When I was growing up Christians didn’t hang out with sinners.
“Sinners” hung out at bars and Christians avoided them – bars and sinners both – so as to not “spoil our testimony for the Lord”. After all, “one drop of muddy water ruins the whole glass.” It was of utmost importance to “avoid all appearance of evil.”
These days, it’s become quite trendy to be a friend of sinners. Progressive young Christians with our freedom in Christ love talking about how Jesus was more comfortable hanging out with sinners – drunkards and prostitutes and tax collectors – than with the religious people. And we should all be like Jesus, a friend of sinners.
At first glance, this sounds like a great plan. Rather than being judgmental and excluding sinners, we’ll befriend them! Not only does it sound loving, but it also means we get to hang out at bars and movie theaters. Everybody wins!
But I worry about this sometimes.
I worry that saying “Be like Jesus! Hang out with sinners!” actually ostracizes the very ones we’re claiming to love. It slaps a label on their forehead, casts them in a supporting role in our grand narrative of open-mindedness
Sometimes I think we feel good about ourselves because we hang out with “sinners” like Jesus did; but we’re elevating ourselves above them. Pointing a finger at them. Defining them by their failures.
(Even using the word “them” just now makes me cringe a little bit, as if I’m somehow different.)
Jesus didn’t do that. It was the disapproving religious folks who said Jesus was a friend of sinners:
“If this man were a prophet, he would know what kind of woman is touching him. She’s a sinner!”
“Here is a glutton and a drunkard, a friend of tax collectors and sinners.”
“In the Law Moses commanded us to stone such women. Now what do you say?”
“Why does he eat with tax collectors and sinners?”
“He has gone to be the guest of a sinner.”
Do you see? They were insulting Jesus by lumping him with “dirty people”. Pointing fingers at “sinners”. Labeling them by their worst moments.
Jesus didn’t do that. While He didn’t deny the destructive reality of the sin that infects humanity, He saw people as children of God – created in His image.
To the woman caught in adultery, Jesus says, “Go and sin no more”. He set her free from the scarlet letter.
To Zacchaeus, Jesus says, “You’re a son of Abraham. You’re part of the family. You’re welcome. You belong at my table. I belong at yours.”
To the woman with a past and a jar of perfume, Jesus says, “Your sins are forgiven. Your faith has saved you. Go in peace.”
When Jesus entered the conversation, He rejected the narrative that defined others as “sinners”.
When people pointed fingers and said “Don’t you know she’s a sinner?” Jesus said, “Don’t you know she’s forgiven? ”
By saying “Your sins are forgiven, go and sin no more”, Jesus affirmed identity deeper than sin. He refused to let “sinner” be the permanent label that defined those He met.
He didn’t call them sinners; He called them friends.
We’re fond of saying phrases like “Love the sinner and hate the sin“, or the slightly more tolerant “Love the sinner and hate your own sin.”
But Jesus didn’t say “Love the sinner.” Instead, He said “Love your neighbor.”
Maybe He knew that we’d have a tendency to create hierarchies of righteousness and pat ourselves on the back for stooping to hang out with those lower than us. Maybe He didn’t want us to forget that we’re all sinners, but even deeper than that we’re all children of God. Maybe that’s why He used the word “neighbor” instead.
So no, don’t be a “friend of sinners”. That’s an phrase coined by the self-righteous to elevate themselves above others. Don’t be a friend of sinners; just be a friend.
No, don’t “be like Jesus who hung out with prostitutes and drunkards and tax collectors”.
Be like Jesus who looked at people that had been defined by their sins and instead saw names and faces and stories and hope.
This post originally appeared on Redemption Pictures.