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Why Do You Associate with Sinners?

One of the early disciples Jesus called to follow Him was Levi, also known as Matthew. Levi was a tax collector. Levi gave a reception for Jesus and a great crowd of tax collectors attended. The Pharisees and scribes grumbled and asked, “Why do you eat and drink with the tax collectors and sinners?” (Luke 5:30).

Some viewed Jewish tax collectors as traitors because the taxes went to Rome. Additionally, the tax system then in place was conducive to fraud; doubtless some collectors were cheats (see Luke 3:12-13). Thus the Pharisees disparagingly viewed Levi and his friends as “sinners,” a term they used of those who in their view made no effort to live by the Law. Why would Jesus associate with such people?

Jesus answered, “It is not those who are well who need a physician, but those who are sick. I have not come to call the righteous but sinners to repentance” (vv. 31-32). Jesus associated with sinners for the same reason a doctor associates with the diseased: to heal them. Ray Summers observed, “What the Pharisees considered to be a discredit to him, he considered to be his very purpose in life.” Consider three observations about Jesus’ answer.

First, Jesus surely did not mean to imply that the Pharisees were well and not sinners. They were just as sick as the tax collectors, sick with self-righteousness, hypocrisy, and pride, as Jesus frequently pointed out. On this occasion He simply answered their question without exploring the question of who is a sinner.

Second, Jesus’ association with these sinners did not in any way minimize sin. He did not associate with them in order to join them in sin. Nothing about His association overlooked or condoned any wrongs they might be doing. To the contrary, He said His purpose was to call them to repentance.

Third, Jesus’ answer does not dismiss the frequent Bible admonitions about choosing our company carefully. Psalm 1 begins with such a caution. Several Proverbs warn of the danger of becoming like those we associate with (e.g., 22:24-25). Paul bluntly wrote, “Do not be deceived: ‘Bad company corrupts good morals’” (1 Corinthians 15:33). In context, he is likely pointing to the spread of doctrinal error as well as sinful conduct.

Christians need balance. We dare not be so foolhardy as to think we are too strong to be influenced away from doing right (1 Corinthians 10:12). But we must not err in the other direction either, assuming a Pharisaic self-righteousness that looks through eyes of disdain instead of mercy. We, too, are the sinners Jesus came to call to repentance.

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