Confronting Sin and Sinners

SOME CHRISTIANS TODAY seem to believe that Jesus never judged anyone. They feel that He welcomed everyone, without calling them to turn from their sin. This “live and let live” attitude hardly describes the Jesus we see depicted in the Gospels. Rather, these Scriptures show that the Lord reacted differently to different people in different circumstances, teaching us something about Himself and holding a mirror up to our actions as well.

Jesus’ Public Preaching

The Gospel of Mark, describes the beginning of Jesus’ public ministry in this way: “Now after John was put in prison, Jesus came to Galilee, preaching the gospel of the Kingdom of God, and saying: ‘The time is fulfilled, and the Kingdom of God is at hand. Repent, and believe in the gospel” (Mark 1:14, 15). The call to repentance was at the very heart of His teaching: of that there should be no doubt. How Jesus approached individuals who were living in sinful situations is another matter.

The Lord addressed very strong words to those who were the religious leaders of Israel – the Pharisees, Sadducees, scribes, and teachers of the Law – whom He judged to be failing in their mission to pastor God’s people. He publicly called them, “a wicked and adulterous generation” (Matthew 13:4); “blind guides” (Matthew 23:16, 24); “fools and blind” (Matthew 23:17, 19); “whitewashed tombs” (Matthew 23:27); and “serpents – brood of vipers” (Matthew 23:33). He told them that they had hard hearts! In Matthew 23 He repeatedly threatened them, “Woe to you, scribes and Pharisees, Hypocrites! … How can you escape the condemnation of hell?” (Matthew 23:13ff.). This is hardly the “gentle Jesus, meek and mild” beloved of so many. Yet, His hearers did not reproach Him for being politically incorrect; rather, “people were astonished at His teaching, for He taught them as one having authority, and not as the scribes” (Matthew 7:28, 29).

Jesus’ Approach to Individuals

The Lord’s approach was very different when He was trying to lead people to recognize their own sinfulness and repent, He was not aggressive or condemnatory, but He was not timid either. When He was dining on the Sabbath with a leading Pharisee, a man with dropsy (edema) was bought before Him. The Gospel says that Jesus asked the (unasked) question of the onlookers by asking them a question, “Is it lawful to heal on the Sabbath?” (Luke 14:7) His questions forced people to examine their own beliefs or attitudes, opening a way for them to see their own errors and repent. He met them where they were, but He did not encourage them to remain there.

The Lord used parables in the same way. When He noticed that people were jockeying for the best places at the table, the Lord told a series of parables on being the guest or a host at a wedding. His hearers got the point that He was making without any of them being singled out for their behavior.

Two Gospel incidents frequently heard in our churches show Jesus dealing with people who were public sinners, yet ready to hear His call to repentance. Before the Great Fast, we hear the story of Zacchaeus, a chief tax collector in Jericho, who admitted getting money by fraud (Luke 19:8). The Lord did not raise the issue of Zacchaeus’ financial manipulations even indirectly. He simple told Zacchaeus that, “today I must stay at your house” (v.5). Jesus allowed Zacchaeus to see Him close up; that alone was sufficient to bring him to repentance.

Something similar happened in the case of the Samaritan woman who met Jesus at Jacob’s Well. Like Zacchaeus, her way of life was already well known and she was probably not welcome among the local women. This explains why she had come to draw water at the height of the midday heat. Yet Jesus did not bring up the matter of her multiple marriages; He innocently asks her to call her husband. When she tells Him, “I have no husband” (John 4:17), then He responds, “You have well said, ‘I have no husband’ for you have had five husbands and the one whom you now have is not your husband; in that you have spoken truly” (vv. 17, 18). Jesus led her to raise the irregularity of her marital situation herself so that He could reveal His mysterious knowledge of her past and lead her to repentance.

Both Zacchaeus and the Samaritan woman (Photini, in some accounts) responded to Jesus’ presence by revealing their embarrassing secrets. They could not deceive Jesus into thinking them upright. They could not pretend an untruth in the face of the One who is the Way, the Truth and the Life.

John’s Gospel tells the story of another hapless woman: one caught in adultery (John 8:1-8). The scribes and Pharisees claimed that, according to the Law, she was to be stoned. They were right. The Law prescribed, “If a man be found lying with a woman married to a husband, then both of them shall die – the man that lay with the woman and the woman; so you shall put away the evil from Israel” (Deuteronomy 20:22).

In response, Jesus did not criticize the woman, her accusers, or the Law. To the accusers He simply said, “He who is without sin among you, let him throw a stone at her first” (v.8). He trusted that no one would dare to claim to be sinless, and He was right. They began drifting away, leaving Jesus and the woman together.

Daily during the Great Fast we say the Prayer of St Ephrem the Syrian, asking for the same spiritual insight these accusers were brought to remember. We pray, “Grant that I may see my own sins and not judge my brethren.” We must know sin when we see it, but not in a way that is judgmental of others.

The Lord did not criticize the woman caught in the act, but neither did He say, “I do not condemn you either. It’s all good.” She had sinned – she knew it and so did He. His response was, “Go and sin no more” (v. 11).

Fraternal Correction in the Church

The Lord expected His disciples, the leaders of His new community, to deal with sin in its midst. He told them, “Take heed to yourselves. If your brother sins against you, rebuke him, and if he repents, forgive him. And if he sin against you seven times a day, and seven times in a day returns to you saying, ‘I repent,’ you shall forgive him” (Luke 17:3, 4). Confronting sin in the community was as much part of their job as was extending forgiveness to the repentant.

Sometimes church leaders turn a blind eye to the unchristian behavior of members of their flock so as to keep them in the congregation. The Apostles were more concerned with helping their people avoid sin, even to the point of discussing it publicly. These are some of their directives found in the Epistles:

Brethren, even if anyone is caught in any trespass, you who are spiritual restore such a one in a spirit of gentleness, each one looking to yourself, so that you too will not be tempted. Bear one another’s burdens, and thereby fulfill the law of Christ. For if anyone thinks he is something when he is nothing, he deceives himself” (Galatians 6:1-5).

Those who continue in sin, rebuke in the presence of all, so that the rest also will be fearful of sinning” (1 Timothy 5:20).

My brethren, if any one among you strays from the truth and one turns him back, let him know that he who turns a sinner from the error of his way will save his soul from death and will cover a multitude of sins” (James 5:19, 20).

On some have compassion, making a distinction, but others save with fear, pulling them out of the fire, hating even the garment defiled by the flesh” (Jude 1:22, 23).