This one’s pretty popular: “Jesus hung out with sinners, so we should too.”
Sometimes they get more specific: “Jesus hung out with tax-collectors and prostitutes, so __________________” in order to justify whatever it is they’re doing. Like hanging out at strip clubs… or going to frat parties… or dating an unbeliever.
You’ve heard it before too, haven’t you?
Well, before we affirm what’s true in the thought and statement, we first need to call out what’s wrong.
It’s Plainly Untrue
Put simple and clear: the statement is untrue. Give me your evidence if you can. I find it interesting that the people who say this most often are people I wouldn’t trust to know that there are four Gospel books, or that the kingdom is Jesus’ chief theme in three of them. But such people certainly know that Jesus hung out with sinners even if they “don’t care about theology, but the practical stuff that’s relevant to my life” like ‘hanging out with sinners.’ The few who are a bit better versed in Scripture point out the feast with Levi in Luke 5 or Jesus’ compassion on Mary Magdalene (who’s never actually said to be a prostitute, by the way).
But in reality Jesus didn’t ‘hang out’ with these people. He hung out with his disciples. He himself personally selected and called 12 men to be his students and friends. One of them was a tax collector, yes. One of them was a political revolutionary, yes. Most of them looked with lust, I’m sure, but Jesus didn’t spend evenings at the Venus’ Brothel, he spent them with his disciples—teaching them on a boat; he spent them with Mary and Martha dining in communion; he spent them in the Judaic Temple asking questions of the teachers; he spent them praying alone on a mountain or in a garden.
When we say “hang out” we mean “spend time with,” and we imply “participate with.” Jesus didn’t follow Levi or Zacchaeus around helping him extort people; and he didn’t talk with the Samaritan woman at the well about how good the sex was with another woman’s husband. Jesus doesn’t and never has delighted in sin. He didn’t hang out with sinners, he called them to repentance. He didn’t come and lay with sick, he came as physician to heal them. As he walked passed Levi’s tax booth, he told him: “Follow me,” not “See you tomorrow, bro, we’re gonna get rich.” As he talked with the adulterous woman caught, he told her “Sin no more.” Jesus called sinners to repentance. Jesus healed the broken. Jesus brought dead to life. And to say anything less is to minimize the love and power and justice of God. Can you imagine Jesus catching up on the latest Kama Sutra buzz in the brothels when he will sit in his judgment throne in the last day and sentence them to second death? How horrendous; what a moral monster God would be!
Hold up: Aren’t we all Sinners?
Yes. It’s true. We are all sinners. And his disciples were sinners too. And he did spend time with his disciples. But if you’ll let me use some philosophy with you: Jesus is the reference point, not the disciples. In other words: the disciples hung out with Jesus, not the other way around. Jesus was the standard to which they were being called and carried along. They participated in his doings, not vice versa. That’s why Jesus goes on and does his own thing from time to time without his disciples. He often prays by himself. And occasionally he rejoins the disciples on a boat… for which he gave the direction. Jesus didn’t join the zealot, the tax collector, the fishermen, etc. They joined him. Jesus operates on his own time and will—just look at the wedding in Cana: “Woman, what is that to you and me? My time is not yet come.” Even when Jesus calls his disciples friends, isn’t it interesting that he positions it, “I call you friends” and not “I am your friend”(Jn.13.12-17)? The reference point is Jesus; he is whom we must acquiesce to .
But can’t we say that Jesus could have hypothetically spent time in the brothel and still have been the so-called ‘reference point’? Yes, I suppose so, but he didn’t do that. He had a public ministry for three years, and his closest followers recorded that he spent most of his time teaching people… in synagogue, at Temple, on hillside, and more intimately in rooms. Having dinner with his few closest followers.
What’s Good and Right about ‘Hanging Out with Sinners’?
But I must remember that every perversion has a true gene within, and so what is good and right about this idea?
1.) It reveals, hopefully, a heart for the lost, hurt, and broken
Jesus did come and call the sinners to repentance, but he had to interact with them somehow sometimes in order to do so. I submit that most of them followed him and came to hear him. After all, Levi seems particularly prepared to get up and follow Jesus in Lk.5. Zacchaeus climbed a sycamore tree to catch a glimpse. The adulterous woman came to wipe his feet uninvited. But Jesus did go through Samaria on purpose. And he did spend much time in the slums of Galilee. And he did go to the pool where the self-absorbed cripple lay. And I hope that we too care for those who need care. But we can do so in places and times that aren’t explicitly sinful and debauch.
2.) It recognizes tension between what is and what should be
Jesus—the perfect man; the holy God—who is light came and dwelt among the darkness. We are all darkness, and Jesus is wholly light; but still he came, and still he called us. It doesn’t make sense… because it shouldn’t make sense: because in the presence of God sin cannot remain and dwell. And so it will be one day. When we are fully sanctified and made perfect, we will dwell with God in perfect harmony. That’s no reason to bash and criticize a Christian because they enjoy church and community groups—that their primary friends are Christians; it’s a reminder that they desire what will be reality in time soon come. And it’s a reminder that it’s not yet that time. And so we refresh and enjoy friends, and we call and welcome sinners… and we are the reference point in Christ. We are the ones who pursue life the way it ought to be lived, and we call the sinner to Christ.
"Since Jesus Ate with Sinners, Do I Have to Eat at the Strip Club Buffet?" by Joe Carter, TGC
Other articles in this series: