You’ve heard about them. You’ve read about them. Now you’re standing face-to-face with one. I’m talking about bad people, those who’ve given in to the dark side of life and are publicly or privately operating far off the God grid. Sin is their chosen mode of operation, and they can make your life uncomfortable.
The Bible makes it clear that we are not to abandon such people. We’re to interact with them in meaningful ways. But how? How do we step into their swirling cauldron of confusion, contradictions, and spiritual warfare in order to introduce (or reintroduce) the love of God to them? More to the point, how did Jesus do it?
The Gospels offer three amazing illustrations of how Jesus treated bad people. These examples should provide a divine template for us to use as we attempt to model His methods. So without any further ado, welcome to “How Jesus Treated Bad People 101.” Your instructor? Jesus Himself.
example 1: out on a limb
Like the song says, “Zacchaeus was a wee little man.” He was small both in stature and in character. As chief tax collector (agent of the Israelite IRS), he went around forcing his fellow countrymen to pay taxes to the despised Romans. He often collected more than was necessary, making himself wealthy. Is it any wonder that the Jewish people despised him?
One day Zacchaeus was in Jericho doing what he did best when he heard that Jesus, the famous Rabbi who healed the sick, was passing through. The taxman decided he wanted to see this popular Stranger. But being “a wee little man,” as the children’s song says, standing in a curious crowd afforded him a perfect view of a lot of backs and bellies and not much more.
Never letting his lack of height interfere with his tall plans, he looked around for a solution and found it towering nearby. Sycamore trees dotted the landscape, and just down the road was a perfect specimen, complete with sturdy branches and enough leaves to hide his curiosity.
Along comes the master Teacher surrounded by attentive disciples, a group of recently healed sick people, a gaggle of questioning admirers, and even a few hecklers. Zacchaeus smiled inwardly. He’d found the best seat for the spectacle unfolding below him.
But Jesus, upon reaching the tree, suddenly stopped. Slowly, with a smile spreading across His rugged, sun-tanned face, He looked up—right at Zacchaeus. The taxman grinned self-consciously. “Hello,” he called down, suddenly wishing he were much smaller than he was.
“Zacchaeus,” the master Teacher called, “come down immediately. I must stay at your house today” (Luke 19:5).
In stunned wonder, the short man made the long journey from his tree limb to the ground. “You want to come to my house?” he asked.
“This way,” Zacchaeus stammered, pointing down the road. “Just . . . follow me.”
Later, after Zacchaeus and Jesus had spent some time together, an incredible thing happened to the little man: he grew up, not in height but in character. “Look, Lord,” he announced as recorded in verse 8. “Here and now I give half of my possessions to the poor, and if I have cheated anybody out of anything, I will pay back four times the amount.”
Zacchaeus, the crooked tax collector, met Jesus face-to-face. His sentence? “Invite Me to your home.”
Christ doesn’t want us to hold anyone at arm’s length. Our warm, Christian embrace should include saint and sinner alike. Of course, we need to protect ourselves from being swept into a life tainted by the sin of the ones we embrace, but no one should ever feel worthless or shunned in our presence. Zacchaeus was literally respected into compliance with the will and law of God. Do you know anyone who could use a big dose of respect today? It can make all the difference in their eternal destiny!
example 2: undercover sinner
One day, just after dawn, Jesus was teaching at the temple in Jerusalem when a group of men dragged a woman into His presence and dumped her at His feet. “Teacher,” they said, “this woman was caught in the act of adultery. In the Law Moses commanded us to stone such women. Now what do you say?” (John 8:4, 5).
Silently, Jesus bent down and started writing in the sand with His finger. I have no idea what He wrote, but the men saw something there that made them decide they were late for some important appointments somewhere else.
Soon, only Jesus and the accused remained—sinner and Savior standing face-to-face. “Woman,” He said quietly, “where are they? Has no one condemned you?”
The woman, sensing that this confrontation was going to turn out quite differently than she’d expected, answered in a whisper, “No one, Sir.”
The next words out of Jesus’ mouth, combined with the story of Zacchaeus, changed the way I interact with all people. Gazing intently into the eyes of the woman caught in adultery, Jesus said, “Then neither do I condemn you. Go now and leave your life of sin” (verses 10, 11).
Notice the “leave your life of sin” advice came after those beautiful words of noncondemnation. Our interaction with sinners must not come from a platform of judgment or correction. It has to begin with love—nonjudgmental love, unconditional love. Once that has been fully given and accepted, and only then, should we in any way suggest a better way to live. The woman seriously considered that second statement of Christ’s only because she’d heard and fully appreciated the first.
example 3: hanging in the balance
Next, we are on a hilltop just outside the walls of Jerusalem, where we find Jesus hanging in agony on a Roman cross. On each side of Him, impaled on crosses of their own, are two sinners, thieves whose lives have been filled with violence and lawlessness.
One curses the dying Savior with these mocking words: “Aren’t you the Messiah? Save yourself and us!” (Luke 23:39).
The other thief turns to his fellow criminal and groans through his own pain, “Don’t you fear God, . . . since you are under the same sentence? We are punished justly, for we are getting what our deeds deserve. But this man has done nothing wrong” (verses 40, 41).
Then, looking over at the Savior, he adds, “Jesus, remember me when you come into your kingdom” (verse 42).
Jesus answers, “Truly I tell you today, you will be with me in paradise” (see verse 43).
Both thieves suffered and died that day. But only one felt the impact of heavenly love and acceptance before dying. No, it wasn’t the cursing thief. It was the one who made a simple request from his dying heart, “Remember me.”
This tells me that I’ve got to learn to see people through Christ’s eyes. My vision is so unlike His! I have a hard time looking past the sin, past the lifestyle, past the unbelief. But, that day on Calvary’s hill, Jesus heard something in the thief’s voice that He recognized. They were all about to die, but this convicted criminal—possibly for the first time ever—saw hope hanging beside him and responded to it.
I must never think that a person is beyond the love of God. I must never turn my back on a fellow sinner hanging beside me on the cross of his or her own choices. God expects me to be ready to react in love, even when I’m feeling the pain of my own destruction.
member to member
Recently, in the light of the homophobia swirling around our nation, I posted something on a social media page. Reactions were revealing. Here’s what I wrote:
“Protecting the human and civil rights of someone whose lifestyle doesn’t meet our personal standard isn’t ‘supporting’ or ‘promoting’ that lifestyle. It’s promoting and supporting that person’s humanity and the fact that he or she is a child of God. We’re all the beneficiary of the love of Someone who sees our sins and failings (even the hidden ones) and still loves and protects us. Jesus tenderly served the very people who would betray and abandon Him. As He served them—even washing their dirty feet—He said, ‘Do this in remembrance of me’ (Luke 22:19).”
One person quickly responded with this Bible verse. “I am writing to you that you must not associate with anyone who claims to be a brother or sister but is sexually immoral or greedy, an idolater or slanderer, a drunkard or swindler. Do not even eat with such people” (1 Corinthians 5:11).
Wow! Even Jesus didn’t follow that advice! But, as we’ll discover, context is king. Paul wrote those words to church members, some of whom were acting in some very unchurch-member-like ways. Here’s how The Message translation of the Bible presents that all-important context:
“I wrote you in my earlier letter that you shouldn’t make yourselves at home among the sexually promiscuous. I didn’t mean that you should have nothing at all to do with outsiders of that sort. Or with crooks, whether blue- or white-collar. Or with spiritual phonies, for that matter. You’d have to leave the world entirely to do that! But I am saying that you shouldn’t act as if everything is just fine when a friend who claims to be a Christian is promiscuous or crooked, is flip with God or rude to friends, gets drunk or becomes greedy and predatory. You can’t just go along with this, treating it as acceptable behavior. I’m not responsible for what the outsiders do, but don’t we have some responsibility for those within our community of believers? God decides on the outsiders, but we need to decide when our brothers and sisters are out of line and, if necessary, clean house” (1 Corinthians 5:9–13, The Message).*
It seems God expects us to treat “insider” bad people differently from those outside of our church circle. That makes sense. We’d expect more from a child we’ve trained in our home than from a child we haven’t trained. But even this correction should be carried out with love and respect. The goal in such cases isn’t rejection. It’s reclamation.
Then there was this comment on my post. “We can accept sinners no matter the sin, but aren’t we obligated to help our brother regarding right and wrong?”
Good point. I responded by asking, “Am I obligated to point out your wrongs? How would you like it if I did?” Then I added: “How about I just love you unconditionally and show you with my life what I believe to be right. Better yet, how about if I introduce you to Jesus and His forgiving love as I faithfully serve and protect your rights as a human being and child of God?”
So how did Jesus treat bad people? Think long and hard about how He has treated you through the years, then go and do likewise.
* Bible verses marked The Message are taken from The Message. Copyright © 1993, 2002, 2018 by Eugene H. Peterson. Used by permission of NavPress Publishing Group.
Charles Mills is a professional freelance writer who lives in Berkeley Springs, West Virginia, USA. He is a frequent contributor to Signs of the Times®.