Friend of Tax-Gatherers and Sinners

It’s hard to hide a big party in a small town with an outdoor lifestyle and no sound-proofing. The Pharisees and scribes noticed Matthew’s and frowned. Then they asked a question that, of all the questions in the Gospels, might be the best cue for explaining Jesus’ mission.

“Why do you eat and drink with the tax-gatherers and sinners?” And Jesus answered and said to them, “It is not those who are well who need a physician, but those who are sick. I have not come to call the righteous but sinners to repentance.” (Luke 5:30-32. See also Matt. 9:10-13; Mark 2:15-17.)

The question is an example of the clash between two worldviews. Usually Jesus is the one exposing thinking and motives that are contrary to the kingdom way. Here the religious leaders take the initiative. Their question implies at least three things.

  • These people are bad. Tax-gatherers were considered traitors because they helped the Romans to exploit their Jewish subjects. Identified by bad behavior, or even being the victim of a disease or disability, sinners spoiled Israel’s chances of the Messiah coming. Both groups were despised.
  • There is no good reason to party with them. If Jesus was really a good man He would not mix with these people. Jesus is bad.
  • Of course it also implies that the Pharisees and scribes had expert knowledge of who and what satisfies God, that they knew the difference between good and bad.

So, their title for Jesus, “Friend of Tax-Gatherers and Sinners” (Luke 7:34), was not meant to be kind. “Like arrows, the words were designed to hurt, but they unintentionally advertised the wide embrace of God. As Jesus reached out His hand to sinners, an accusing finger pointed straight at His cold-hearted, self-assured opponents.”1

Religion2 has a different worldview to the kingdom of God. Religion is a system run by respected authorities. It believes qualifications are required for relationship with God (be or do certain things and avoid other things). Religious people are quick to judge and condemn. Religion often supports or tolerates social systems, politics, and traditions that conflict with God’s heart. The Pharisees and scribes wouldn’t dream of compromising their beliefs and accepting Jesus’ kingdom; with their complex system they had too much at stake. Worse, they hid the key, preventing others from entering, especially the ones they despised (Matt. 23:13; Luke 11:52).

However, the spiritually and socially sick are precisely those who most need (and often know they need) the Physician. They are likeliest to grab His prescription and take His medicine. They are the poor in spirit who most easily inherit the kingdom because they have nothing to lose and everything to gain. Being despised they tended to avoid religious places and people. That’s why Jesus made house calls and did open-air clinics.

Who are today’s despised? One indicator is when people admire Jesus but think church is not for them. Another sign is whose presence in religiously inclined Christian gatherings shocks or offends the regulars. Is it the homeless, mentally challenged, or addicted? What about sex workers or LGBTQs? The distinctives might be color, language, or culture, even different “Christian” practices—anything we do not easily identify with or understand, especially when, in our circles, it has a negative value. When politics and nationalism become overly mixed into our beliefs it is harder to accept that anyone holding different political views could be legitimate.

However, in Jesus’ kingdom, earthly barriers are down (Eph. 2:14). Jesus said people will be surprised who’s at the big party in heaven (Luke 13:22-30).

  1. From: The Name Quest – Explore the Names of God to Grow in Faith and Get to Know Him Better, by John Avery, Morgan James Publishing, 2015. Page 253. Used with permission. Other Bible versions say Friend of Tax-collectors and Sinner. []
  2. Like most of my posts that comment on religion I use the word for a system of Christian beliefs and practices that seem to agree with biblical theology but lack the power of a living relationship with God modeled by Jesus with His Father. But I am not the judge of who the label fits or of the final outcome of religion. []

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