THE BLOG
09/24/2012 03:23 pm ET Updated Nov 24, 2012

Sinners, the Bible and Jesus

It's common to hear Christians saying things like "We're all sinners who need God's grace," and "Whoever is without sin, let them cast the first stone." Cliché-ish though they may be, they carry a great deal of truth. Any honest person recognizes her faults, carries her regrets, and wishes she might improve. It's a good thing God is kind because we're pretty much a mess. But if it's good theology to recognize that we all are sinners, that assumption can also lead to misunderstanding when it comes to reading the Bible.

Many biblical authors recognize the universality of sin. In Romans 3:10-18, Paul rattles off a series of indictments against sinful humanity: no one is righteous; no one truly seeks God; all have turned aside; people use their tongues to deceive and to curse; people do not know the way of peace or the fear of God. Paul's account represents no uniquely Christian insight; the Apostle is simple quoting a variety of passages from the Jewish Scriptures. Almost all of them come from the Psalms.

But if the Psalms acknowledge humankind's universal sinful condition, they also discriminate between the righteous and the wicked. Psalm 1 begins by blessing those who do not take the path of sinners: the wicked cannot withstand the judgment, nor can they assemble among the righteous. God watches over the way of the righteous, but the way of the wicked leads to destruction. Psalm 34 celebrates how God rescues the righteous from their troubles, while evil brings death to the wicked. And Psalm 37 instructs its reader to heed the example of blameless and righteous persons.

Some Christians might be tempted to object. "Well, the Old Testament may divide the world between the righteous and the wicked, but the New Testament is a book of grace. In the New Testament we're all sinners who stand in need of God's grace." That objection simply fails. For one thing, the Jewish Scriptures testify to God's grace just as fully as do the New Testament writings. When God reveals the divine nature to Moses, God's voice proclaims, "The LORD, the LORD, a God merciful and gracious, slow to anger, and abounding in steadfast love and faithfulness" (Exodus 34:6, NRSV). The passage does go on to name God's judgment against the guilty, a sentiment no less consistent in the New Testament than in the Jewish Scriptures. The biblical God, whether "Old" or "New" Testament, is a God of grace.

The New Testament itself discriminates between righteous people and sinners. When the anonymous woman comes to anoint Jesus in Luke 7:36-50, the storyteller leaves no question as to whether she's a sinner: "a woman in the city, who was a sinner..." (NRSV). Thinking to himself, Jesus' host surmises that if Jesus were a prophet, he would recognize her status as a sinner. And Jesus himself says aloud that her sins are "many." The story singles out the woman as a sinner, leaving open the assumption that others in her world must be righteous.

Jesus himself acknowledges the distinction between righteous people and sinners, claiming that he comes to call not the righteous but sinners to repentance (Matthew 9:13; Mark 2:17; Luke 5:32). His parable of the sheep and the goats divides judgment according to the righteous and the, well, goats (Matthew 25:31-46), while his parable of the lost sheep reemphasizes the distinction between sinners who repent and those who do not need repentance (Matthew 18:12-14; Luke 15:3-7).

Hence, many parts of the Bible do distinguish righteous persons from wicked ones. We may ignore that distinction. Or we may rationalize it: "Oh, we're all sinners, but Jesus makes us righteous before God." Both choices will prevent us from understanding passages like the ones we've just reviewed.

Simply, in the biblical world some people were considered righteous and others wicked. We may even assume that some people regarded themselves as righteous, while others accepted their own status as sinners. We lack clear evidence, biblical or otherwise, as to what defined the two categories. Most scholars think, as I do, that the distinction boiled down to whether people basically tried to live according to Israel's covenant with God. People who flagrantly disregarded the Law were sinners; others could stand among the righteous.

But there's a hitch. Without clear criteria -- and what clear criteria could there have been? -- the distinction between sinners and the righteous amounted to a social verdict. Modern anthropologists would interpret this distinction in terms of labeling and deviance: labeling has to do with the values societies assign to individuals, and deviance involves how societies determine who counts among the unworthy. In other words, categories like "righteous" and "sinner" reflect social values that are subject to change from one period to another and from one culture to another.

Why does it matter? Jesus' opponents routinely criticized Jesus for cavorting with "tax collectors and sinners" (Matthew 9:11; Mark 2:16; Luke 5:30). In turn, Jesus' followers celebrated this reputation. They remembered that such people freely chose to follow Jesus (Matthew 9:10; Mark 2:15; Luke 15:1-2). They recalled how Jesus envisioned the tax collectors and prostitutes preceding the righteous in God's new reign (Matthew 21:31-32).

The acknowledgement of tax collectors and prostitutes reveals something about sinners in Jesus' day -- and our own. Many people live in desperate circumstances. We may deplore their lifestyles, but we should also consider how they came to pass. No one in Jesus' day grew up thinking, "I hope I'll be a tax collector when I grow up" any more than young girls daydream about a life of prostitution today. Yet there they are: people corrupted by exploitative economics and people abused for others' pleasure. Both "sinners" in society's vision; both companions of Jesus in early Christian memory.

If you'd like to read more about the question of sinners and Jesus' ministry among them, please read my book, 'Sinners: Jesus and His Earliest Followers.'