“To err is human“, famously wrote Alexander Pope. This is very true. But what do we do about it? When people err, the modern approach as seen on social media seems to be to condemn them for it, and if the error is severe enough, to cancel them for it. For Jesus, the sort of error that matters most is sin, and yet Jesus does not use the “social media” approach for sinners. Instead, he looks to the real person and, instead of calling out the sin, he calls the sinner.
The gospels tells of a woman caught in the act of adultery. The voices of those who caught her demanded from Jesus a quick condemnation. Indeed, she was guilty of a serious sin, which Jesus did not deny. Yet Jesus looked beyond the adultery to the woman herself:
The scribes and the Pharisees brought a woman who had been caught in adultery; and making her stand before all of them, they said to him, “Teacher, this woman was caught in the very act of committing adultery. Now in the law Moses commanded us to stone such women. Now what do you say?” They said this to test him, so that they might have some charge to bring against him. Jesus bent down and wrote with his finger on the ground. When they kept on questioning him, he straightened up and said to them, “Let anyone among you who is without sin be the first to throw a stone at her.” And once again he bent down and wrote on the ground.When they heard it, they went away, one by one, beginning with the elders; and Jesus was left alone with the woman standing before him. Jesus straightened up and said to her, “Woman, where are they? Has no one condemned you?” She said, “No one, sir.”And Jesus said, “Neither do I condemn you. Go your way, and from now on do not sin again. [John 8:3-11]
Yes, Jesus saw that the woman had done wrong: he called it sin. But he did not condemn her for it. Nor did he extract concessions from her. He simply called her to repentance, rescued her from her enemies, and set her free.
Jesus called other serious sinners too. Palestine, where Jesus lived and taught, was at the time ruled by the Roman empire, which outsourced tax collection to locals. These tax collectors used their role to extort from taxpayers additional funds for themselves. One such extortionist, Levi, Jesus invited to follow him. Levi threw a dinner party and invited his fellow tax collectors to have dinner with Jesus. Voices were raised against Jesus, condemning him for associating with Levi and his colleagues:
As he was walking along, he saw Levi son of Alphaeus sitting at the tax booth, and he said to him, “Follow me.” And he got up and followed him. And as he sat at dinner in Levi’s house, many tax collectors and sinners were also sitting with Jesus and his disciples—for there were many who followed him. When the scribes of the Pharisees saw that he was eating with sinners and tax collectors, they said to his disciples, “Why does he eat with tax collectors and sinners?” When Jesus heard this, he said to them, “Those who are well have no need of a physician, but those who are sick; I have come to call not the righteous but sinners.” [Mark 2:14-17]
Jesus acknowledged that Levi was a sinner. But in response to voices clamoring for condemnation, Jesus explained that it was exactly sinners that he had come to call. Indeed, Levi, extortionist no more, became the faithful apostle Matthew, one of the twelve apostles and writer of the first Gospel.
Jesus’ attitude to those who sin was, and is, not just for himself alone, it is one he expects his followers to hold:
“You have heard that it was said, ‘You shall love your neighbor and hate your enemy.’ But I say to you, Love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you, so that you may be children of your Father in heaven; for he makes his sun rise on the evil and on the good, and sends rain on the righteous and on the unrighteous. [Matthew 5:43-45]
These are challenging words, especially coming from Jesus, who had some cruel enemies. He did call them out when he had to, when they were teaching others wrongly, and they despised him for it. They hated Jesus so much that they trumped up false charges against him and had him publicly tortured and executed. But Jesus loved them anyway, even praying for them as he was being crucified [Luke 23:34]. For Jesus, loving one’s enemies is not a mere pious feeling or intention, it is a choice of love over condemnation, a real, concrete act of disregard for the natural voices in every human being, voices that call for destruction and vengeance on those who wrong us.
When faced with human sin, even when clamorous voices call for dire action, Jesus shows a way to cut through the noise to get to what is really important. Jesus acknowledges the sin, but focuses on the person first, and invites them to repentance. Yes, to err is human, but Jesus’ approach to this is not the “social media” approach, which focuses on condemning the error: instead, Jesus focuses on loving the human. We would do well to do the same.