When we label people as sinners, they feel insulted. We’re calling them a dirty name. Why do we do it? Typically it’s because we want them to feel guilty, so we can offer them forgiveness. Is that good news? Or is it trading in guilt? What did Jesus do?
Let’s find out. There are only 7 or 8 occasions where Jesus used the word sinner. A survey of when and how he used this label is very revealing.
- Matthew 9:13 || Mark 2:17 || Luke 5:32
After Jesus healed the paralytic, Pharisees criticised him for eating with sinners. Jesus responds by picking up their word: the people they reject as “sinners” (i.e. disreputable and unclean) are his friends. He sends the Pharisees away from his presence, to learn how to treat these people with empathy rather than exclusion.
- Matthew 11:19 || Luke 7:34
Jesus is accused of being “a glutton and a drunkard, a friend of tax collectors and sinners!” Once again, Jesus is not the one giving this label. It might look like he’s not following the wisdom literature of the Old Testament (such as Psalm 1), but he is operating with a different kind of wisdom that doesn’t label and exclude.
- Luke 6:32-34
Jesus calls Israel to a radical kind of love that goes beyond reciprocity, because even sinners love those who love them. Once again, it’s not Jesus’ label; he’s applying a category his audience uses.
- Luke 13:2
Jesus undermines the belief that bad things happen to people because they are worse sinners than everyone else. Once again, he’s correcting a mislabelling.
- Luke 15:7, 10
Responding to the Pharisees’ complaint that he accepts sinners (15:1), Jesus tells three stories to show that it should be party time when “a sinner” comes back to join in again. Again, it is the Pharisees’ category that Jesus is responding to, not a label he chooses to place on people.
- Luke 18:13
Jesus tells a parable of two men praying within earshot of each other. The Pharisee congratulates himself that he isn’t “like other men, extortionists, unjust, adulterers, or even like this tax collector.” Instead of fleeing from this tirade, the tax collector accepts the Pharisee’s labelling him a sinner, cries out to God, and finds acceptance. Once again the labelling comes from the Pharisee, not from Jesus. Luke is quite explicit that this parable is about labelling people “with contempt” (18:9 ESV).
- Matthew 26:45 || Mark 14:41
At last we find a case where Jesus used the word sinner without reflecting back someone else’s label. The only people to whom Jesus intentionally applied the label sinners were the high priests and rulers of Jerusalem!
- Luke 24:7 (?)
At the empty tomb, angels reported Jesus saying, “The son of man must be delivered over into the hands of sinners …” If you take this as a quotation of Jesus (as the NIV does), this is a second case where Jesus labelled the Sanhedrin and chief priests as sinners (compare Luke 9:22).
Can you even begin to grasp how shocking this accusation was to Jesus’ hearers? If anybody was ritually pure, it was the rulers who had access to the temple’s cleansing routines. Why would Jesus say such a thing?
The sin Jesus referred to was their unwillingness to submit to God’s kingdom rule. They refused to acknowledge God’s anointed ruler (Christ). In fact, they planned to kill him, so they could keep their power.
And that’s the essence of sin: grasping power that ought to be in God’s hands. They were rebels against God’s authority, refusing God’s governance, colluding with the enemy to kill the King of the Jews.
So if Jesus were to point an accusing finger at anyone and label them sinners today, it would be leaders who resist his authority to protect their own power. He levels no such accusation against those whom respectable people consider disreputable, unclean, and worth excluding.
Is it worth reconsidering the way evangelists today label people as sinners? Are we following Jesus when we do that? Or are we following the Pharisees?
What others are saying
On Luke 15: Darrell L. Bock, Luke: 9:51–24:53, Baker Exegetical Commentary on the New Testament (Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Academic, 1996), 1298:
Sinners were perceived as forfeiting their relationship to God because of a lifestyle unfaithful to God’s law. The tax collector also was not respected … It was these “reprobates” who were drawing near to Jesus. Jesus’ popularity is highlighted by the exaggerated note that “all” (πάντες, pantes) the tax collectors and sinners are drawing near to him.
On Luke 18:9: John Nolland, Luke 9:21–18:34, Word Biblical Commentary (Dallas: Word, 1998), 875:
The despising of all others is a fair enough summary of the outlook of the Pharisee of the parable.
On Matthew 26:45: R. T. France, The Gospel of Matthew, New International Commentary on the New Testament (Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 2007), 1008 footnote 26:
Previously in this gospel “sinners” has referred to those who were the objects of Jesus’ concern (9:10–13; 11:19), but here its negative tone is unrelieved.
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