They Called Him “Friend of Sinners”

Pull Quotes:

“We seldom get people to listen. Yet Jesus reached the people who needed him.”

“Why Zacchaeus out of all the crowd? Jesus detected a heart ready for repentance.”

“We will be criticized too if we work like Jesus did.”

We long for other people to know and share the blessed life we enjoy in Jesus. All around us are lives emptied and broken by sin and foolish living. Those lives could be healed. We want to share Jesus with them but there is such a barrier between us. We seldom get people to listen. Yet Jesus reached the people who needed him. They opened up to him and their lives changed. If we really want to help damaged people, we need to pay attention to how Jesus reached them.

Luke (19) tells us the beautiful story of the day the life of Zacchaeus, the tax collector, changed forever. Tax collectors were considered traitors, having sold out to serve the hated Roman government. They were famous for cheating people, padding tax bills and pocketing the difference. “Tax collector” was a synonym for sinner or crook or pagan.

Zacchaeus, at the price of becoming a religious outcast, had done very well financially . Yet he had a hunger and need that a bank account could not satisfy. He was still looking for something. Was he among the tax collectors who had listened to John the Baptist describing a new kingdom way of life and announcing the coming King? Who can trace the stages through which God draws a person back to himself?

Excited crowds were moving with Jesus toward Jerusalem. Was this the promised Messiah? Would he restore David’s throne in Jerusalem? Zacchaeus joined the crowd lining the Jericho street to see Jesus pass by. Zacchaeus was a short little man. Anxious to see, he climbed a tree. Then the last thing Zacchaeus expected happened! Out of all that crowd, Jesus focused on Zacchaeus!

“Zacchaeus, come down quickly. I must visit your house today.” Why Zacchaeus out of all the crowd? Jesus detected a heart ready for repentance – Matthew 5:6. He always does and comes near.

Most people would never have guessed that Zacchaeus was ready to change his life. But there are people all around us tired of sin and looking for a better way. God brings seeker and teacher together. Compare the Ethiopian eunuch (Acts 8), Cornelius (Acts 10), and the Macedonian (Acts 16). The hungry, urgent and diligent find God – Hebrews 11:6. If you long to share the gospel, have you asked God to bring you into contact with the hungry? You can bet Jesus had. It’s a prayer God delights to answer.

The crowd did not approve of Jesus going home with someone living outside God’s law. Why spend time inthe company of prostitutes, swindlers, perverts and partiers when there were respectable, God-fearing houses available? But Jesus was willing to be criticized in order to reach Zacchaeus. Jesus never sold out to sin but he was accused of it. The “righteous” grumbled that day but the angels rejoiced.

We will be criticized too if we work like Jesus did. When we get serious enough about outreach to move across to sinners instead of waiting for them to come to us, when reclaiming souls means more than our comfort zones of human tradition, when we follow Paul in “becoming all things to all people,” we will be misunderstood, misrepresented and slandered.

Many Christians have a false idea of holiness. Holiness is not physical separation from sinners, but a character of heart. Joe Aldrich says it was safe for Jesus to radically identify with sinners because he was radically separate and holy in his character. We must associate with the lost if we are to bring them back.

Who would have ever believed Zacchaeus would change? Sinners, even hardened professional ones, opened up to Jesus because everyone who encountered him sensed how valued and loved they were (not their sin but themselves). Floyd McClung says, “People do not care how much we know until they know how much we care.”

Jesus knew what each person needed. He talked to the Samaritan woman at the well about living water and about relationships, to the disciples on Lake Galilee about fishing for souls. Zacchaeus had long suffered from rejection. Jesus didn’t reject him; he valued and reached out to him. The result was astounding! Zacchaeus, who for so long had lived to take things from others, announced to Jesus, “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.” A wonderful change which only the love of God could have made happen.

Repentance. Restitution. A truly penitent person, broken-hearted over sin, wishes he had not done what he did. He will want to make his wrongs right as far as possible. Compare Ephesians 4:28. Notice Zacchaeus’ decisiveness. Our spoiled culture wants acceptance from God without repentance, change and restitution. But repentance and salvation are closely connected. Loving the lost in no way condones sin. We love and value the lost because we depend on that same grace from God for our own imperfect lives. And we labor to change our lives because we love the God who hates sin but has loved us so much.

Jesus reminds his critics that Zacchaeus is a son of Abraham, a strayed sheep among God’s chosen people. Some of the damaged sinners around us today once wore Christ’s name. All of them are God’s people in terms of creation. Each bears God’s image and is so valuable that Christ would have died for him/her even if they were the only person in the world.

“Friend of sinners” was name given to Jesus in derision by his enemies. To us it is a name of honor and grace.

Jesus knew who he was and what he lived for. We the church need to regain a sense of who we are and what our job is. Jesus reminded his critics that he did not come just to enjoy cozy comfort among the righteous and the saved, but to go out and “seek and to save what was lost.” If we do this, we are following Christ.

—B. Shelburne, based on excerpt from SHBI’s course Life of Christ 2