers At Home With God and Body Language: A Guide for Professionals. His books have fetched good reviews in many Church newspapers and periodicals. He resides in Ahmedabad, India. His website: http://joygift.tripod.com and email: firstname.lastname@example.org)