But when [Jesus] saw the multitudes, he was moved with compassion for them, because they were distressed and scattered, as sheep not having a shepherd (Matthew 9:36).
“Ye serpents, ye offspring of vipers, how shall [the Pharisees and scribes] escape the judgment of hell?” (Matthew 23:33)
Much is made of how Jesus responds and reacts to people. It is interesting to see how people will go out and treat people in entirely different ways and base it all upon Jesus!
We have all seen the stereotypical “street preacher.” He has taken it upon himself to let everyone in his community know that they are sinning and sinful people. He is often found on street corners or in public places on university campuses and in similar places, and he does well at yelling at people about fornication, drunkenness, worldliness, perhaps consumerism and materialism, and so on and so forth. No one really listens, of course, but the street preacher goes home, justified in his own mind. He told those nasty sinners about their sin, just as Jesus condemned sin– or so he thinks.
There is also the universalist or the politically correct “tolerant” person of our day. If there is condemnation for anyone, it is because they are intolerant. Most everything and anything is acceptable, unless it harms another person, but then again, those who harm others were probably harmed somehow themselves, and so even then God will understand. This person also feels justified, for after all, Jesus Himself had compassion on people– or so he thinks.
These are both extreme positions– and they are extremely misguided. Nevertheless, we can discern from Jesus’ ministry a way forward when it comes to working with different people in our midst.
The first thing we should notice is that sinners sin. This statement should not be too terribly surprising or earth-shattering, since everyone is sinful (Romans 3:23), and sinners are known to sin, but it has been forgotten by many who profess Jesus. Too many have bought into the idea that America is somehow like a “new Israel,” and therefore we need to have “prophets” running around condemning the people for their sins. The New Testament teaches that the church is the new Israel (Galatians 6:16, Philippians 3:3, 1 Peter 2:4-9). There are times when someone does need to take up a “prophetic” style role and warn Christians about complacency and sin (2 Timothy 4:2), but we do not see Jesus or the Apostles out castigating worldly people for their sin in their faces. Quite the contrary– Jesus has compassion toward the multitude of people, those worldly, nasty sinners, even those among God’s chosen people, Israel (Matthew 9:36)! He was lectured by the religious authorities because of His association with the “sinful” of society (Matthew 9:9-13). Jesus our High Priest associated with the sinful!
While this might seem scandalous, we must understand what Jesus is attempting to do. He does not associate with the sinful to promote or justify sin. Even though He does not condemn the woman caught in adultery, He does send her off with the warning to “sin no more” (John 8:11). We never see Him participating in sin or approving of sin (Hebrews 4:15, 5:7-9). Instead, Jesus knows that the sinners know that they have sinned and are sinning, and they know that they need redemption (Matthew 21:28-32). They follow Jesus en masse because He is willing to sympathize with them and point the way out of their sinful misery. This is the message of the gospel that leads to the redemption of sinners to this very day (Romans 1:16)!
Therefore, we should not be surprised when sinners sin. While Christians are to abhor sin (Romans 12:9), they are not to abhor sinners, for they themselves have sinned but have been redeemed (cf. Titus 3:3-8, etc.). Pointing fingers at sinners and declaring to them what they already know is counterproductive: it pushes the sinner away and leaves a very bad taste in his mouth. It makes it that much more difficult to show such a one the way of Christ.
The real challenge came less from those who knew that they were sinful and more from those who thought that they were not. The religious authorities of Jesus’ day thought that they were holy and blameless, and sought to be separate from the “sinners” of the land (cf. John 9:34). They would bring down pronouncements to the dirty masses, but refused to get dirty themselves (Matthew 23:1-4). For such people, Jesus’ message was completely offensive: all of their great pretenses of holiness and sanctity were in vain, their great knowledge and study was being debased, and their authority was being completely undermined. They already had everything figured out; since Jesus’ message did not fit what they already knew, He was the blasphemer (cf. John 7:45-52, 9:24-29). Jesus spoke of them rightly: they were already “healthy.” They had no need of a physician in their haughtiness (cf. Matthew 9:12-13). They were righteous– just ask them (Luke 18:9-14)!
Such people received little compassion from Jesus’ words. His strongest denunciations– even a declaration of condemnation– were poured out against these religious authorities (cf. Matthew 23:1-36). Jesus treated them this way not out of hate or envy but out of love and a desire for them to wake up regarding their true spiritual condition. Jesus did make prophetic denunciations, but it was not to the worldly sinners of His day, but to the religious professionals who had compromised God’s purposes in order to advance themselves and their own agendas!
While many such people exist in churches today, there are some in the world who justify themselves and their conduct. Notice how Jesus did not comfort such people in such delusions. Such attitudes must be rebuked out of loving concern for the soul of someone who thinks they are healthy when they are not, righteous when they are sinful, sanctimonious as opposed to humble (cf. Galatians 6:1-2, 1 Peter 3:15-16).
Jesus’ interaction with people in His own day should be our model for how we work with people today (cf. 1 John 2:6). Yet let us notice how Jesus treated sinners one way and hypocrites in quite a different way. Woe to us if we treat the “sinners” like the “hypocrites,” and the “hypocrites” like the “sinners”! Instead, let us recognize that sinners sin, and we need to help show them that the way of Christ is life and the way of sin is death with all compassion and mercy (Romans 6:23, Titus 3:3-8). Nevertheless, we must oppose those who would justify themselves in their sins or sanctimoniously declare their righteousness apart from the truth of the gospel of Christ. Let us strive to conform to the image of Jesus the Son and point people to Him!
Ethan R. Longhenry