Jesus, Friend of Sinners – Part 1

Jesus and adulteress woman

This is the first few articles that I will be posting entitled Jesus, Friend of Sinners. This first article only scratches the surface of the various sub-topics to which this broad topic has lead. I hope you will enjoy exploring this subject with me.

Recently, I heard a song by the popular Christian band Casting Crowns called “Jesus, Friend of Sinners” for the first time. The song is a call for unity within the body of Christ, to put down pointing fingers and judgementalism and show the world the love of Christ. The first part of the song, I think, accurately paints a picture of the current state of religious Christianity in our present day, while calling for a radical reform within our ranks. Here is the first verse and chorus:

Jesus, Friend of sinners we have strayed so far away
We cut down people in your name but the sword was never ours to swing
Jesus friend of sinners the truth’s become so hard to see
The world is on their way to You but they’re tripping over me
Always looking around but never looking up I’m so double minded
A plank eyed saint with dirty hands and a heart divided

Chorus:
Oh Jesus, friend of sinners
Open our eyes to the world at the end of our pointing fingers
Let our hearts be led by mercy
Help us reach with open hearts and open
Oh Jesus friend of sinners break our hearts for what breaks yours

In days when homosexuality and abortion are hot topics and call for hard lines to be “drawn in the sand,” we need to know where those boundaries are between the sin and the sinner. We need to be able to stand firm in upholding the biblical definition and rejection of sin, while extending our arms to the sinner to be embraced by the love of our Messiah. However, the the first part of the next verse is what caught my attention. Here it is:

Jesus, friend of sinners – the one who’s writing in the sand
Make the righteous turn away and the stones fall from their hands

Here we have a commentary on Jesus’ encounter with the woman “caught in very the act of adultery” (according to the KJV) from the 8th chapter of the Gospel of John (verses 2-11). We are all familiar with this passage, but let me refresh our memory before we continue.

Early in the morning he came again to the temple. All the people came to him, and he sat down and taught them. The scribes and the Pharisees brought a woman who had been caught in adultery, and placing her in the midst they said to him, “Teacher, this woman has been caught in the act of adultery. Now in the Law Moses commanded us to stone such women. So what do you say?” This they said to test him, that they might have some charge to bring against him. Jesus bent down and wrote with his finger on the ground. And as they continued to ask him, he stood up and said to them, “Let him who is without sin among you be the first to throw a stone at her.” And once more he bent down and wrote on the ground. But when they heard it, they went away one by one, beginning with the older ones, and Jesus was left alone with the woman standing before him. Jesus stood up and said to her, “Woman, where are they? Has no one condemned you?” She said, “No one, Lord.” And Jesus said, “Neither do I condemn you; go, and from now on sin no more.” (John 8:2-11)

In this encounter, Jesus is confronted with a test from some of the religious leaders of his day. As he sits down to teach the crowd, a woman is brought before him with the claim that she was “caught in adultery, the very act” (KJV). They then press Jesus with the question regarding the situation of an adulteress in the Torah (vs. 5). Jesus acts as if he is ignoring the accusers, bending down and beginning to write on the ground with his finger. When he is questioned again he stands, responding with the famous quote, “Let him who is without sin among you be the first to throw a stone at her.” (verse 7). He sits back down and begins to write on the ground a second time. Those around Jesus began leaving “one by one, beginning with the older ones,” until only Jesus and the woman were left. Jesus stands and addresses the woman, asking her where her accusers had gone, and if anyone was left to condemn her. She replies that no one was left to accuse her. Jesus then responds with the celebrated words “Neither do I condemn you; go, and from now on sin no more.”

A Closer Look

Although this passage has been admired by the church over the centuries — and is, in fact, due considerable admiration for the way Jesus, the Master of Torah, uses Torah to uphold the justice of Torah — we have heralded it largely for the wrong reasons. Almost inevitably, when reading the story of the adulterous woman in John’s Gospel, most readers will envision a summary statement that reads like the words of a newspaper headline: “Grace conquers Law.” We tend to think that Jesus overrides the Torah with his decision to ignore the “letter of the law” and show mercy to this woman. However, if we have a good familiarity with the Torah and we understand the actual situation properly, it becomes quite clear what is happening in this encounter. But before we get into the technical details of how Jesus handled this dispute, here is the question to which I have been building up:

Who were those who were holding the stones, eager to deal the blows of death to this woman? Were they really the righteous as the song presumes? If they were truly the righteous, then they would and should be loved of God, as it is said, “the Lord loves the righteous” (Psalm 146:8). Or does this story help us distinguish the righteous from the unrighteous?

Let’s review the lyrics in question again:

Jesus, friend of sinners – the one who’s writing in the sand
Make the righteous turn away and the stones fall from their hands

I’m sure the author had noble intentions when penning these lines. Their honesty, however, exposes a truth within our ranks that needs addressing. When we read this passage in John’s Gospel, the vast majority of us make the same assumptions as the author of these lyrics — namely that those who are ready to stone this poor woman are those who are “righteous” by definition of the Law, and are typical of those living “under the law.” After all, aren’t they just doing what the Law has prescribed – stoning an adulterous woman? Don’t we see their actions as the poster child of Judaism, while we see the “grace” of Jesus in this instance as the epitome of Christianity?

But the only way for these lyrics to make any sense is to turn the tables and make the unrighteous become the righteous, and vice versa. Why? Because if we were to be honest, the only one righteous in this whole story is Jesus. We know the position of the woman. She has been brought before Jesus on grounds of adultery, a serious charge. Regarding the ones who held the stones, we would have to say that they were not upright in their actions. Therefore, they would fall into the category of unrighteous as well. As a matter of fact, they were the ones breaking God’s Law to a greater degree than the woman. They actually knew the measures prescribed by the Torah for dealing with adultery, yet willfully chose to act in opposition to God’s instructions. This automatically places them in the category of “sinner,” rather than “saint;” “unrighteous,” rather than “righteous.”

Here is where “Jesus, friend of sinners” fails. We would never knowingly call Jesus a friend to these hypocrites who turn God’s holy system of justice on its head. We would never rightly call Jesus an advocate of these who would “call evil good and good evil, who put darkness for light and light for darkness, who put bitter for sweet and sweet for bitter” (Isaiah 5:20). Why, then, do we do so in this story? We loath the villains – those who have brought the woman before Jesus – but at the same time we call them “the righteous.” This is a contradiction and we must admit it. In our zeal to show the sinner love and mercy, we often topple the definitions of “sin” and “righteousness,” completely blurring the lines between the two. We must keep in mind that Jesus does not love sinners because of their sin. There is no merit in being a sinner. His heart is drawn to sinners in order that they might turn from their sin and become one among the righteous of his people. He sees their potential and beckons them to leave their present circumstance and allow him to wipe away their stains and release them from the shackles of their sins (Psalm 146:7).

There is a rabbinic saying, which states, “Even righteous people cannot stand in the place of those who repent”. 1 Although worded in a different manner than we are accustomed, this central theme continues to act as the driving force behind the ministry of Jesus. The words that have the more familiar ring to our saintly ears are, “Just so, I tell you, there will be more joy in heaven over one sinner who repents than over ninety-nine righteous persons who need no repentance” (Luke 15:7). Why doesn’t heaven rejoice over the one who is faithful, diligent and true? Because of the Father’s love for all of His creatures and His longing to have all of humanity reconciled to Himself. This point is emphasized in Luke’s account of the “sinful woman” who washed his feet with her tears (of repentance), anointed them with oil and then wiped them with her hair.

“And the Pharisees and their scribes grumbled at his disciples, saying, “Why do you eat and drink with tax collectors and sinners?” And Jesus answered them, “Those who are well have no need of a physician, but those who are sick. I have not come to call the righteous but sinners to repentance.”” (Luke 5:30-32)

Jesus continually emphasizes this point when he tells the Parable of the Lost Sheep (Luke 15:1-7), the Parable of the Lost Coin (Luke 15:8-10) and the Parable of the Lost (Prodigal) Son (Luke 15:11-32). There are others as well. My point is this: Jesus’ love and longing for the sinner is born out of his Father’s will that “whosoever believeth on him might be saved.” It is not his identification of commonality with sinners. Let me once again emphasize that there is no merit in being a sinner. The point of Jesus’ mission is not to start Club Sinner. His mission is to restore broken people, transforming sinners into saints, and not merely through membership card distribution.

Summary

Yes, Jesus is a Friend to sinners. But his love calls them to leave everything — particularly their sin — in order to follow him. He makes a distinction between the righteous and the sinner, never blurring the lines that define them. The righteous are truly righteous, and the sinners truly sinners.

In my next article we will continue to explore this theme, Jesus, Friend of Sinners, by examining the details surrounding this instance and how Jesus used the justice of the Torah to defend this woman, rather than merely forgiving her and ignoring the Torah’s system of justice.

  1. b.Berachot 34b

You have heard that it was said… But I say to you – Part 1

Torah Scroll

Over the last few posts, I have been dealing with topics addressed in Oskar Skarsaune’s book, In The Shadow of the Temple. In this post I would like to address another such topic. In order to do so we must first look at the teachings of Jesus which are relevant to this discussion. They are as follows:

You have heard that it was said to those of old, ‘You shall not murder; and whoever murders will be liable to judgment.’ But I say to you that everyone who is angry with his brother will be liable to judgment; whoever insults his brother will be liable to the council; and whoever says, ‘You fool!’ will be liable to the hell of fire. (Matthew 5:21-22, ESV)

You have heard that it was said, ‘You shall not commit adultery.’ But I say to you that everyone who looks at a woman with lustful intent has already committed adultery with her in his heart. (Matthew 5:27-28, ESV)

It was also said, ‘Whoever divorces his wife, let him give her a certificate of divorce.’ But I say to you that everyone who divorces his wife, except on the ground of sexual immorality, makes her commit adultery, and whoever marries a divorced woman commits adultery. (Matthew 5:31-32, ESV)

Again you have heard that it was said to those of old, ‘You shall not swear falsely, but shall perform to the Lord what you have sworn.’ But I say to you, Do not take an oath at all, either by heaven, for it is the throne of God, or by the earth, for it is his footstool, or by Jerusalem, for it is the city of the great King. And do not take an oath by your head, for you cannot make one hair white or black. Let what you say be simply ‘Yes’ or ‘No’; anything more than this comes from evil. (Matthew 5:33-37, ESV)

You have heard that it was said, ‘An eye for an eye and a tooth for a tooth.’ But I say to you, Do not resist the one who is evil. But if anyone slaps you on the right cheek, turn to him the other also. (Matthew 5:38-39, ESV)

You have heard that it was said, ‘You shall love your neighbor and hate your enemy.’ But I say to you, Love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you,  so that you may be sons of your Father who is in heaven. (Matthew 5:43-45, ESV)

In each of these teachings from the Sermon on the Mount in Matthew 5, Jesus makes a contrast between what was said previously (or “to those of old”) and his “new” instruction. There are different thoughts as to what he means by these contrasts, but I should like to address one in particular which has been offered by Skarsaune. He begins by commenting,

Jesus, obviously, never authenticated his teaching the way the rabbis did. He never said “I have received as a tradition”. “He taught them as one having authority, and not as the scribes” (Mk 1:22). Nor did he speak like a prophet. He never made himself a representative of God by using the prophetic messenger formula.

He spoke God’s word, he said God’s Law, in his own name. “You have heard that it was said [by God] to those of ancient times [at Sinai], … but I say to you” (Mt 5:21–22, 27, 31, 33, 38, etc.). For Jewish ears, this must have been shocking. They must have asked, “who are you, to set your own authority above that of the Law?” 1

In Skarsaune’s first statement, he is correct in his observation that Jesus did not validate his teachings as other rabbis. He had no previous authority from which he received his teaching, other than God alone. He taught by his own authority, not in the authority of another.

In Skarsaune’s next observation, however, we hear him speaking aloud the subconscious heart of modern Christian theology. Skarsaune interprets the phrase, “You have heard…” to mean, “You have heard that it was said [by God] to those of ancient times [at Sinai].” Here Jesus states what was spoken in the Law of Moses, and begins to change and to correct these antiquated laws which have become burdensome to the Jewish nation. According to Skarsaune, Jesus is said to set his “own authority above that of the Law.”  He later notes that, Jesus “…can deepen, radicalize, even correct the Torah2

With these statements, Skarsaune reveals an unconscious bias towards the supposed deficiency of the Torah, the Word of God previously given to His people. He sees it as needing correction, change, alteration in order to adapt God’s commandments to a new, Christian era. He doesn’t see the Word of the God being as immutable as God Himself. He assumes that the Torah can somehow be modified.

Theology Today

When asked if Jesus abrogated, repealed, overturned, or annulled the Law, most Christians will chime in with an emphatic, “No!” However, in our teaching, preaching and our daily lives, we state just the opposite. We play word games to try to uphold the Scriptures, while at the same time negating them. Skarsaune does this very thing. He attempts to justify his statements by saying Jesus can “correct the Torah; not by abrogating it, not by doing it away, but by making it complete” (p. 333). But this, along with all other similar attempts, is just a word game.

Although there is no malicious intent, this is the same theology that our pulpits and theological seminaries are producing. Through both our bias and our misunderstanding of the Jewish nature of our Master’s teaching we have unintentionally (and sometimes intentionally) interpreted the words of Jesus in a way which contradicts the words of his Father. We translate Jesus’s “fulfill” of Matthew 5:17 to really mean “abolish,” even though we deny such a definition. Yet, when we reduce the meaning down to the practical, it has the same result. Our “fulfilling” really means “abolishing.”

More to come…

  1. In the shadow of the temple : Jewish influences on early Christianity. 2002 (331). Downers Grove, Ill.: InterVarsity Press.
  2. Ibid. (p. 333).

God Hates Shrimp (But approves of homosexuality)

Did that get your attention? A friend of mine just sent me a link to a site which uses the argument “God hates shrimp” to show that Christians are hypocritical in their attack on homosexuality—an Old Testament prohibition—while continuing to indulge in other OT abominations (aka “eating shellfish”). While I totally disagree with the conclusions of this website (that homosexual behavior is completely acceptable for Christians), I think this is a great site to prove my point in my Justified By Love article. No Torah, no truth. Know Torah, know Truth. Check it out:

http://www.godhatesshrimp.com/

The Divine Disconnect

Yesterday, for my drash, I spoke on what I called, “The Divine Disconnect.” To me it is the crux of Yeshua’s ministry, and all of Scripture for that matter. The focus of my discussion revolved around Yeshua’s teaching in Matthew 5:20, which says,

“For I tell you, unless your righteousness exceeds that of the scribes and Pharisees, you will never enter the kingdom of heaven.”

Traditionally, this has been interpreted as meaning that the righteousness of the scribes & Pharisees was based on keeping the Law, but our righteousness must be based on faith in Yeshua, and this latter righteousness surpasses the previous. However, this interpretation doesn’t hold any water, particularly in relationship to the context of Yeshua’s teaching, either broadly throughout the Gospels or more narrowly within the Sermon on the Mount (Matthew 5-7). The immediate context of this statement seems to make a clear case for the way it was to be understood. The statements that immediately precede this are:

“Do not think that I have come to abolish the Law or the Prophets; I have not come to abolish them but to fulfill them. For truly, I say to you, until heaven and earth pass away, not an iota, not dot, will pass from the Law until all is accomplished. Therefore whoever relaxes one of the least of these commandments and teaches others to do the same will be called least in the kingdom of heaven, but whoever does them and teaches them will be called great in the kingdom of heaven.” (Matthew 5:17-19, ESV)

From this we see that Yeshua’s topic was the importance of the mitzvot. However, his emphasis was not on the mere adherence to the external strictures of mitzvot. His point, I believe, was well taken when he contrasted his expectations in regard to Torah against the known practices of some of his contemporaries within Pharisaic leadership. What is the heart of this warning against? In a nutshell, hypocrisy. There were many in the day of the Master who believed what we believe today: That it is fair to judge others by their actions, while judging ourselves by our hearts. But Yeshua calls us to a higher standard. He calls for both our hearts & actions to be joined together in the service of the Creator. Whereas the Pharisees of which Yeshua spoke had either the heart or the actions, there remained a disconnect between the two. How many of us have fallen into this trap?

We are quick to decry any kind of “works” based on our misunderstanding of Paul’s polemic against the topic. However, how many of us can truly say that we haven’t tasted the “leaven of the Pharisees?” It seems that as human beings, we are caught in the middle of a juggling act, constantly trying to find a balance between our love and our response to that love. It seems we are constantly settling for one or the other. There are those who are holed into the polar extremes of this, but most of us are somewhere right in the middle. On one extreme, there are those of us who smugly assert our theological creedos of how much we can’t “earn grace,” and therefore are completely devoid of any righteous fruit in our lives. On the other, there are those of us who are so focused on bringing back the mitzvot (commandments) which have been all but lost over the last two millennia that we tend to forget the weightier matters of Torah—love, mercy, compassion, etc. But most of us fall somewhere in between. We tend to struggle with maintaining a balance between what we know and feel, verses how we respond to that. There is somehow a “disconnect” between our flesh and spirit, and we are inevitably making corrections & adjustments along the way.

But such is life. If we ever get to the point that we are settled in our relationship to the Almighty, something has grown cool. Until we shed this mortal coil, I believe we will constantly battle to serve the King of the Universe “בכל לבבך” (b’chol levav’ka)—”with all your heart.” Because in order to serve Him whole heartedly, it requires a death—the death of the one giving service. For unless we die, our service will ever be tainted. But a one-time death will not suffice. Thus, we hear the message of the Master echo in our ears: “Repent! For the Kingdom of Heaven is at hand!” Therefore, let us repent and die today, in order that we will live tomorrow as a whole person.

“Repent one day before your death.” (Rabbi Eliezer, Avot 2:15)

“Repent, for the kingdom of heaven is at hand.” (Yeshua, Matthew 4:17)