Sinners & Sinner's Friend

The Gospels contain numerous references to the reputable being offended by Jesus’ dealings with the disreputable. The upright seem to have to found it easy categorise others as “sinners”. The focus of the Gospels is on welcome to rejected people. Jesus was not deflected by labels.
One happy occasion for Jesus' friends was blighted by the "virtuous" who wanted to exclude others they categorised as "outside". Then Levi held a great banquet for Jesus at his house, and a large crowd of tax collectors and others were eating with them. But the Pharisees and the teachers of the law who belonged to their sect complained to his disciples, “Why do you eat and drink with tax collectors and sinners?”
Jesus answered them, “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 5:29-32, NIV) . Safe to say Jesus is supporting his followers and leaving aside the excluding judgements of the religious orthodox.

One time, in Judea, Jesus lamented the contrariness of the critics who found fault with him and with John Baptist, but for opposite reasons: For John the Baptist has come eating no bread and drinking no wine, and you say, ‘He has a demon.’ The Son of Man has come eating and drinking, and you say, ‘Look at him! A glutton and a drunkard, a friend of tax collectors and sinners!’ Yet wisdom is justified by all her children” (Luke 7: 33-35, ESV). They did believe there were sinners in their world, as in the OT: From heaven the Lord looks down to see if anyone is wise enough to search for him. But all of them are corrupt; no one does right (Psalm 14:2-3, CEV). But - the sinners were everyone else, the ones Jesus would persist in associating with; they were not sinners. John had called on all to give up rebellion against God; Jesus taught all his followers to pray for forgiveness. Others did not see it.

As mentioned in post “Marriage”, the people of Jesus’ day knew of cult prostitutes of both sexes. They also knew of the current exploitation of sex in the world's "most ancient profession", and otherwise. They knew their Old Testament (OT) has narratives involving female “sex workers”. One conspicuous such was Rahab, resident of Jericho and supporter of the Hebrew invasion at the time. She was rewarded by “permanent resident” status, along with her relatives (Joshua 6:25). There is a Rahab from that period in the ancestors of Jesus (Matthew 1:5); she is commonly identified with the prostitute from Jericho (evidence?). 

It is clear that “disreputables” were drawn to Jesus. Respectable people continued to criticise him for the company he “kept”. Now the tax collectors and sinners were all gathering around to hear Jesus. But the Pharisees and the teachers of the law muttered, “This man welcomes sinners and eats with them.”… Jesus told some stories in response; here is a sample (the bulk of the story is about a younger son who left home to “live it up”, but finally came back):
“The older brother became angry and refused to go in. So his father went out and pleaded with him. But he answered his father, ‘Look! All these years I’ve been slaving for you and never disobeyed your orders. Yet you never gave me even a young goat so I could celebrate with my friends. But when this son of yours who has squandered your property with prostitutes comes home, you kill the fattened calf for him!’

“‘My son,’ the father said, ‘you are always with me, and everything I have is yours. But we had to celebrate and be glad, because this brother of yours was dead and is alive again; he was lost and is found.’” (Luke 15:1-2, 28-32, NIV). The story of recovery and anger incidentally illustrates that prostitution was common enough amongst them in Jesus’ day. (It is one of the two places where the specific word for female sex worker occurs in the Gospels.)

In a different (later) setting when Jesus was giving analysis of the inner indifference of the religious, we find this (incidental) glimpse of prostitutes specifically being drawn to Jesus: “What do you think? A man had two sons. And he went to the first and said, ‘Son, go and work in the vineyard today.’ And he answered, ‘I will not,’ but afterward he changed his mind and went. And he went to the other son and said the same. And he answered, ‘I go, sir,’ but did not go. Which of the two did the will of his father?” They said, “The first.” Jesus said to them, “Truly, I say to you, the tax collectors and the prostitutes go into the kingdom of God before you. For John came to you in the way of righteousness, and you did not believe him, but the tax collectors and the prostitutes believed him. And even when you saw it, you did not afterward change your minds and believe him (Matthew 21:28-32, ESV). I do not know that Jesus saw tax collectors as traitors in quite the same way as did his critics. However, clearly Jesus said that people can change (or, be changed) and that the most vital thing is their post-conversion state. It would have been aggravating for the reputable, the outwardly and orthodox religious, to hear Jesus ascribing higher ultimate status before God to traitors and sex workers.

At or close to that time another confrontation: One of the Pharisees asked Jesus to have dinner with him, so Jesus went to his home and sat down to eat. When a certain immoral woman from that city heard he was eating there, she brought a beautiful alabaster jar filled with expensive perfume. Then she knelt behind him at his feet, weeping. Her tears fell on his feet, and she wiped them off with her hair. Then she kept kissing his feet and putting perfume on them.
When the Pharisee who had invited him saw this, he said to himself, “If this man were a prophet, he would know what kind of woman is touching him. She’s a sinner!”
Then Jesus answered his thoughts. “Simon,” he said to the Pharisee, “I have something to say to you.”
“Go ahead, Teacher,” Simon replied.
Then Jesus told him this story: “A man loaned money to two people—500 pieces of silver to one and 50 pieces to the other. But neither of them could repay him, so he kindly forgave them both, canceling their debts. Who do you suppose loved him more after that?”
Simon answered, “I suppose the one for whom he canceled the larger debt.”
“That’s right,” Jesus said. Then he turned to the woman and said to Simon, “Look at this woman kneeling here. When I entered your home, you didn’t offer me water to wash the dust from my feet, but she has washed them with her tears and wiped them with her hair. You didn’t greet me with a kiss, but from the time I first came in, she has not stopped kissing my feet. You neglected the courtesy of olive oil to anoint my head, but she has anointed my feet with rare perfume.
“I tell you, her sins—and they are many—have been forgiven, so she has shown me much love. But a person who is forgiven little shows only little love.” Then Jesus said to the woman, “Your sins are forgiven.”
The men at the table said among themselves, “Who is this man, that he goes around forgiving sins?”
And Jesus said to the woman, “Your faith has saved you; go in peace”
(Luke 7:36-50, NLT). And just what kind of woman was she then? How did Simon know? It seems that the text uses a kind of oblique shorthand, since the obvious implication is she was a sex worker, or akin, a woman “who lived a sinful life” (NIV). She knew she wanted forgiveness, and she received it. Simon knew no such thing and received no such thing.

One memorable NT passage with some bearing on Jesus' interpretation of God’s intention for marriage and sex comes from the old version of John’s Gospel, 7:53 - 8:11, “The Woman Caught in Adultery”. Texts nowadays put the passage in the margin. It apparently was not original to John. However, the pericope surely comes from the era and serves to show here how men (!) reacted.
The “guilty” woman was brought by the scribes and Pharisees - what of the man? She was "labelled” - what of the man? They wanted her stoned - what of the man? Follow the Law of Moses - e.g., Deuteronomy 22:22 - but selectively? (There we find grim equality, the man is at least equally culpable.) I wonder if Jesus did ask about the other willing participant? The invitation for the sinless man to throw the first stone was not taken up - seems they did have consciences after all. The account ends with Jesus neither condemning nor condoning the woman. As to stoning - I wonder what the Romans thought of that older method of execution? They of course used the clinical, easily administered, ferocious method of crucifixion. I suspect stoning would have been unapproved then; it did happen or was attempted in heated moments (see, for example, Luke 20:6; John 10:31; Acts 7:58; 14:5, 19; and probably Acts 21).

The Gospels contain numerous references to the reputable being offended by Jesus’ dealings with the disreputable. The upright seem to have to found it easy categorise others as “sinners”. (See, for example Luke 13 and John 9.)

One memorable pericope not long before the end comes from Luke alone: He (Jesus) entered Jericho and was passing through it. A man was there named Zacchaeus; he was a chief tax collector and was rich. He was trying to see who Jesus was, but on account of the crowd he could not, because he was short in stature. So he ran ahead and climbed a sycamore tree to see him, because he was going to pass that way. When Jesus came to the place, he looked up and said to him, “Zacchaeus, hurry and come down; for I must stay at your house today.” So he hurried down and was happy to welcome him. All who saw it began to grumble and said, “He has gone to be the guest of one who is a sinner.” Zacchaeus stood there and said to the Lord, “Look, half of my possessions, Lord, I will give to the poor; and if I have defrauded anyone of anything, I will pay back four times as much.” Then Jesus said to him, “Today salvation has come to this house, because he too is a son of Abraham. For the Son of Man came to seek out and to save the lost” (Luke 19:1-10, NRSV). I note again the ready labelling of others as "sinner"; as unacceptable to the upright and respectable. ("Tax Collector" was intrinsically a hated role; they worked directly or indirectly under Rome, heedlessly exploiting those subject to the authority.) No "label" was a barrier to Jesus. He was not setting up a TCPFSO community and did not need to categorise those who folllowed him. As Paul put it, all one in Christ Jesus, not segregated into tax collector, prostitute, fornicator, Samaritan and orthodox majority. All were (are) welcomed by him, even if followers may be weak on his agenda today.

When finally the opponents brought Jesus as a prisoner before the authorities, one charge they did not make was that he welcomed sinners! It was true that Jesus did do just that and thereby caused angst. I doubt it would make a good charge then or now.

Jesus is saying that people can change via forgiveness, including those who misuse sex. More confrontingly, he claimed disreputable or marginal people can not only change but can be first in to the kingdom of God, in front of the reputable.

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