People criticized Jesus for associating so frequently with sinners. When Jesus invited himself over to stay with Zacchaeus, the onlookers gasped in horror: “He has gone to be the guest of a sinner” (Luke 19:7). Similarly, when Jesus went to Levi’s party, the religious leaders complained, “Why do you eat and drink with tax collectors and sinners?” (Luke 5:30). In other words, people thought Jesus was morally compromised because he went to these dinners and parties.
We can learn from Jesus’ answer to the religious leaders: “It is not the healthy who need a doctor, but the sick. I have not come to call the righteous, but sinners to repentance” (Luke 5:31–32). By calling Levi and his friends “sinners,” Jesus is showing that he does not approve of their lifestyle. Jesus is showing that it’s possible to associate with sinners without approving of their lifestyle. Association and approval are not the same thing. And Jesus is also saying that it’s precisely because Levi and his friends are sinners that it’s a priority to eat and drink with them.
Yet we must also keep in mind that we are not Jesus. We are not the Son of God. It’s so nice that Jesus touches lepers, but if we did that, we could catch leprosy. It’s lovely that Jesus holds the hand of a dead girl, but if we did that, we could catch her disease and also die. There are many things Jesus did that we can’t copy 100 percent. Similarly, if we associate with “tax collectors and sinners,” sooner or later we may find that our moral compass is affected. That’s why it’s good to let our church pastor know where we’re going and why we’re doing this—to keep ourselves accountable.
We can also ask how other people will understand our actions. For instance, some Chinese Christians face the dilemma of whether to attend their parents’ funerals. Do they go, knowing the funeral may include idol worship? Or do they stay home, knowing they will be failing to honor their parents?
I’m guided by my pastor friend Rohan. He told me that when he was baptized, his gay, atheist uncle turned up at the church to witness it. No one interpreted the uncle’s act of showing up as his giving up his atheism and adopting Rohan’s Christian faith. Instead, they saw him as an uncle showing honor and respect to his nephew, without adopting his nephew’s faith.
Thus it’s important to define why we go to the things we do. We are there to honor and respect our friends’ birthdays, concerts, and fundraisers. We are there because we are their friends. We are following the example of Jesus.
Chan, Sam, and Ed Stetzer. 2020. How to Talk about Jesus (without Being That Guy): Personal Evangelism in a Skeptical World. Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan.
Check out our Bible Study on Sam Chan’s book How to Talk About Jesus. It is on Amazon as well as part of the Good Questions Have Groups Talking subscription service. Like Netflix for Bible Lessons, one low subscription gives you access to all our lessons–thousands of them. For a medium-sized church, lessons are as little as $10 per teacher per year.