Jesus And Sinners

Earlier this week political consultant and MSNBC analyst Matthew Dowd made some provocative claims that received a lot of attention on the cultural and religious right. Here is the segment attracting attention:

My search did not turn up any outrage on the cultural and religious left. This is because it is a truism on the cultural and religious left that Jesus’ was indulgent of at least certain sins (especially sexual sin). Many Americans with religious interests or roots operate with a canon within a canon. On the cultural left Matthew 7:1, “judge not lest you be judged,” is canonical but Matthew 7:13-14, where Jesus declared, “Enter by the narrow gate. For the gate is wide and the way is easy that leads to destruction, and those who enter by it are many. For the gate is narrow and the way is hard that leads to life, and those who find it are few” (ESV) do not have the same authority. We could find similar canons within the canon on the cultural and religious right.

Those who perceive Jesus as indulgent or lenient toward sexual sin might find encouragement in proclamations such as one finds in one reference work where an author declares “Prostitutes were among those that Jesus spent time with. He also used the social group of prostitutes—alongside tax collectors—frequently in illustrations” (e.g., Matt 21:31).1 Is this correct? Is Dowd right to say that were Jesus alive today that he would be considered a “groomer”?

As a matter of fact, the gospels do not speak at length or even frequently about Jesus “hanging out” (as people say) with prostitutes or even with sinners. When we account for the repetition of the same narratives in the synoptic gospels (i.e., Matthew, Mark, and Luke) we can focus on three passages: Matthew 9:10, 32-32; and Luke 15:1 and gain a clearer picture.

Matthew 9:10: Jesus At Table With Sinners

Scripture says:

And it was when Jesus reclined in the house and behold there were many tax collectors and sinners coming and reclining with Jesus and his disciples.2

The reclining here refers to the practice of way people ate dinner in first-century Judea. Where Western cultures tend to sit at (the) table to eat, they reclined. There can be no doubt that Matthew (and Mark and Luke) want us to understand that Jesus and his disciples spent time with those who were regarded by some, e.g., the Pharisees, as morally impure and thus corrupting of society disqualified from social intercourse.

That our Lord is shown spending time with sinners and other ritually and socially unclean people is part of a broader pattern in Matthew and the other synoptics. In Matthew 8:1–4 he cleanses a leper. They were ritually unclean and of course a potential threat to public health. Under Levitical law he was to be excluded from the community and marked as unclean and to be isolated as long as he was infected (Lev 13:42–59).

Then we see our Lord healing the servant of a hated Roman centurion. Here is a class of interaction with the unclean that is usually neglected. In a Marxist or class-oriented rendering of Christianity, where the world is reduced to oppressors and the oppressed, we should be surprised to see Jesus not only interacting with the oppressor but graciously healing his servant (Matt 8:5–13).

In Matthew 8:28–34 we see our Lord healing two demon-possessed men among the Gadarenes and in proximity to pigs, which were regarded as unclean (Deut 14:8). In this account Jesus not only offends the Pharisaic “fence around the law,” i.e., their regulations designed to keep Jews from transgressing the 613 commandments (as the rabbis counted them) but he also managed to offend contemporary animal-rights activists. After all, what had those pigs done to anyone that Jesus should send the demons into them and thence over the cliff.

Matthew’s narrative of potential offenses continues in Matthew 9:1–8 where he heals a paralytic, which, obviously, is not offensive in itself but he also presumed to forgive his sins (v. 2), which the Scribes regarded as blasphemy. He transgressed the Jewish social code when he called as one of his disciples, Matthew, a tax collector (Matt 9:9). Those Jews who collected taxes for the Romans were hated by the Jews for their collaboration with the hated Roman oppressors. It is in that context that Matthew reports that Jesus reclined at table with “many tax collectors and sinners.” Predictably, the Pharisees were outraged at this (v. 11).

Jesus’ defense was as simple as it was true: “the healthy have no need of a physician but the ill do.” Note that, for Jesus the “tax collectors and sinners” are not, in themselves, well. They are ill. They need help. They need saving. We should infer from his response to the Pharisees that he was not affirming their sin but neither did he refuse to engage them socially. Jesus’ attitude and behavior was neither that of the libertine cultural-religious left nor that of the censorious cultural-religious right—though, with the rise of Trumpian populism does the latter exist much any more? Did anyone see the most recent CPAC? Perhaps it is best to speak of libertines and legalists since there are libertines on the cultural right and legalists (critical theory anyone?) on the cultural left.

Matthew 21:31—32: Jesus And The Two Sons

“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 ( Matt 21:28–32; ESV).

Were we to cite only v. 31 without considering vv. 28–30 and v. 32 we come away with one impression but when we consider v. 31 in context another rather different picture emerges. The question is about who is actually righteous and how. Who is righteous, he who professes but does not believe or he who sins, repents, and believes? Obviously it is the latter. The believer, to whom God has graciously given new life, believes and because he believes he repents. That one is an heir of the Kingdom of God. Verse 32 is essential: “but you did not believe him.” According to Jesus the condition or instrument of salvation from the wrath to come is not good works but faith in Jesus the Son of God.

Again, what is affirmed here is not the sins of the tax collectors and prostitutes but their repentance and faith in the Jesus who saves sinners. The legalists would have us believe that one must clean up himself first before coming to Jesus. The theological term for this is nomism. Sometimes it is called preparationism. This was at the nub of the eighteenth-century debate between the “Marrow Men” (e.g., Thomas Boston and Erskines) and the legalist majority in the General Assembly of the Scottish church. They had been influenced by that notorious moralizer Richard Baxter, who rejected the Reformation doctrine of justification and sanctification as the consequence of justification. Like Rome, Baxter wanted people to be sanctified in order to be justified, i.e., right with God. On the opposite side, the libertines do not believe that repentance is necessary but Jesus teaches both: free forgiveness and the necessity of repentance.

According to Jesus it is sinners, e.g., tax collectors and prostitutes, who need to repent and believe. Those who have no sense of their sin do not realize their jeopardy and their need for forgiveness. The legalists want people to clean up themselves and the liberties seem to think either that moral improvement is undesirable or impossible. Neither the libertines and the legalists understand that the way of salvation is not “being good” or clean up one’s self but recognizing the greatness of one’s sin and misery and trusting in Jesus the substitute for acceptance with God. According to Jesus (and Paul, Peter, John, et al.) getting “cleaned up” (sanctified) comes after or, to be more precise, as a consequence of the gift of new life, true faith in Christ, and repentance.

Jesus And The Lost Sheep

And to him were coming all the tax collectors and sinners to hear him” (Luke 15:1).4

Luke adds immediately (v.2) that the Pharisees and scribes were offended by this. They complained, “This man welcomes sinners and eats with them.” The Pharisees and scribes were partly right. He did welcome and eat with them but again, both the legalists and the liberties draw the wrong inference. Jesus’ welcoming of sinners was not an affirmation of their sin. Jesus did not practice identity politics. He did not regard their sin as an immutable characteristic which could not or should not be changed. He regarded them as bearers of the divine image, who had fallen into sin, who needed to be saved. The legalists think that sinners are beyond salvation and the libertines deny that salvation is necessary. Both are wrong.

We know this from the context. Jesus tells a parable of the lost sheep. The tax collectors and sinners are lost sheep. The libertine approach is to say, “there is no such thing as a lost person.” Jesus disagreed. One point of the parable is that there are lost people and they need to be rescued from the consequences of being lost (i.e., damnation, another missing category for the libertines). Against the legalists, Jesus came actually to save lost people. He is God the Son incarnate, who became incarnate for the express purpose of obeying on behalf of and saving all the lost sheep whom the Father had given to him (see John 17). Jesus affirms this way of thinking in the parable of the lost coin (Luke 15:8–10) and the parable of the lost son (Luke 15:11–32). Salvation is necessary and it is free by divine favor alone, through faith alone, in Christ alone.

This question is personal for me on two levels. First, I was a lost sheep. I did not come to Jesus after I became clean and obedient. I came to him a lost and needy sinner. Second, as a young pastor, the providence of God brought me into contact with a group very much like the “tax collectors and sinners” (including prostitutes) about whom the synoptics wrote. As a group they were dissolute, lazy, addicted, and one of them was a working prostitute. I ate with them and taught Bible studies to them, counseled them, prayed with them, drove them, to appointments, and gave them food. I welcomed them to church (as did the congregation). A few of them stayed but most did not. Sometimes I worried, however, what people would think about me spending so much time with that group but I encouraged myself with these kinds of passages. I think Jesus did love down-and-outers, the folks hanging around the mailbox at noon on Tuesday waiting for their welfare checks, and he did spend time with them but (contra the libertines) he also called them to faith and repentance. He did not tell them that their sins were someone else’s fault.

Phil Ryken gets this right:

Finally, consider the shameful prostitute. Jesus Christ turns the harlot into a virgin bride. Former prostitutes were among his most faithful followers when he walked upon this earth. His ultimate purpose is to present his people to his Father “as a bride beautifully dressed for her husband” (Revelation 21:2).

If you are still unclean, you do not need to be unclean any longer. Take all the things in your life that are soiled, spoiled, shattered, stained, and shameful and Jesus will make them right. Not corruptio optimi pessima, but redemptio pessimi optima: The redemption of the worst is the best. The worst will become the best. For those who come to Christ for salvation, it is all clean linen, fine wine, broad daylight, golden crowns, and bridal gowns.” 5

Jesus did welcome and eat with sinners of various kinds. Some of them were gross sinners but he did not endorse their sin nor make them a “protected class.” He loved them and called them to faith in himself as the Savior. Contra the legalists and libertines we ought to love them too. We ought to offer to “all the tax collectors and sinners” the same love of God, in Christ, and grace that we have received and we ought, in consequence, take up our cross with them as fellow sinners redeemed by grace alone, through faith alone, in Christ alone.

©R. Scott Clark. All Rights Reserved.


1. Brenda Heyink, “Prostitution,” in The Lexham Bible Dictionary, ed. John D. Barry et al. (Bellingham, WA: Lexham Press, 2016).

2. καὶ ἐγένετο αὐτοῦ ἀνακειμένου ἐν τῇ οἰκίᾳ, καὶ ἰδοὺ πολλοὶ τελῶναι καὶ ἁμαρτωλοὶ ἐλθόντες συνανέκειντο τῷ Ἰησοῦ καὶ τοῖς μαθηταῖς αὐτοῦ. (Matt 9:10; NA28)

3. τίς ἐκ τῶν δύο ἐποίησεν τὸ θέλημα τοῦ πατρός; λέγουσιν · ὁ πρῶτος. λέγει αὐτοῖς ὁ Ἰησοῦς· ἀμὴν λέγω ὑμῖν ὅτι οἱ τελῶναι καὶ αἱ πόρναι προάγουσιν ὑμᾶς εἰς τὴν βασιλείαν τοῦ θεοῦ. ἦλθεν γὰρ Ἰωάννης πρὸς ὑμᾶς ἐν ὁδῷ δικαιοσύνης, καὶ οὐκ ἐπιστεύσατε αὐτῷ, οἱ δὲ τελῶναι καὶ αἱ πόρναι ἐπίστευσαν αὐτῷ· ὑμεῖς δὲ ἰδόντες οὐδὲ μετεμελήθητε ὕστερον τοῦ πιστεῦσαι αὐτῷ (Matt 21:31-32; NA28).

4. Ἦσαν δὲ αὐτῷ ἐγγίζοντες πάντες οἱ τελῶναι καὶ οἱ ἁμαρτωλοὶ ἀκούειν αὐτοῦ. καὶ διεγόγγυζον οἵ τε Φαρισαῖοι καὶ οἱ γραμματεῖς λέγοντες ὅτι οὗτος ἁμαρτωλοὺς προσδέχεται καὶ συνεσθίει αὐτοῖς (Luke 15:1; NA28).

5. Philip Graham Ryken, Jeremiah and Lamentations: From Sorrow to Hope, Preaching the Word (Wheaton, IL: Crossway Books, 2001), 241–42.


Subscribe to the Heidelblog today!