One of the criticisms that Jesus' enemies so often employed was that He ate with the publicans and sinners. We find this criticism recorded for us in the following passages: Matthew 9:10, 11; 11:19; Mark 2:15, 16; Luke 5:30, 7:34, 15:1. This criticism was no doubt leveled at Jesus due to the fact that he associated with these people in order to teach them the gospel. The Pharisees had a strict standard with whom a "faithful Jew" could and could not associate. In essence they labeled out particular people in society and forbade the "faithful" to have relationships with them. These people included publicans, harlots, Samaritans, and "sinners."
Publicans were basically the tax collectors of the day, and carried out the will of the Roman Empire by collecting from the Jewish people. From their frequent association with gentiles alone, this made them "off-limits" to the "faithful" Jew. Publicans also had a practice of taking more taxes than the government required. John the baptizer told these tax-collectors that they needed to repent of this practice (Luke 3:12, 13).
Samaritans were half-blood Jews and that made them impure in the mind of the Pharisees. The Samaritans were descended from the Jewish people who were left behind during the Babylonian captivity. These married the pagans who were already in the land and intermingled themselves so as to violate God's requirements under the Old Law regarding marriage (Deut.7:3; Ezra 10:2).
The harlots of the day were what we would consider prostitutes today. They sold their bodies for money. The Pharisees did not associate with them, no doubt, to maintain their sparkling reputation of "righteousness" among the Jewish people. Sinners were just any other kinds of people that no doubt, sinned, but also, that the Pharisees would not associate on account of their "reputation." These sinners might have been adulterers, thieves, or even other harlots and publicans. It was an all-inclusive category.
First, it should be clear to all that Jesus did not associate with these people in order to engage in their sinful practices. Jesus was the sinless Lamb of God (1 Peter 1:19). He never once committed a sin nor even spoke an inappropriate word (1 Peter 2:22). Second, it should also be clear that Jesus did not associate with these people in order to legitimize their sin. Jesus called upon these people to repent (Matthew 9:13). He taught them that they needed to give up their sin and give their life to God (Luke 15:1-32). Third, it should also be clear that Jesus did not associate with these people to aid them to further commit sin. When the woman taken in adultery was brought before Jesus (John 8:2-11) Jesus did not condemn her to death; however, Jesus told her to "go, and sin no more." His refusal to condemn the woman to death was not license for her to continue to commit adultery.
Jesus did associate with these people in order to teach and preach the gospel (Matthew 21:28-32). What ought we to conclude from Jesus' association with these classes of society? First, we need to be out associating with those classes of society as well for the same purpose. As Christians, we need to be in the world, but not of the world (1 Cor.5:10). What does this mean? It means that we associate with people who are steeped in sin, but we don't participate in that sin. If we were to stop all association with anyone who had sin in their lives, then we would have to go "out of the world." While such may be possible (that is, to practice some bizarre type of isolationism); it is certainly not feasible.
Second, we ought to be telling these lost sinners about the gospel. More than anything else, these classes of society desperately need the power of the gospel (1 Cor.6:9-11). We ought to focus our efforts upon bringing these to salvation through preaching a message of repentance and love, not through shunning them and isolating them from the rest of society. This means that we have to spend time among them and get to know them personally (as did Jesus) so that we can call them to repent in those areas of life where they need to repent.
Third, we ought not to criticize those who are trying to do such. Such displays a true Pharisaical attitude toward teaching and preaching the gospel to the lost. I'm opposed to homosexuality, but I want the homosexual to repent and be saved. I'm opposed to adultery, but I want the adulterer to repent and be saved. I'm opposed to murder, but I want the murderer to repent and be saved. I'm opposed to immodesty, but I want the immodest person to repent and be saved. If that means that I have to be involved in wholesome community events where these people are at, then I will be there. When we oppose those, who are associating with these kinds of people in order to help them come to the gospel and repent, we are really saying that a certain class of people are not worthy of the gospel. God is no respecter of persons (Rom.2:11; Acts 10:34), and neither ought Christians to be.
We have a great challenge before us today to take the gospel to the lost. Instead of discouraging the hands of our brethren by criticizing (in the above way) their efforts at doing that job, we ought to be supportive and uplifting. It is not inconsequential that those who discourage others in this way, are often the least involved in evangelistic efforts. Such criticism is not only discouraging, but hypocritical. These would do well to heed the advice of Jesus in Matthew 7:1-5. Let us always remember the words of Paul the apostle to the evangelist Timothy, "This is a faithful saying, and worthy of all acceptation, that Christ Jesus came into the world to save sinners; of whom I am chief" (1 Tim.1:15). Let us obey our Master, go into the world, and preach the gospel (Matthew 28:19, 20).