“Be careful who you associate with, for they will drag you down with them.” This axiom was regularly quoted by adults as I was growing up in the ’70s and ’80s. Afraid of an increasingly dangerous and hostile world, our parents warned us again and again about our choices of friends. And today with teens of my own, I find these words, or at least this sentiment, on my lips more than I’d like. “If your friends get busted while you’re there, it doesn’t matter if you’ve partaken; you’re in the same trouble they are.” The common phrase to describe this is “guilty by association”.
Today we see once again that this is also a biblical concept. The Psalmist regularly proclaims himself righteous because he doesn’t “sit with mockers” or “associate with the ungodly”. He proclaims himself someone who brings up the righteousness of a room, if you will. And that’s an interesting question for us as Christians: do we bring up the righteousness of the room we enter? Do we strive to live more righteous lives so that we are a good influence on those around us? Or do we let others bring us down to their level?
The problem with the idea of “guilty by association” is that it was a charge leveled at Jesus time and time again (Luke 7:34 for one). He was considered less godly because of the people with whom He associated – tax collectors, prostitutes, commoners all. So if we are to be like Jesus, should we avoid sinners, seek out sinners, or live somewhere in between?
The reason Jesus was “a friend of sinners” was because He was ministering to them, because they were following Him, not because He liked a good beer now and then and those stuffy church people wouldn’t drink with him. Yes, Jesus welcomed absolutely everyone (even Pharisees!) into His hospitality and ignored the “guilty by association” claim. But He did so because every person He met was a potential follower, not because their sin was ok with Him. After all, He did come “for the sick, not the well.”