Sinners. —In order that we may understand what the word means in the Gospels, it is necessary to consider for a moment the peculiar viewpoint of the Law, by which the teaching of Christ and that of the Rabbis are utterly differentiated. To the latter the Law came with the inexorable demand for absolute and complete obedience, as something to be dreaded, therefore. Thus the mass of the people, who were ignorant of the endless Rabbinical precepts, were held to be ‘accursed’ ( John 7:49). Christ, on the contrary, saw in the Law a moral ideal, something to be befriended and loved. He bade men strive after attaining this ideal, which was the embodiment of love, and He sought to set them free from the Rabbinical interpretation of the Law. A mere outward violation of the letter of the Law did not necessarily constitute an offence. Thus He exculpated His disciples, who had plucked ears of corn on the Sabbath day, by citing the example of David ( Matthew 12:1-4). He excused the healing of the impotent man ( John 5:1-9) by citing the custom of circumcising on the eighth day, though it fell on the Sabbath ( John 7:23). With Christ a higher principle always set aside the letter of the Law. This viewpoint fully explains His attitude to sin and to the sinner. And yet these peculiar views of the Law are associated with the profoundest reverence for it ( Matthew 5:17 f., Matthew 7:12, Matthew 22:40, Luke 16:17 etc.).
1. Christ’s relation to sinners. —Here His mission shone resplendent in all its fulness. For them He came to this world, to them He had a special message. ( a ) He freely mingled with them , and that without fear of contamination, Matthew 9:10-11; Matthew 11:19, Mark 2:15-16, Luke 5:30; Luke 15:2; Luke 19:7. The Samaritan woman is a clear case in point, John 4. ( b ) He had compassion on them , Luke 7:47. ( c ) He irresistibly drew them , Luke 15:1 etc. ( d ) He specially called them , Matthew 9:13 || Mark 2:17 and Luke 5:32. ( e ) He rejoiced in their salvation , Luke 15:7; Luke 15:10; Luke 18:13-14.
2. Use of the word ‘sinners’ In the Gospels. —The word ἁμαρτωλός from ἁμαρτία, ‘sin’ or ‘error,’ is used in several senses, ( a ) The national sense . Thus it indicates the distinction between Jew and Gentile from the ethnico-religious standpoint. St. Paul thus later used the word, Galatians 2:15 ‘We who are Jews by nature and not sinners of the Gentiles.’ Thus it is used Matthew 26:45, Mark 14:41, Luke 24:7. See also Luke 6:32 f., where ἁμαρτωλοί replaces τελῶναι and ἐθνικοί in the parallel passage Matthew 5:46-47, which would seem to indicate that St. Luke also uses it here in the national rather than in the ethical sense. ( b ) The social sense . Thus it seems to indicate the distinction between the righteousness of the Law-burdened Jew and his more ignorant brethren, who, not knowing the Law and therefore continually trespassing its commandments, were deemed ‘accursed.’ Here the word seems to have a negative rather than a positive meaning, pointing to the absence of legal righteousness rather than to actual transgression. Thus ‘publicans’ and ‘sinners’ are always associated in the Gospels. In this connexion the latter term does not qualify the moral status of the publican, but rather points to the forced association of the ignorant and ostracized elements of Jewish society with the hated minions of Rome. ( c ) The purely ethical sense . In this sense conscious or unconscious moral guilt is associated with the word. Thus Peter in Luke 5:8; ‘sinners’ and ‘righteous’ people are placed in antithesis in Matthew 9:13, Mark 2:17, Luke 5:32; in Mark 8:38 the word is associated with μοιχαλίς; so also in the story of the sinful woman, Luke 7:37 : so in the great parables of Luke 15, and esp. in the story of the healing of the man born blind, in John 9, where it repeatedly occurs in a manifest ethical sense. See, further, art. Sin.
Henry E. Dosker.