The Friend of Sinners

by Charles Kingsley (1819-1875)

 

“And it came to pass, that, as Jesus sat at meat in his house, many publicans and sinners sat also together with Jesus and his disciples: for there were many, and they followed him. And when the scribes and Pharisees saw him eat with publicans and sinners they said unto his disciples, How is it that he eateth and drinketh with publicans and sinners?”

—Mark 2:15-16

 

We cannot wonder at the scribes and Pharisees asking this question. I think that we should most of us ask the same question now, if we saw the Lord Jesus, or even if we saw any very good or venerable man, going out of his way to eat and drink with publicans and sinners. We should be inclined to say, as the scribes and Pharisees no doubt said, Why go out of his way to make fellowship with them? To eat and drink with them?

 

He might have taught them, preached to them, and warned them of God’s wrath against their sins when he could find them out in the street. Or, even if he could not do that, if he could not find them all together without going into their house, why sit down and eat and drink? Why not say, No I am not going to join with you in that? I am come on a much more solemn and important errand than eating. I have no time to eat. I must preach to you, ere it be too late. And you would have no appetite to eat, if you knew the terrible danger in which your souls are.

 

Besides, however anxious for your souls I am, you cannot expect me to treat you as friends, to make companions of you, and accept your hospitality, while you are living these bad lives. I shall always feel pity and sorrow for you: but I cannot be a table companion with you, till you begin to lead very different lives.

 

Now if the scribes and Pharisees had said that, should we have thought them very unreasonable? For whatsoever kinds of sinners the sinners were, these publicans were the very worst and lowest of company. They were not innkeepers, as the word means now; they were a kind of tax-gatherers: but not like ours in England. For first, these taxes were not taken by the Jewish government but by the Romans, heathen foreigners who had conquered them, and kept them down by soldiery quartered in their country. So that these publicans, who gathered taxes and tribute for the heathen Csesar of Rome from their own countrymen, were traitors to their country, in league with their foreign tyrants, as it were, devouring their own flesh and blood; and all the Jews looked on them (and really no wonder) with hatred and contempt. Beside, these publicans did not merely gather the taxes, as they do in free England; they farmed them, compounded for them with the Roman emperor; that is, they had each to bring in to the Romans a stated sum of money, each out of his own district, and to make their own profit out of the bargain by grinding out of the poor Jews all they could over and above–and most probably calling in the soldiery to help them if people would not pay.

 

So this was a trade, as you may easily see, which could only prosper by all kinds of petty extortion, cruelty, and meanness; and, no doubt, these publicans were devourers of the poor, and as unjust and hard-hearted men as one could be. As for those ‘sinners’ who are so often mentioned with them, I suppose this is what the word means. These publicans making their money ill, spent it ill also, in a low profligate way, with the worst of women and of men.

 

Moreover, all the other Jews shunned them, and would not eat or keep company with them; so they hung all together, and made company for themselves with bad people, who were fallen too low to be ashamed of them. The publicans and harlots are often mentioned together; and, I doubt not, they were often eating and drinking together, God help them!

 

And God did help them. The Son of God came and ate and drank with them. No doubt, he heard many words among them which pained his ears, saw many faces which shocked his eyes; faces of women who had lost all shame—faces of men hardened by cruelty, and greediness, and cunning, till God’s image had been changed into the likeness of the fox and the serpent; and, worst of all, the greatest pain to him of all, he could see into their hearts, their immortal souls, and see all the foulness within them, all the meanness, all the hardness, all the unbelief in anything good or true. And yet he ate and drank with them. Make merry with them he could not: who could be merry in such company?

 

But he certainly so behaved to them that they were glad to have him among them, though he was so unlike them in thought, and word, and look, and action. And why? Because, though he was so unlike them in many things, he was like them at least in one thing. If he could do nothing else in common with them, he could at least eat and drink as they did, and eat and drink with them too. Yes. He was the Son of man, the man of all men, and what he wanted to make them understand was that fallen as low as they were, they were men and women still, who were made at first in God’s likeness, and who could be redeemed back into God’s likeness again.

 

The only way to do that was to begin with them in the very simplest way; to meet them on common human ground; to make them feel that simply because they were men and women he felt for them; that simply because they were men and women he loved them; that simply because they were men and women he could not turn his back upon them for the sake of his Father and their Father in heaven.

 

If he had left those poor wretches to themselves; if he had even merely kept apart from their common every-day life, and preached to them, they would never have felt that there was still hope for them, simply because they were men and women. They would have said in their hearts:

 

“See; he will talk to us; but he looks down on us all the time. We are fallen so low, we cannot rise; we cannot mend. What is there in us that can mend? We are nothing but brutes, perhaps; then brutes we must remain. Heaven is for people like him, perhaps; but not for such as us. We are cut off from men. We have no brothers upon earth, no Father in heaven. Let us eat and drink, for to-morrow we die.”

 

Yes; they would have said this, for people like them will say it too often now, here in Christian England.

 

But when our Lord came to them, ate and drank with them, talked with them in a homely and simple way (for our Lord’s words are always simple and homely, grand and deep and wonderful as they are), then do you not see how self-respect would begin to rise in those poor sinners’ hearts? Not that they would say, “We are better men than we thought we were”. No; perhaps his kindness would make them all the more ashamed of themselves, and convince them of sin all the more deeply; for nothing, nothing melts the sinner’s hard, proud heart, like a few unexpected words of kindness ay, even a cordial shake of the hand from anyone who he fancies looks down on him.

 

To find a loving brother where he expected only a threatening schoolmaster, that breaks the sinner’s heart; and most of all when he finds that brother in Jesus his Saviour. That the sight of God’s boundless love to sinners, as it is revealed in the loving face of Jesus Christ our Lord that, and that alone, breeds in the sinner the broken and the contrite heart which is in the sight of God of great price. And so, those publicans and sinners would not have begun to say “We are better than we thought”, but:

 

“We can become better than we thought. He must see something in us which makes him care for us. Perhaps God may see something in us to care for. He does not turn his back on us. Perhaps God may not. He must have some hope of us. May we not have hope of ourselves? Surely there is a chance for us yet. Oh! if there were! We are miserable now in the midst of our drunkenness, and our covetousness, and our riotous pleasures. We are ashamed of ourselves: and our countrymen are ashamed of us: and though we try to brazen it off by impudence, we carry heavy hearts under bold foreheads. Oh, that we could be different! Oh, that we could be even like what we were when we were little children! Perhaps we may be yet. For he treats us as if we were men and women still, his brothers and sisters still. He thinks that we are not quite brute animals yet, it seems. Perhaps we are not; perhaps there is life in us yet, which may grow up to a new and better way of living. What shall we do to be saved?”

 

Blessed charity, bond of peace and of all virtues; of brotherhood and fellow-feeling between man and man, as children of one common Father. Ay, bond of all virtues of generosity and of justice, of counsel and of understanding. Charity, unknown on earth before the coming of the Son of man, who was content to be called gluttonous and a wine-bibber, because he was the friend of publicans and sinners!

 

My friends, let us try to follow his steps; let us remember all day long what it is to be men; that it is to have every one whom we meet for our brother in the sight of God; that it is this, never to meet any one, however bad he may be, for whom we cannot say: “Christ died, for that man, and Christ cares for him still. He is precious in God’s eyes; he shall be precious in mine also”.

 

Let us take the counsel of the Gospel for this day, and love one another, not in word merely in doctrine, but in deed and in truth, really and actually; in our every-day lives and behaviour, words and looks. In all of them let us be cordial, feeling, pitiful, patient and courteous. Masters with your workmen, teachers with your pupils, parents with your children; be cordial, and kind, and patient. Respect every one, whether below you or not in the world’s eyes.

 

Never do a thing to any human being which may lessen his self-respect; which may make him think that you look down upon him, and so make him look down upon himself in awkwardness and shyness; or else may make him start off from you, angry and proud, saying:

 

“I am as good as you; and if you keep apart from me, I will from you; if you can do without me, I can do without you. I want none of your condescension.”

 

It is not so. You cannot do without each other. We can none of us do without the other; do not let us make anyone fancy that he can, and tempt him to wrap himself up in pride and surliness, cutting himself off from the communion of saints, and the blessing of being a man among men.

 

And if any of you have a neighbor or a relation fallen into sin, even into utter shame; oh, for the sake of Him who ate and drank with publicans and sinners, never cast them off, never trample on them, never turn your back upon them. They are miserable enough already, doubt it not. Do not add one drop to their cup of bitterness. They are ashamed of themselves already, doubt it not. Do not you destroy in them what small grain of self-respect still remains.

 

You fancy they are not so. They seem to you brazen-faced, proud, impenitent. So did the publicans and harlots seem to those proud blind Pharisees. Those pompous self-righteous fools did not know what terrible struggles were going on in those poor sin-tormented hearts. Their pride had blinded them, while they were saying all along “It is we alone who see. This people, which knoweth not the law, is accursed.” Then came the Lord Jesus, the Son of man, who knew what was in man; and he spoke to them gently, cordially, humanly; and they heard him, and justified God, and were baptized, confessing their sins ; and so, as he said himself, the publicans and harlots went into the kingdom of God before those proud, self-conceited Pharisees.

 

Therefore, I say, never hurt anyone’s self-respect. Never trample on any soul, though it may be lying in the veriest mire; for that last spark of self-respect is as its only hope, its only chance; the last seed of a new and better life; the voice of God which still whispers to it, “You are not what you ought to be, and you are not what you can be. You are still God’s child, still an immortal soul: you may rise yet, and fight a good fight yet, and conquer yet, and be a man once more, after the likeness of God who made you, and Christ who died for you!”

 

Oh, why crush that voice in any heart? If you do, the poor creature is lost, and lies where he or she falls, and never tries to rise again. Rather bear and forbear; hope all things, believe all things, endure all things; so you will, as St. John tells you in the Epistle, know that you are of the truth, in the true and right road, and will assure your hearts before God. For this is his commandment, that we should believe in the name of his Son Jesus Christ, and believe really that he is now what he always was, the friend of publicans and sinners, and love one another as he gave us commandment.

 

That was Christ’s spirit; the fairest, the noblest spirit upon earth; the spirit of God whose mercy is over all his works; and hereby shall we know that Christ abideth in us, by his having given us the same spirit of pity, charity, fellow-feeling and love for every human being round us.

 

And now, I will also give you one lesson to carry home with you, a lesson which if we all could really believe and obey, the world would begin to mend from tomorrow, and every other good work on earth would prosper and multiply tenfold, a hundredfold ay, beyond all our fairest dreams. And my lesson is this: When you go out from this church into those crowded streets, remember that there is not a soul in them who is not as precious in God’s eyes as you are; not a little dirty ragged child whom Jesus, were he again on earth, would not take up in his arms and bless ; not a publican or a harlot with whom, if they but asked him, he would not eat and drink now, here, in London on this Sunday, the 8th of June, 1856, as certainly as he did in Jewry beyond the seas, eighteen hundred years ago.

 

Therefore do to all who are in want of your help as Jesus would do to them if he were here; as Jesus is doing to them already: for he is here among us now, and forever seeking and saving that which was lost; and all we have to do is to believe that, and work on, sure that he is working at our head, and that though we cannot see him, he sees us; and then all will prosper at last, for this brave old earth whereon we are living now, and for that far braver new heaven and new earth whereon we shall live hereafter.

 

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