Jesus Christ has been one of the most influential and controversial figures in history. Embodying a message of radical love and a system of values antithetical to that of his day, Jesus’ teachings were contentious and unpalatable in a world where legalistic obedience and worthiness were inextricably linked. The church, as conceived after the conclusion of Jesus’ ministry, was intended to be the extension and manifestation of Jesus’ message of divine reconciliation here on earth. Historically, however, the church has been a source of division and derision, often creating a dichotomy of us-versus-them between believers and non-believers. This separation between the ecclesiastical and secular flies in the face of the message of the Gospel. Looking closely at the life and teachings of Jesus, we see that isolating oneself from those who are perceived to be “unclean” is completely contrary to the Gospel. Jesus Christ, rightly understood, has always been the defender of the downtrodden, the champion of the disinherited, and a friend of sinners.
Jesus among Sinners The society that Jesus lived in was heavily stratified, with religious scholars and rabbis inhabiting the top tiers of social status while women, tax collectors, prostitutes, and sick people all fell towards the bottom of the social hierarchy. In many ways, the Pharisees and other religious leaders embodied a literal holier-than-thou mentality, effectively ostracizing those who did not adhere to their strict legalist interpretation of Scripture. Invalids and beggars were seen as unclean, prostitutes were publicly shamed for their promiscuity, and tax collectors were despised for collecting money for the oppressive Roman government. Jesus, being the embodiment of the perfect laws of scripture, would have the most reason of anyone to dissociate himself from the sinful pariahs. And yet, he does the exact opposite. In the Gospel of Matthew, we see Jesus call Matthew, who is a tax collector, to follow after him. He goes on, to the outrage of the Pharisees, to eat dinner at Matthew’s house among “many tax collectors and sinners” (Matthew 9:10). When travelling between towns, Jesus and the disciples were accompanied by women who had been cured of evil spirits, despite the fact that anyone else would have turned these women away or kept them at a distance (Luke 8:2). When a prostitute heard that Jesus would be at a Pharisee’s house, she knelt at Jesus’ feet and began washing his feet with her tears and her hair. Whereas the Pharisee was appalled by this, Jesus blessed her and forgave her of her sins (Luke 7:36-50).
“Unlike the religious authorities of the day, Jesus was concerned not with outer displays of religiosity, but with the internal state of the heart.”
Compassion, not Condemnation From a pragmatic point of view, it is difficult to understand why Jesus chose to associate himself with such derelict individuals, knowing that such association could potentially tarnish his reputation and have negative implications for his credibility. Indeed, he was not unaware of the epithets people had been saying about him, that he was “a glutton, a drunkard, a friend of tax collectors and sinners” (Matthew 11:19). Why, then, was Jesus willing to risk being thought of this way? Jesus addresses this concern unequivocally: “It is not the healthy who need a doctor, but the sick…for I have not come to call the righteous, but sinners…” (Matthew 9:12-13). Unlike the religious authorities of the day, Jesus was concerned not with outer displays of religiosity, but with the internal state of the heart. Jesus did not try to distance himself from sinners because the centerpiece of his ministry was compassion.
Jesus understood that the depravity of the human heart was ubiquitous, and that all were—and still are—in need of redemption. The way to reconciliation with God is through the transformation of the heart, but before there can be transformation of the heart, there must be unconditional compassion and acceptance. The book of Romans tells us that all have sinned and fallen short of the glory of God, and that there is nothing we can do to earn grace or eternal life (Romans 3:23, 11:6). As a result, we are all deserving of the penalty of sin—an eternity of separation from God. The beauty of the Gospel is that Jesus did not come to condemn the world but to redeem it (John 3:17).
Acceptance is not Approval However, it is necessary that there be distinction between acceptance and approval, as well as the understanding that one does not necessarily connote the other. Jesus did not, and neither must we, compromise truth for the sake of affability. Jesus’ relationship with sinners is characterized, the apostle John writes, as one “full of grace and truth” (John 1:14). Truth without grace is legalism and grace without truth is sentimentality. Neither is attractive without the other, and one without the other is not an accurate representation of the gospel message. In extending grace and forgiveness to sinners, Jesus does not trivialize the gravity of sin, nor is he compromising the principles of scripture in order to assuage the transgressor. Acting out of both grace and truth, Jesus not only says “you are forgiven,” but takes it a step further and commands that we “go and sin no more” (John 8:11).
The application of Jesus’ message not only allows but even requires that relationships exist between Him and sinners. It would be the ultimate act of spite to be convicted of truth and not share that truth with others. That compassion to befriend the outcast springs out of this desire for others to know the truth. It is why, when a single sheep is separated from the flock in Jesus’ parable, the shepherd leaves the ninety-nine in the open to go search for the lost sheep (Luke 15:1-7). The time spent searching for the sheep, or in community with tax collectors and sinners, does not serve to justify the actions of the lost, but rather is an effort to rectify the issue of their sin and restore relationship between them and God.
Changing the Church In a regrettable twist of irony, the Church today has come frequently to resemble the Pharisees more than it resembles Jesus. For non-believers, the biggest barrier to entry into Christianity is often the Church itself. “I like your Christ, I do not like your Christians; your Christians are so unlike your Christ,” said Ghandi famously, a sentiment expressed by disillusioned seekers and on bumper stickers alike.
Entrenched in self-righteous dogma, Christians have lost sight of what it means to be Christ’s ambassadors. In a world where so much negativity and division already exists, that the church should be anything other than a beacon of God’s loving grace and redemption is unthinkable. If the church is to reflect Jesus, it is imperative that they extend compassion and acceptance to those whom the Church has historically ostracized and alienated. As believers, it is our responsibility to bring this message of reconciliation to those who need to hear it.
Let us, therefore, look past the differences that divide us and find instead unite in our need for salvation. Let us not forget who the Church is called to represent. Let us be mindful of the beams in our own eyes before calling attention to the speck in the eyes of others. Let us cast aside our pride and self-righteousness so that we may instead be humbled by the outpour of grace in our lives. Above all, let us never lose sight of what it means to embody the fullness of the gospel of redemption: to live full of compassion and truth, and to be a friend of sinners.
Article written by Nicholas Dacosta, DC ’18