READ : Luke 15:1-2
It was meant to be an insult, even a condemnation, but to many of us it’s a tribute and a blessed truth. How can we put all that together? Listen. I’m reading from the gospel according to Luke, chapter 15, verses 1 and 2:
Now the tax collectors and sinners were all drawing near to hear him. And the Pharisees and the scribes murmured, saying, “This man receives sinners and eats with them.”
They branded Jesus as a man who identifies Himself with outcasts, and they hated Him for it. We see it all in a different light. We’re glad. We’re grateful. We worship Him because He welcomed sinners.
That same strange double meaning emerges in many of the things that His enemies said about Jesus. Some accusations, of course, were manifestly untrue. They called Him a blasphemer when He gave hints of who He really was. They branded Him a sinner because He did not in their judgment adhere to the strict details of the law. They spoke of Him derisively as a glutton and a drunkard, since He did not fast in their manner. In a more sinister way, they said “He has a demon,” an “unclean spirit,” “He casts out demons by the prince of demons.” Perversely, they were twisting His works of saving mercy to accuse Him of conspiring with evil powers. Ominously, they said “He deserves death.” We can gain no light about Jesus’ true identity and character from such malicious charges as these.
But sometimes His enemies, either unwittingly or with devious intent, said things about Him that were true. For example, when they wanted to trap Him in the matter of whether or not to pay taxes to Caesar, they began with these honied words, “You are true, and teach the way of God truthfully, and care for no man; for you do not regard the position of man” (Matt. 22:16). They couldn’t have said it better. And think of those things that were said at the time of His crucifixion, sometimes in irony, sometimes in mockery, sometimes in a treacherous way, yet always with the ring of truth. Judas says, “Hail, Master.” The soldiers say, “Hail, king of the Jews.” The inscription over His cross says, “This is Jesus, the king of the Jews.” “He trusts in God,” they railed, “He saved others. Himself He cannot save.” This was a charge of weakness, helplessness, but its words penetrate to the heart of Jesus’ mission. He couldn’t save Himself because He was committed to saving us. Finally, there’s this word about His “receiving sinners.”
Let’s take a closer look at what was happening here. The publicans and sinners were drawing near to Jesus. The verb form suggests that this kept on happening. Wherever He went, people of this type approached Him, sought Him out. More, the gospel says, they were coming to hear Him. They were interested in what He had to say. They had a heart to listen to Jesus’ word.
He, for His part, received them. The word means literally “to take toward oneself.” He welcomed them, in other words. He showed them full acceptance. He was glad when they came. Further, He ate with them, which was a further step toward intimacy. Table fellowship is always a sign of closeness, of personal identification with others.
At this, the Pharisees and scribes murmured. Apparently, they didn’t challenge Him directly, didn’t accuse Him to His face. They rather groused among themselves, stirring up each other in scorn and anger at what they saw happening. These religious leaders disdained to share any table fellowship with those they considered sinful. It was a part of their tradition. “Let not a man associate with the wicked, not even to bring him to the law.” On their view, no motivation could justify this kind of contact with evildoers. The Pharisees and scribes strongly feared pollution, becoming religiously unclean by association with such people. So they played it safe. They took no risks on this score. When they saw Jesus, then, a man who professed to be a teacher of God’s ways, associating with these tax collectors and sinners, they couldn’t rejoice. They were scandalized. It was inconceivable to them that God could have interest in such people, much less show favor to them.
What they snarled about Jesus (“this man receives sinners and eats with them”) was the most withering kind of indictment from their point of view. To these Jewish leaders, such behavior was a patent instance of guilt by association. If He received such people, was He not condoning their corrupt practices, endorsing their lifestyle? And when He did that, what could it be but a tacit encouraging of them in the wayward path they had chosen? Didn’t such association, therefore, make Jesus a partaker of the evils in which these people were involved? It was self-evident to Jesus’ critics that a man is known by the company he keeps, and that Jesus at heart must be like the shady characters He was so quick to receive.
When it was tax collectors that He welcomed, the situation became even more ominous. The tax collectors, the publicans, were agents of the Roman oppressors. They often gouged their own people in order to fill Rome’s coffers with tax money and to enrich themselves by fat commissions. What loyal patriotic Israelite could look on one of these leeches without indignation? To socialize with them seemed an act of treason.
And mealtime fellowship – this was the final sign of betrayal. Would Jesus actually recline at table with these outcasts, eat their dainties, laugh at their jokes, dip in the same dish with their guilty hands? What more proof did anyone need that Jesus was an impostor? How could any true spokesman for God stoop to this?
The scribes and Pharisees were convinced that Jesus’ eating with tax collectors and sinners was the last straw. It accentuated all the other evils they saw involved. Perhaps they thought of the progress in association with evil represented in the first psalm. A man first “walks in the counsel of the wicked.” Then he “stands in the way of sinners.” Finally he “sits in the seat of scoffers.” Table fellowship, in their eyes, was that last descent to degradation. When you sit down and eat with these people, you’ve gone all the way in compromise and defilement. You are totally identified with them then. You obviously enjoy their company and share their wicked ways.
Now think with me about why these same words spoken about Jesus sound so different to us today. For one thing, we have a different view of who the “sinners” are. In the light of the gospel, that designation takes in everyone. All have sinned and come short of the glory of God. “There is none righteous,” Paul writes, “no not one.” “All we like sheep have gone astray,” says the prophet. “We have turned everyone to his own way.” Jesus can say to all of His followers indiscriminately, “If you then, being evil, know how to do this and that . . . .” Because we all fail to love God with our whole hearts, as we’re called to do, and to love our neighbors as ourselves, we all stand as those judged by God’s law and by the blameless life of the One who kept the law. So hearing that Jesus receives sinners, welcomes them to Himself, is for us good news! We believe that. We proclaim it to the world. We glory in this: that Jesus will receive the vilest and most abandoned people who turn to Him, who listen to His Word, who repent and believe. Anyone who will welcome His gift of grace, Jesus welcomes.
And He eats with tax collectors and sinners, that is, He identifies Himself with them. That also is a message of hope for us. We see Jesus doing that initially in His baptism. Though He has lived a life with which the Father is well pleased and has no need of repentance, He is baptized in the waters of Jordan, identifying Himself in that way with the sinful ones He has come to save.
This taking responsibility for our evils comes to its fullest expression in Jesus’ cross. He so identifies Himself with our guilt and evil that He bears our load, suffers the stroke of the judgment due to us, and dies for our sins. Listen as the apostle Paul opens up the riches of that mystery. “God has made him [that is, Jesus] to be sin for us that we might be made the righteousness of God in him” (2 Cor. 5:21). He is totally identified with us in our sin so that we may be totally one with Him in His righteousness. Now all who believe are united with Christ by the power of His Holy Spirit. We become the members of His body, receiving the gift of His risen life. We are bound together in the bundle of life with the risen Redeemer.
A MATTER OF MOTIVATION
In interpreting this behavior of Jesus, His receiving tax collectors and sinners and eating with them, everything depends on how we understand His motivation. Why does He welcome them and sit at table with them? What is He after? What is He seeking to accomplish by this? What does it tell us about who He is? The Pharisees and scribes, from their perspective, malign Him. They put the worst possible construction on His motives, and sadly, in so doing, they witness against themselves. They have no good will for the tax collectors and sinners, no desire to reach out to them, to bring them good news, so they cannot imagine such an intent in Jesus. He must be doing it all, they think, as a rebel against God, His law and His people.
What shall we say today of the followers of Jesus who seek to befriend gang members or bear witness to prostitutes? They make themselves vulnerable to the same accusations, don’t they? From some, they may provoke the same sneers and hostility. Anyone who identifies himself or herself with despised ones, social outcasts, moral lepers, assumes considerable risk.
But some of us have come to see Jesus in a different light. We have seen in His life and ministry, in His way of relating to people and supremely in His self-giving love even to death, just why He receives sinners, why He eats with them. Those whom others avoid out of fear, suspicion and contempt, Jesus seeks with a heart of yearning love. He receives tax collectors like Zaccheus, or like that breast-beating man in His little parable, not to endorse their way of living but to give them a new life. He sits down at table with them, not because He wants to descend to their level but because He longs to lift them to His.
To anyone willing to listen, Jesus was ready to explain the logic of His approach. Why care about these people, why reach out to them, why welcome them, dine with them? “Because,” He says, “it’s not the healthy people who need a doctor but those who are sick.” He did not come, He said, to call righteous persons but sinners to repentance. He is the healer, the life-giver, the Savior. Where the sinners are, that’s where Jesus wants to be.
I called this message, “The Man Who Receives Sinners,” and that’s what it’s about, about Jesus. But when we talk about Him, we’re speaking of the One who said, “He who has seen me has seen the Father.” In His face shines the light of the knowledge of God’s glory. The good news that sounds forth in the ministry, the passion and the rising of Jesus is that God welcomes sinners and receives them to Himself. If you’re willing today to recognize that you are among their number, He is waiting to welcome you. We sing it in a familiar gospel song:
Sinners Jesus will receive:
Sound this word of grace to all
Who the heavenly pathway leave,
All who linger, all who fall.
Draw near to Him with a penitent trusting heart and He will never turn you away. This is the Man, the God-Man, who welcomes sinners.