Like many followers of Jesus that I know, I sometimes struggle to move outside the comfort zone of my family and established friends to hang out with those far from God. While God has given me a sustained passion to connect with the lost and help them discover Jesus, developing a functional lifestyle of doing so is a work in progress. What inspires and convicts me most to do so is the example of Jesus, who was accused of being a man who welcomed sinners and ate with them (see Luke 15:2).
Being a “friend of sinners” is the vivid testimony of how Jesus chose to prioritize his focus and time. This theme was also emphasized in his teaching. In the parable of the two lost sons, Jesus said of the younger, rebel son;
But when he was still a long way off, his father saw him and was filled with compassion for him; he ran to his son, threw his arms around him and kissed him.
The father’s son was not ‘home’ yet. He had not fully returned. In fact, he was still a long way off from that!
Question: How do you and I honestly feel about people who are a long way off from being where they were meant to be in terms of their relationship with God?
While the son was still a long way off, several things happened:
- The father sees him.
- Having seen him, the father is filled with compassion for him.
- The father pursues him.
- The father unmistakably embraces his very prodigal son.
Here are a few lessons I am wrestling with that come out of my reflection on this parable:
- Unless I am looking for those far from God, I will likely not see them. Oh, I might see them with my human eyes, but such limited vision won’t register deep within as it must for me to be like Jesus. Am I looking for the lost? And since they are often all around me, do I “see them”?
- One test as to whether I see those as Jesus did has to do with what happens to my heart. Am I filled with compassion for them or with disgust and judgement…or just plain indifference?
- It is a rather simple test to find out if compassion is at work in my heart. When I “see” a prodigal, does my heart motivate me to pursue them or avoid them? The active side of Jesus’ ministry was motivated by compassion. His heart was broken for the broken, and it moved him into action. Is this true of me…of you? If I do not move toward the lost and broken that God brings across my path, then this is a clear sign that my heart is not broken for the broken. God, have mercy on me.
- To see and feel compassion, and even then, to move meaningfully toward the prodigals, is one thing. It can be a dangerous scandal to then authentically embrace them…to warmly identify with them. Yet this is precisely what Jesus did every time he welcomed sinners and ate with them.
- Finally, am I worthy of being accused like Jesus of being the friend of sinners?
The good news that encourages my heart in all of this, is that the same compassion that God pours out to those far from God, he gladly provides to me as I continue to make my journey to become like Jesus in every way. Like Jesus’ first ding-a-ling disciples, you and I are also recipients of God’s patient, transformative love and power—at work in us to make us more like Jesus in word and deed.
Please consider leaving a comment and let me know how this theme registers with you. How and why are you challenged in being a friend of sinners?