“Friend of Sinners.” It was intended to be an insult, but it is precisely what we love about Jesus. We love that Jesus cares for, accepts, and identifies with the broken, rejected, and needy. He loved the poorest of the poor, the most destitute, the social outcast. This is what we love about Jesus. And this aspect of Jesus’ character is not tertiary to His identity as the Messiah. Jesus’ relationship with sinners is a vital element of his identity as the Messiah.
The label was not issued as a compliment to Jesus’ character. The religious leaders were consistently frustrated with Jesus that he spent time with, touched, and loved “sinners.” In both Matthew 11:19 and Luke 7:34 the phrase is referenced as an utterance of condemnation. So Luke records Jesus saying, “The Son of Man has come eating and drinking, and you say, ‘Look at him! A glutton and a drunkard, a friend of tax collectors and sinners!’” Whatever the intent of the label, Jesus’ relationship to the social outcasts becomes a key lens through which people view his identity. He is “friend of sinners.” This is not just some feature of his politeness, or some aspect of his social agenda, Jesus is “friend of sinners.” Routinely the New Testament reveals that this aspect of his character is a vital part of his messianic identity.
Jesus himself testifies that he has expressly come on mission to sinners. In Luke 5 Jesus is again indicted for befriending the socially despised. In the passage however, Jesus clearly defines his mission in relationship to these individuals. So we read:
And Levi made him a great feast in his house, and there was a large company of tax collectors and others reclining at table with them. 30 And the Pharisees and their scribes grumbled at his disciples, saying, “Why do you eat and drink with tax collectors and sinners?” 31 And Jesus answered them, “Those who are well have no need of a physician, but those who are sick. 32 I have not come to call the righteous but sinners to repentance.” (Luke 5:29-32)
Of course the obvious point for us as readers is that we are all sick and needy. Jesus, however, communicates that point by aligning his mission with care specifically for the pariah. Who is this Messiah? A missionary to sinners.
We find Jesus saying very similar things to John the Baptist. In Luke 7 John the Baptist, while sitting in prison, wonders if he has been mistaken about the identity of Jesus. He sends some messengers to Jesus to ask him, “Are you the one who is to come, or shall we look for another” (v. 19). John wants to know if Jesus is the Messiah. Jesus responds by demonstrations of miracles and mercy. He tells the messengers how to respond to John’s questions:
And he answered them, “Go and tell John what you have seen and heard: the blind receive their sight, the lame walk, lepers are cleansed, and the deaf hear, the dead are raised up, the poor have good news preached to them. (Luke 7:22)
Who is this Jesus? He is the Messiah. The signs of the messiah are realized in him, among them are preaching good news to the poor and cleansing lepers. John can know that Jesus is the Messiah because of the way he relates to the social outcasts. Again, it is a maker of his identity.
We see repeatedly throughout the gospels that Jesus is a friend of sinners. Tim Keller has keenly observed:
In every case where Jesus meets a religious person and a sexual outcast (as in Luke 7) or a religious person and a racial outcast (as in John 3-4) or a religious person and a political outcast (as in Luke 19), the outcast is the one who connects with Jesus and the elder-brother type does not. Jesus says to the respectable religious leaders “the tax collectors and the prostitutes enter the kingdom before you” (Matthew 21:31). (Prodigal God, 18)
Jesus identifies himself as a friend of sinners. This is part and parcel of what it means for him to be the Messiah. This is not some issue of secondary importance, not some icing on the cake, this is at the heart of who He is and what He has come to accomplish. Such a reality ought to cause us to seriously question our calling, our mission, and our character.