Jesus, Friend of Sinners

Luke 5:27-31

Grace and mercy and peace are always for you from God our Father and our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ. Amen.

Friendship is a true gift. Who is in your circle of friends? Would you consider Jesus to be one of your friends?

The Bible begins with the assertion, it is not good for man to be alone. We were created for companionship, for love, for relationships. Someone has written, “A friend is one to whom you can pour out all the contents of one’s heart, chaff and grain together, knowing that gentle hands will take and sift it, keep what is worth keeping, and with a breath of kindness, blow the rest away.”

Here are some other thoughts about friendship:
• A friend is one who multiplies joy and divides grief.
• A friend is one who understands my silence.
• A friend is a volume of sympathy bound in flesh.
• A friend is one who walks in when everybody else walks out.
Helen Keller said, “I would rather walk with a friend in the dark than alone in the light.”

Here is another quote:
“I love you not only for what you are but for what I am when I am with you.”

Perhaps my favorite . . .
“A friend knows the song in my heart and sings it to me when my memory fails.”

Profound thoughts about friendship. Friendship is truly a gift of God.

The Old Testament Hebrews understood friendship. They had three words for friend.

The first is Rayah. It means an associate. Somebody you keep company with, an acquaintance. It would be somebody you know fairly well. The relationship is perhaps superficial. Maybe you work alongside them or are back fence neighbors.

The second word for friend in Hebrew is Alooth. It means to be gentle with, to be familiar with. This takes friendship a step further. These friends would be close, people you talk with about really significant, personal issues. You might take a vacation with these friends, go fishing, go to a game, go out to dinner, or perhaps study the Scriptures together. They are close friends. You might not see them for a year or two, but when you do see them again, you pick up the conversation right where it left off.

The third Hebrew word for friend is Ahave. It means an intimate, close companion. Proverbs 18:24 uses the word “Ahave” when it says, “There is a friend who sticks closer than a brother.” It is an intimate friend.

Remember the Bible story in I Samuel 18 describing the relationship between David and King Saul’s son, Jonathan? It reads, “The soul of Jonathan was knit with the soul of David, and Jonathan loved David as his own soul.” Jonathan and David had a love that surpassed the love of a man for a woman. They enjoyed a deep, profound love – not a sexual love, but an intimate, devoted love.

It also says in Proverbs 27:6, “Faithful are the wounds of an ‘Ahave’ (a friend).” An intimate friend not only loves you, but would also speak the truth to you, even if it hurts.

Another element in intimate friendship is found in John 15 where Jesus says, “Greater love has no one than this, that he lay down his life for his friends. You are my friends.” The truest-of-the-true friend is one with whom there is an intimacy holding love closer than a brother. It’s a relationship with such honesty and devotion that the friend speaks the truth to the other, even if it wounds the person. Yet, for the truth spoken, it’s for the good of the other. Intimate friendship holds such love, one would even die for the other. Do you have friends like this? If you do, you are blessed, very blessed.

So against this backdrop of friendship’s value, let’s consider the story of Jesus calling Levi to be one of His disciples. Jesus came up to Levi, the tax collector, at his tax booth on the street and said simply, “Follow me.” Immediately Levi got up, left everything and followed Jesus.

Now tax collectors were among the most hated people of Jesus’s culture. They made their living by using their position of power to overcharge their fellow countrymen for self gain. It was extortion, pure and simple. Some say tax rates at that time were up to 50% of a person’s annual income.

Tax collectors were also hated because they were traitors. They had sold out to the Romans, who were cruelly oppressive to the Jews. In effect, tax collectors abandoned their faith in God for financial gain. So when Jesus called Levi – this hated, immoral tax collector – to come follow Him as one of His disciples, it must have been a shock!

It’s very striking to me that when Jesus called Levi, he immediately left everything behind. He didn’t pick a rendezvous spot for later after he could pack up his money and belongings. In a moment he left it all, right where it was. If we press the idea a bit, still today when Jesus calls a person to come follow, the individual leaves behind their past, leaves their position of power, leaves their old purpose, leaves the hold gripping their possessions, leaves their prestige. When we hear Jesus call us to trust Him and follow, we are to leave it all, too.

Do you know what else the follower of Jesus leaves? He leaves his guilt, his unhealthy rhythms, his immoral behaviors, his rebellious spirit, his egotistical attitudes. Why? Because when Jesus calls us to follow, we discover a new Lord who is our friend.

Why do we leave it all? Because Jesus loves sinners, and He calls us to a whole new way of life, a life lived in His love, His friendship, and His grace. We, too, hear the voice of Jesus call us to walk with Him in faith and friendship.

I once heard a pastor presenting at an alcoholism recovery conference. This pastor was himself a recovering alcoholic. He said: “The greatest compliment anyone can pay me is to call me a sinner!” He was discussing how powerful God’s grace is to the healing and hope of a recovering person.

Do you know why it’s a compliment to call him a sinner? Because Jesus Christ loves sinners. Jesus Christ came to save sinners. Jesus is the friend of sinners. Truly Jesus Christ came to love and save immoral, broken, flawed people. It’s not the healthy who need a doctor. Jesus is the friend of the sin-sick soul. Broken, immoral people have no pretext of being spiritually sufficient by themselves in life. They know they need God’s mercy and grace to rescue them. Sinners know they need a Savior.

May I be blunt? Dear listener, you are an imperfect sinner, not because I know you but because the Bible makes it clear that every one of us falls short of God’s glory and holiness. We are all sinners. We miss the mark. We sinners are attracted to the beauty of Jesus because He befriends, loves, and forgives sinners. However, there is more to this story.

Jesus was not deterred from befriending sinners nor pushed off His mission of love by the hypercritical judgment of the religious leaders of His time. In fact, the Pharisees sadly missed the revelation of His identity. They missed understanding His mission because they were spiritually arrogant and couldn’t admit their imperfections or confess their sins. Ironically, in their religious fervor, they missed the true essence of the heart of God. They missed Jesus’ free gift of salvation to sinners. Their arrogance blinded them.

However, the religious leaders did have a point of truth. To say Jesus is the friend of sinners and He came to seek sinners shows clearly a universal dilemma. How does God harmonize justice and mercy together? How can the law of God in the Bible be fulfilled, and, simultaneously, guilty people be forgiven?

We find the answer in the cross of Jesus. It is because Jesus is a friend of sinners who came to seek and love rebels that He had to die on the cross. In John 15:13 & 14, Jesus tells us, “Greater love has no one than this, than he lay down his life for his friends. You are my friends . . .” In Isaiah 53:6 it reads, “. . . the Lord God has laid on him the iniquity of us all.” When Jesus, the Son of God, sacrificially died on the cross, He took the punishment of the judgment I deserved. In Jesus’ death on the cross, God harmonizes justice and grace.

Who could be a better friend to us than Jesus? Is Jesus your friend?

Levi, the tax collector, now is a devoted follower of Jesus, and because he is Jesus’ ambassador, he wants others to meet his new friend. So he throws a party for his friends and all the tax collectors. He invites Jesus to meet them. It is a banquet of undesirables. Imagine Jesus Christ as the life of that party, mixing with everyone, bringing laughter and joy. Levi’s relationship with these people opened the access for a whole new circle of people to meet Jesus and experience life with God. Jesus became their friend because His arms are open to all.

Who today would be in that party? Who do religious people in today’s culture love to loathe? The amazing truth of Jesus is, He invites everyone to be His friend because He loves us all – no exceptions.

Just a short time after this story, in Luke chapter 7, Jesus finds Himself at another party. This time it was not with immoral people on the fringes, but rather with the upper crust of society – the rich, the powerful, and the religious at the home of Simon the Pharisee. Here we read another moment of Jesus’ tender love shown as a friend of sinners. In this formal banquet, as all the guests reclined at the table enjoying the food, into the party comes in an uninvited guest. It’s a woman of the street, a prostitute. She sets a jar of expensive perfume at Jesus’ feet. Then she weeps, and her tears wet His feet. She wipes them off intimately with her hair, kisses His feet in adoration and gratitude, and pours perfume over them.

This woman has found love and acceptance at the feet of Jesus. She is a sinner who has fallen in love with her Savior. The pain of her guilt and her difficult way of life now find healing in the acceptance of Jesus, friend of sinners.

So also Jesus calls me His friend. I, too, am an imperfect sinner needing what only Jesus can give. As my friend and your friend, Jesus calls us by name and gives us His forgiving love. Amen.

Pastor Lee Laaveg