Christians have their clichés and phrases. Usually there’s some truth buried in the statement, but by the time a phrase becomes a cliché, it has lost its genuine meaning and is usually used incorrectly. Take for instance “inviting Jesus into your heart,” “Feeling led,” “When God closes a door, he always opens a window,” “Let’s say grace,” or the ever popular, but highly inaccurate “God won’t give you more than you can handle.”
There’s a particular Christian cliché I struggle with: “Jesus is a friend of sinners.” I’m not convinced Jesus really was a friend of sinners. So I want to take a look at Jesus, at friendship, and ask the question “Is Jesus a friend of sinners?” And the follow-up “Should I be a friend of sinners?”
Aren’t we all sinners?
Before we go any further, I have to concede that in the most basic definition, yes, Jesus was a friend of “sinners,” since we’re all sinners. Jesus was the only sinless human being to ever live, his only human friends are, by definition, sinners. However, we can look at this a little differently and say, any sinner who has been redeemed by Christ, has had their sins forgiven and removed. So, perhaps we could clarify the question a little: Is Jesus a friend of unrepentant sinners?
Doesn’t the Bible say Jesus is a friend of sinners?
Yes, “a friend of tax collectors and sinners” is in the Bible, but let’s look at the complete verse.
Luke 7:34 “The Son of Man came eating and drinking, and you say, ‘Here is a glutton and a drunkard, a friend of tax collectors and sinners.’” The accusation comes from the Pharisees along with calling Jesus a glutton and a drunkard. I would say this verse proves that Jesus is a friend of sinners about as much as it proves he is a drunkard and a glutton. Also, take a look at how the Pharisees use the word “sinner,” basically, anyone who wasn’t as religious as they were. If we classify a redeemed sinner as a follower of Jesus and someone who desires to please God, then the Pharisees’ accusation is plain wrong. The “sinners” that Jesus was spending his time with were the ones who were listening to and obeying him. In fact, in the same chapter in Luke we read “All the people, even the tax collectors, when they heard Jesus’ words, acknowledged that God’s way was right, because they had been baptized by John. But the Pharisees and the experts in the law rejected God’s purpose for themselves, because they had not been baptized by John.”
The Pharisees’ accusation came because Jesus did tend to spend a lot of time with the tax collectors and “sinners.” The Pharisees used the label sinner for anyone who didn’t fit their criteria of who a follower of God should be. Is a tax collector a sinner? Well, in a culture where national and religious identity are closely tied, any deviation from good citizenship would be considered sinful. The tax collectors were cooperating with the Roman government and were viewed as traitors to their country (the nation of Israel) and consequently traitors to God. Jesus enters this culture and turns the way we view power upside down. “Blessed are the meek…If anyone slaps you on the right cheek, turn to him the other cheek also…if anyone forces you to go one mile, go with them two miles” (Matthew 5:5, 39, 41). Jesus’ message was that serving God wasn’t about grabbing power, it was about giving up power. So when Jesus “hangs out” with tax collectors and so-called sinners, perhaps the message isn’t that he is a friend of sinners, but that he is challenging the old definition of what a sinner is.
My command is this: Love each other as I have loved you. Greater love has no one than this: to lay down one’s life for one’s friends. You are my friends if you do what I command. I no longer call you servants, because a servant does not know his master’s business. Instead, I have called you friends, for everything that I learned from my Father I have made known to you.
Jesus was speaking to his disciples, the ones who had followed him, watched him, listened to him, got confused and asked silly questions of him, lived with him, exasperated him, and supported him even when they didn’t understand him. These are the people Jesus calls his friends.
Were they sinners? I suppose. They certainly weren’t perfect. Soon after this conversation, they would all abandon him in his hour of need. They still hadn’t figured out who he was or why he had come to earth, as we can tell from observing their shock and confusion in reaction to his death and resurrection. But they did love him.
If Jesus was a friend of sinners, we’re not talking the random sinner-on-the-street kind. They were the sinners that he did life with, lived in community with. Friendship was an intimate relationship for Jesus. He elevates them to the level of his mother and brothers (Matthew 12:49). We’re often told that blood is thicker than water, but a friendship with Jesus is even more intimate than a sibling relationship, and more powerful than a parent-child bond.
We can say that Jesus loves sinners, that he is friendly to sinners, but when we talk about who he is a friend of, that’s doesn’t include everyone. Jesus is a friend of his followers.
Should you be a friend of sinners?
The kind of intimate friendship that Jesus was talking about with his disciples is very powerful. God designed us to live in community and friendships are one way we live that out in the body of Christ. A friend who is a fellow believer is someone who will encourage spiritual growth, remind you of the promises of God and the character of God. Also, a friend who shares who shares your faith can connect with you on a deeper level than a friend who shares something less significant in your life such as a passion for art or sports.
Whether or not you choose to limit your close friends to people who share your faith is a personal choice. Personally, I’ve never had a close friend who wasn’t a Christian, but I don’t think that everyone has to have that standard. Whatever you decide about this, remember that friendships are an important part of life, and they are powerful.
What do you think? Do you have any close friends who don’t share your faith?