Of all the many names and titles affixed to Jesus throughout His ministry, this one might be the sweetest—and the most controversial. It was not bestowed as a compliment, and the people who gave Him this name were not admiring Him for it. They said, “Here is a glutton and a drunkard, a friend of tax collectors and sinners” (Matthew 11:19).
For a religious community, bent on eschewing any association with sinners and their contagious sinfulness, this moniker was an indictment, proof that Jesus could never be their Messianic Son of God. Friend of sinners? Friend of overeaters and alcoholics? Friend of treacherous tax collectors? No way!
And yet Jesus never denied the title. Rather, He dug in even deeper, calling tax collectors, traitors, and braggarts to be a part of His inner circle. The Apostle Paul widened the circle even further, self-identifying as a “blasphemer and a persecutor and a violent man” literally the worst of all sinners (1 Timothy 1:12, 15).
Friend of sinners is a great title for anyone in need of forgiveness, but it is a great challenge for anyone who does not want to give sinners a second chance. It is easy to expect mercy for ourselves while demanding justice for everyone else, and this name of Jesus cuts across that.
I don’t know who should get total amnesty, a reduced sentence, or time off for good behavior. I don’t know who deserves mercy or who should pay most dearly for their sins. I do know that God called me friend when others might have written me off. I know that God took a risk on my many second chances when others could have counted me out. And I know that when it comes to determining the metrics for justice and mercy it is best to entrust it to a friend.
Jesus is friend to both the sinners and those who have been hurt by them. He gets close to victims, enveloping them in His healing heart and arms, and He gets close to the sinners insisting on repentance, transformation, and change.
He is just, so justice will be served. And He is mercy, embodied in relentless friendship. Are you sinner? Are you saint? Are you wounded or seeking amends? Thank God there is a friend for us!