Jesus Receives Sinners

By Mike Willis

One of the charges frequently made against Jesus was that he received and ate with sinners. The charge was made when he attended a feast at the house of the publican Matthew (Matt. 9:9-12; Mark 2:16-17). Some charged that he was a “friend of publicans and sinners” at the same time they said he was a winebibber and glutton (Matt. 11:19). When he went into the home of Zacchaeus, his enemies charged, “That he was gone to be guest with a man that is a sinner” (Luke 19:7).

The occasion for the three parables in Luke 15 was this: “Then drew near unto him all the publicans and sinners for to hear him. And the Pharisees and scribes murmured, saying, This man receiveth sinners, and eateth with them” (Luke 15:1-2). In response to this charge, Jesus gave the three parables of the lost sheep, the lost coin, and the lost son (the prodigal son) to show how the loving God searches for and seeks the ones who are lost.

The Conduct of the Pharisees

Why were the Pharisees upset by Jesus’ association with sinners? What were they charging him with when they criticized him? To answer this, one must know how the Pharisees treated sinners. The Pharisees were the “separated ones” because they refused to associate with sinners.

We get a glimpse of how they treated sinners from several allusions in the Gospels. When Jesus spoke to the Samaritan woman at the well, she was astounded and said, “How is it that thou, being a Jew, askest drink of me, which am a woman of Samaria? For the Jews have no dealings with the Samaritans” (John 4:9).

When Jesus went into the house of Simon the Pharisee, an immoral woman washed Jesus’ feet with her tears, dried them with her hair, and put ointment on them. Simon thought, “This man, if he were a prophet, would have known who and what manner of woman this is that toucheth him: for she is a sinner” (Luke 7:39). Again, we see how the Jews treated sinners.

Lenski explains that the Pharisees’ practice of washing one’s hands before they eat was “for fear that the hands had brushed against a Gen-tile or against something belonging to a Gentile” (Matthew 582).

A Sinful Separation From Sinners

There is a sinful kind of separation from sinners of which the Pharisees were guilty and which saints must avoid. There is a separation from sinners born of self-righteousness, contempt for others, and condescension. This is what the Pharisees had. We must guard our hearts from feeling a similar superiority to the lost. Sometimes, a person feels morally superior to others as if he is what he is through human achievement  through works. The temptation to be self-righteous and show con-tempt for others may occur when one sees a homosexual suffering from AIDS, an alcoholic, a homeless person, or other socially contemptible sinners. We should have the same mind as Paul when he said, “By the grace of God I am what I am” (1 Cor. 15:10).

Several years ago, I drove my a homeless person in Nashville, Tennessee. The woman did not look like she had taken a bath in months. Her hair was matted worse than any dog’s hair that I have seen. Suddenly, the thought flashed through my mind, “Some mother gave birth to this person. She was her precious little baby. I must remember that her soul is just as precious as mine.” Let us guard ourselves from viewing sinners like the Pharisees did.

A Sinful Association With Sinners

There is a sinful kind of association with sinners. The Scriptures command a certain kind of separation in such passages as the following:

Be not deceived: evil communications corrupt good manners (1 Cor. 15:33).

My son, if sinners entice thee, consent thou not.

If they say, Come with us, let us lay wait for blood, let us lurk privily for the innocent without cause:

Let us swallow them up alive as the grave; and whole, as those that go down into the pit:

We shall find all precious substance, we shall fill our houses with spoil:

Cast in thy lot among us; let us all have one purse:

My son, walk not thou in the way with them; refrain thy foot from their path (Prov. 1:10-15).

Enter not into the path of the wicked, and go not in the way of evil men.

Avoid it, pass not by it, turn from it, and pass away (Prov. 4:14-15).

Be ye not unequally yoked together with unbelievers: for what fellowship hath righteousness with unrighteousness? And what communion hath light with darkness? And what concord hath Christ with Belial? Or what part hath he that believeth with an infidel? And what agreement hath the temple of God with idols? For ye are the temple of the living God; as God hath said, I will dwell in them, and walk in them; and I will be their God, and they shall be my people. Wherefore come out from among them, and be ye separate, saith the Lord, and touch not the unclean thing; and I will receive you (2 Cor. 6:14-17).

Whenever a man associates with sinners in such a way as to (a) participate with them in that which is sinful or (b) condone their sinful activity, he has been guilty of sin! Jesus never was guilty of doing either of these.

The Charge Against Jesus

When the Pharisees charged Jesus with associating with publicans and sinners, they were charging him with having fellowship with sin and sinners. We have an adage that says, “Birds of a feather flock together.” This is basically the Pharisees’ charge against Jesus. The Pharisees charged that Jesus associated with publicans and sinners because he was a sinner.

Why Jesus Associated With Sinners

Jesus associated with sinners for the express purpose of saving their souls. He compared his association with sinners to that of a physician associating with the sick saying, “They that are whole have no need of the physician, but they that are sick: I came not to call the righteous, but sinners to repentance” (Mark 2:17). Again he said, “For the Son of man is come to seek and to save that which was lost” (Luke 19:10).

What Jesus Did

Jesus ate with sinners. When he was invited into their homes as a guest, he went for the express purpose of trying to save their souls. I wonder how we would view Jesus’ actions today.

If one of our faithful members went to a restaurant with one who had a vile reputation, would we think of him like the Pharisees thought of Jesus? If one invited one with a vile reputation into his home or went to their home would someone criticize him or worry that he may be “slipping” because some of his best friends were non-Christians?


We must have enough association with sinners to reach them with the gospel. If we withdraw ourselves from all contact with sinners, we can never save their souls. The monks and nuns have withdrawn their association from sinners to such an extent that they dwell in a convent. We may have acted in a similar way by our lack of association with lost. How can we ever convert someone with whom we do not associate?

Guardian of Truth XL: 5 p. 2
March 7, 1996