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Friend of sinners

30 November, 1999

Central to Jesus’s life is his befriending of sinners. This was one of the central criticisms of his behaviour and the cause of much confrontation with the Jews and especially with Scribes and Pharisees. James McPolin draws out what the Gospels tell us.

We have already seen how in the Old Testament the Hebrew people – experienced their God as a God of mercy. But the mercy of God is shown most clearly in the person of Jesus. His opponents criticised him for being ‘a friend of sinners’ (Mt. 11:19). The saving mercy of Jesus is well summed up in his words to the rich tax collector, Zacchaeus: ‘The Son of Man has come to seek out and to save what was lost’ (Lk. /9:10).

The Gospels give many examples of Jesus’ mercy towards sinners. During his life he often spoke about mercy and he practised it right up to his death.

On the Cross he asks God to forgive his executioners: ‘Father, forgive them for they do not know what they are doing’ and he also promises a share in his kingdom to a penitent criminal hanging next to him: ‘This day you will be with me in paradise’ (Lk. 23:34; 39-43).

Simon the Pharisee
As a guest in the house of Simon the Pharisee Jesus is anointed by a sinful woman and he pardons her (Lk 7:36-50). She is described as a ‘sinner in the city’ and indeed she is acknowledged as a sinner by Simon and Jesus but there is no hint of the kind of sins she committed. The love she shows by her tears, kisses and anointing indicate her basic orientation to God, that is, her faith which brings her salvation. That is why Jesus tells her: ‘Go in peace.’

In his response to Simon, Jesus relates the parable of two debtors and explains the relation between forgiveness and love. He says that the sinner turns out to be the one who shows greater gratitude to God than the upright but critical and unmerciful Pharisee. Her great love is the consequence of forgiveness and the ‘little love’ characterises Simon, who turns out to be the little debtor of the parable.

In God’s sight, little forgiveness is shown to Simon because of his fundamental attitude towards the sinner. The parable of the two debtors also makes clear that the woman’s repentance for the sins of her life has made her more open to God’s mercy than Simon who shows a lack of mercy.

Sometimes in the Gospels, when forgiving sinners, Jesus condemns the unforgiving and unmerciful attitudes of others. He also notes that Simon has failed to perform three expressions of hospitality and contrasts them to the three gestures of the woman.

Simon did not wash Jesus’ feet but the woman washed them with her tears. Simon did not give Jesus the usual kiss of greeting, yet she kissed his feet. Simon did not anoint Jesus’ head yet she has humbly anointed his feet.

Not only is Jesus willing to allow himself to be touched by a sinful woman (which was a shocking thing to do in those days) but he even suggests that her action is more welcome to him than that of his host. Thus a sinful woman is praised by Jesus at the expense of and in contrast to a so-called good, respectable Jewish man, a Pharisee. A sinful woman with a heart that is open to the mercy of God is preferred to a so-called professionally religious man.

Jesus, in his mercy, takes the part of this woman who was the object of the scorn of Simon. Her action of touching Jesus and of loosening her hair in public would have caused great scandal in the society of Jesus’ day and helps to explain the Pharisee’s indignation and scorn. But such actions and in fact, the whole story show very strikingly how Jesus showed himself to be a friend of sinners.

Condemned woman
Jesus’ mercy towards sinners is shown in his attitude to another woman in an equally striking way (John 7:53, 8:11). Again, we can see a great contrast between the merciful attitudes of Jesus and the unmerciful attitudes of human beings.

In this story, God shows mercy to a sinner, whereas the Scribes and Pharisees show none. In this they are unreasonable since they, too, are sinners.

But, in fact, they look on this woman as an instrument whereby they can bring a charge against a man respected by the people as a rabbi (that is, a Jewish teacher of religion) and so they put him in a tight spot and try to trap him.

If he pardoned her, he would be accused of encouraging people to break the law of Moses which prescribed death by stoning. If he agreed that she should be stoned to death, he would lose his name for mercy. But Jesus refuses to pass judgment. He challenges the accusers who have only the word, not the intention, of the law in their hearts by referring them to God’s judgment before whom all are sinners. Sinners under God’s judgment should not take it upon themselves to sit in judgement on another sinner (v. 7).
The story ends with the quiet scene of reconciliation between Jesus and the woman. He is left alone with her to proclaim God’s mercy: ‘Neither do I condemn you. Go your way, and from now on do not sin again.’

‘Woman, where are they? Has no one condemned you?’ These questions addressed to her by Jesus are a gentle way of leading the woman to speak and of making her answer easy. Thus, she can breathe again because no one has dared condemn her. ‘Neither do I condemn you,’ Jesus declares. His acquittal is authoritative, the free decision of one who is conscious of God’s mercy towards sinners.

Delicate balance
‘Go and do not sin again.’ Here sin is not a matter of indifference for Jesus, since he exercises mercy knowing and appreciating what is right and wrong. In the house of the Pharisee the sinful woman experiences God’s mercy without any such preparation.

Finally, there is a fine balance between the justice of Jesus in not approving sin, whether in the Pharisees or the woman, and his mercy in forgiving the sinner. In his mercy he goes beyond strict legality (the Jewish law about stoning), and he takes sides with someone who was being brought to justice and he gives her an opportunity to change.

Jesus exhorts his followers to be ‘merciful, just as your Father is merciful’. Some of the ways of showing mercy are not to ‘judge’ others, that is, to be merciful in passing judgment and not to give in to the very human tendency to criticise and find fault with others.

Mercy in judging should also lead to generosity in giving. We will receive God’s mercy if we are merciful to others: ‘Blessed are the merciful; for they shall receive mercy’ (Mf. 5:7; Lk. 6:36-38).

But it is in his parables that Jesus brings home to us more forcefully this call to mercy. In the parable of the unforgiving servant, Jesus teaches us that our mercy should be limitless like that of God. A king releases one of his servants from the debts he owed him. But that servant refuses to release one of his own servants from the debts that he was owed. He himself had received pity and now he gives no pity whatsoever.

Those who refuse to forgive others show they have not really experienced God’s forgiveness, but true children of the Father show their resemblance to him by acting like him, by forgiving like him, simply out of compassion. And our forgiveness must not be grudging or pretended but sincere and effective, ‘from your heart’, from the centre of the person.

One of the high points in Luke’s Gospel is the fifteenth chapter which has three parables about God’s mercy as reflected in the person of Jesus. Luke’s Gospel is called ‘the Gospel of the outcast’ and this chapter is so distinctive of the Lucan portrait of Jesus as to be called ‘the heart of the third Gospel’.
The religious leaders criticise Jesus: ‘This fellow welcomes sinners and eats with them.’ Jesus responds to them by explaining in parables the quality of God’s mercy towards sinners.

In the parable of the lost sheep, Jesus is defending his welcome of sinners. This welcome involves restoration to a community and underlines the Father’s gracious initiative and willingness to seek out ‘the lost’ and to celebrate its finding with joy. There is joy, not only because the lost sinner is found but also because he/she has repented.

Then a feminine image of God that of a poor woman who has lost one of her ten silver coins and who expends much energy trying to find it. The parable of the lost coin makes the same point as that of the lost sheep. If human beings will exert such efforts to recover a lost sheep or a lost coin, how much more effort will God himself exert to seek the lost?

Prodigal son
The parable of the prodigal son (or more correctly the parable of the lost son) presents the loving father as a symbol of God himself. His unconditional and faithful love and mercy are manifested not only towards the repentant sinner (younger son) but also toward the uncomprehending older brother. The older brother’s criticism and lack of understanding represent those who cannot comprehend the mercy of God, particularly the Scribes and Pharisees who often criticise the attitudes of Jesus towards sinners.

This article first appeared in The Messenger (June 2002), a publication of the Irish Jesuits.


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