Jesus – Friend of Sinners

In Articles, Friends, Life Issues by J.R. Hudberg

Jesus seems to have had a knack (desire?) for going places, doing things, and connecting with people that others (mainly the religious crowd—although on occasion even his own disciples) didn’t think were appropriate to a devout, God-fearing Jew.  

From traveling through Samaria to connect with a woman who needed to hear that he was the Messiah, to touching and being touched by both the morally and physically unclean to sitting down to meals with “tax collectors and sinners” (Matt. 9&11; Mark 2; Luke 5, 15; 19). Among these, the story of Jesus and Zaccheaus is fascinating. Of course, most stories involving Jesus recorded in Scripture are fascinating; it’s kind of why they were recorded . . . and we only have record of a portion of the events that actually took place (see John 20:30). But Zaccheaus, admittedly like all of them, may hold some powerful insight into what it means to live and act like Jesus in our modern world.  

First, a quick note. While we understand that Jesus is our ultimate example of how to live, sometimes, and this is my observation from my own life, it’s too easy to turn Jesus’s life into a principle mine. What I mean by that is that we look at what Jesus said and did (or any of the other writings in Scripture) and come up with big picture ideas that we then try to specify what that might look like in our own lives. In many cases, this is necessary because the distance between us and the cultures and practices that are referenced in Scripture, just don’t allow for mirrored emulation. We can’t do the exact same thing because the exact same situation doesn’t exist for us.  

Sometimes, however, it might be that the search for the universal principle, applicable across the centuries, blinds us to the directly applicable ideas and actions. We overlook the specific actions of Jesus and their connection to places in our lives where we can actually answer WWJD? (yes, that is revealing my age) because Jesus did do something that we can do too. Zaccheaus is one of those stories. I’d like to suggest that the story of Zaccheaus shows us how we might engage with people whose life and lifestyle we find to be outside of God’s moral design. Let’s revisit the story from Luke 19:1-10. 

Jesus entered Jericho and was passing through. A man was there by the name of Zacchaeus; he was a chief tax collector and was wealthy. He wanted to see who Jesus was, but because he was short he could not see over the crowd. So he ran ahead and climbed a sycamore-fig tree to see him, since Jesus was coming that way. 

When Jesus reached the spot, he looked up and said to him, “Zacchaeus, come down immediately. I must stay at your house today.” So he came down at once and welcomed him gladly. 

All the people saw this and began to mutter, “He has gone to be the guest of a sinner.” 

But Zacchaeus stood up and said to the Lord, “Look, Lord! Here and now I give half of my possessions to the poor, and if I have cheated anybody out of anything, I will pay back four times the amount.” 

Jesus said to him, “Today salvation has come to this house, because this man, too, is a son of Abraham.  For the Son of Man came to seek and to save the lost.” 

On first read, this is a classic Jesus story. Jesus doing what Jesus does, reaching out to the lost, marginalized, ostracized, bringing a happy ending—not only was Zaccheaus saved, but he offered restitution for all his swindling. (Interestingly, Jesus’s pronouncement of salvation came after Zaccheaus’s pledge to make right what he had done wrong . . . but that subject is for another exploration.) Let’s start at the beginning. 

The first thing to note, and this is widely acknowledged of Israel in Jesus’s day, there were categories of people who were outsiders. People who were shunned, ridiculed, devalued, and ostracized. From entire people groups, like the Samaritans, to those who made immoral or unethical livings, like tax-collectors or prostitutes (generally known as “sinners”), to those who, perhaps through their own choices or perhaps through the simple lamentable brokenness of the world, find themselves “unclean” and living outside.  

Tax-collectors were among the most reviled and ostracized groups of Jesus’s day. Jews couldn’t understand why and how anyone would choose to be a tax-collector. It seemed to be a rejection of God and their own people. They were siding with the enemy. True, tax-collectors could buy friends—there’s seems to be plenty of well-attended parties at their homes, but those parties were looked at with disdain by the God-fearing, they were gatherings of “tax-collectors and sinners.”  

Not hard to think of a few groups of people who have experienced the same in our day. Some who have been ostracized because of their lifestyle (chosen or otherwise), and others who have been oppressed because of the sinful nature impulses of those in power.  

Second point. Jesus seems to find and hang out with these groups. Jesus, despite the haranguing that comes from the religious community (Matt. 9:11, 11:19; Mark 2:16; Luke 5:30, 7:34) he associates with them. He goes to where they are, where they live, and hangs out with them. Jesus is called a friend of sinners.  

No matter what we might say about his intentions, or the outcome of such friendship. Jesus associated with sinners in a relational way before any change or repentance on the part of the sinner. Jesus’s initial message to the sinner, by his very presence with them, was that they matter, they, as people, not as behaviors, belong.  

This can be seen clearly in Jesus’s interaction with the woman at the well in John 4. Her very first words reveal that she was not expecting Jesus to associate with her. By virtue of her race and her gender, she thought Jesus would ignore her. The very sound of his voice probably startled her. She was not expecting to be addressed at all. She knew he was there—he was sitting at the well when she walked up. But like perhaps nearly everyone else in her life, she expected him not to see her, to be invisible and ignored at best, or ridicule and disdained at worst. Not Jesus. Not the friend of sinners.

To him, she mattered. To him, she was worth time. Though he knew her story, that was not the focus of his attention. The first thing he did was to see her and connect with her. To show her that she was important. Important enough to talk go out of the way to meet, to talk to, to share with. 

This shouldn’t surprise us. Jesus said, “I have not come to call the righteous, but sinners” (Matt. 9:13).  For Jesus, calling sinners didn’t mean standing at a distance and shouting, “Hey, what you are doing is wrong! Stop doing that and come over here.” Rather, it meant going to where the sinners were and being with them, associating with them. Being misunderstood by the religious community as either supporting or endorsing their behavior (which he wasn’t); letting them know they were important. Implicitly telling the religious community they were wrong for ostracizing sinners instead of reaching out to them.  

And he wasn’t concerned about his reputation or the gossip that may come (and certainly did) from his association with sinners. Jesus would rather be labeled a sinner, glutton, and drunkard than to fail to reach out to people who needed to experience his love and compassion. His actions and intentions were constantly and consistently misunderstood by the religious community.  

Certainly, there is something for us to wrestle with here, both in perception and actuality.  

In actuality, was Jesus, by his association, endorsing their lifestyle and choices? The answer to that seems pretty easy. Of course not. He recognized that they were sinners in need of repentance, but that sin did not keep him from seeing their value as people and associating with them. It is possible to associate with sinners, to befriend them, to spend time with them, develop relationships with them without endorsing or minimizing the sin. Jesus recognized that the sin is not the place to start. Jesus started with the person, not whatever choices they have made or continue to make. 

In perception, what role, if any, does the opinion of others about our actions play in our reaching out to the lost? What if people assume the worst of us? That we are condoning sinful lifestyles or that we have softened or changed the gospel? That certainly seems a plausibility. They did it to Jesus, why wouldn’t people accuse us of something similar? And yet, Jesus, words come full circle in this regard. When he was accused of being a sinner himself, he responded that “wisdom is proved right by all her children” (Luke 7:35). Not exactly “the ends justify the means,” but Jesus is saying that the tree should be judged by the fruit that comes from it.  

Back to Zaccheaus. 

Clearly Jesus’s visit was significant. In short order, Zaccheaus declared that he would make restitution for his ill-gotten gains. While we don’t get any further information, it’s not a stretch to assume that he would no longer cheat people in their taxes. This is the story of Zaccheaus’s repentance and salvation. Jesus proclaims it. Needless to say, this is the result of Jesus’s presence and conversation in Zaccheaus’s home. Jesus never wavered from his mission of seeking and saving the lost and calling sinners to repentance. 

So too in our relationships. When we reach out, forming relationships with those who do not know Jesus, we are never to forget that what we are doing is showing them Jesus and leading them to him. But that does not mean that relationships are simply a means to an end. We do not care simply until they are saved. Rather, we care enough about them as people, perhaps maligned, misunderstood, alienated people to reach out to them in compassion and understanding. Showing them the love and grace of Jesus.  

So, what do we do? 

  1. Recognize that there are many people in need of Jesus, some of whom have been marginalized and ostracized by their communities.
  2. Accept that reaching out to them does not mean standing at a distance and judging their behaviors. Rather it means going to and with them to show them Jesus.
  3. Embrace the possibility that others may question your associations, while realizing that connection does not mean endorsement.
  4. Point them to Jesus. 


J.R. Hudberg
J.R. Hudberg is a writer and executive editor for Our Daily Bread Ministries in Grand Rapids, MI, where he lives with his wife and their two sons. He has written Encounters with Jesus and Journey through Amos.
J.R. Hudberg
J.R. Hudberg is a writer and executive editor for Our Daily Bread Ministries in Grand Rapids, MI, where he lives with his wife and their two sons. He has written Encounters with Jesus and Journey through Amos.