Matthew 11:19 The Son of man came eating and drinking, and they say, Behold a man gluttonous, and a winebibber, a friend of publicans and sinners.
What does the Bible mean when it says that Jesus was a ‘friend of publicans and sinners’?
We should begin by noting that this was not something Jesus said about Himself, but rather something His enemies said about Him. The term “a friend of publicans and sinners” was not a compliment. It was an accusation. The religious leaders could not understand why a righteous person would associate with publicans and sinners. Why did Jesus do this?
Jesus did not associate with the sinful because He wanted to be like them. Jesus did not join in with them during their partying and wild living. Nor did He associate with them because He enjoyed their behavior. I’m sure that more than once He heard or saw something that was offensive to Him.
Jesus and the sinners were not close companions. The book of Amos asks us –
“Can two walk together, except they be agreed?” (Amos 3:3)
The obvious answer to that question is – “No.” Oil and water don’t mix. Light and darkness can’t co-exist. Holiness and sin can’t be close companions. John tells us-
1 John 1:5 This then is the message which we have heard of him, and declare unto you, that God is light, and in him is no darkness at all. 6 If we say that we have fellowship with him, and walk in darkness, we lie, and do not the truth:
Why then did Jesus hang out with publicans and sinners? Perhaps it was not so much that He was a friend ‘OF’ publican and sinners as it was that He was a friend ‘TO’ publicans and sinners. What’s the difference?
To say that Jesus was a friend ‘OF’ sinners suggests that He was in agreement with their way of living. That’s what the Pharisees were implying when they said this about Him. They were proposing that Jesus must not be holy or else He would not be a companion of the sinful.
In contrast, to say that Jesus was a friend ‘TO’ sinners says that although He was not comfortable with how they were living, He loved them enough to care for them. The Bible says that God made a way for us to become His friends, even while we were still His enemies. (see Romans 5:10)
Should Christians be friends with publicans and sinners? I believe that we should. But I also believe that we should keep in mind the higher calling upon our friendship. God has given us these friends for a more noble purpose than to just hang out and have a good time. God has brought these individuals into our lives so that we might share with the Good News of His forgiveness.
“Here we are, then, speaking for Christ, as though God himself were making his appeal through us. We plead on Christ’s behalf: let God change you from enemies into his friends!” (2 Cor 5:20 GNT)