Now the tax collectors and sinners were all gathering around to hear him. But the Pharisees and the teachers of the law (scribes, NASB) muttered (grumbled, NASB), “This man welcomes inners and eats with them.”
Then Jesus told this parable1, “Suppose one of you has a hundred sheep and loses one of them. Does he not leave the ninety-nine in the open country and go after the lost sheep until he finds it? And when he finds it, he joyfully puts it on his shoulders and goes home. Then he calls his friends and neighbors and says, ‘Rejoice with me; I have found my lost sheep.’ I tell you that in the same way there will be more rejoicing in heaven over one sinner who repents than over ninety-nine righteous persons who do not need to repent.”
(Luke 15:1-7, NIV, 2005)
The New Living Translation (1996) refers to the “tax collectors” (et al) as “notorious sinners.” While Luke calls them sinners and the NLT describes them as notorious, this does not reflect the way God or Jesus perceived them. Rather, Luke is commenting on how Jewish society in Jesus’ day viewed these individuals. We can see this in the reaction of the spiritual elites to the Lord’s treatment of social outcasts. The “spiritual Jews” were (self-righteously) appalled.
How would we actually respond if someone who had a reputation for ripping people off or who was involved in prostitution were to express a strong interest in coming to church or hearing the Gospel? One of the easiest sins to commit is to view egregious sinners, who need Christ and are drawing near to hear him, with disdain, rather than with spiritual discernment and grace.
Why were “notorious sinners” coming to Jesus? The Apostle John remembered Jesus saying to the Jews who had seen him feed 5000 hungry adults, “No one can come to me unless the Father draws him . . .” (John 6:44a, NASB) The fundamental reason why people came to listen to the Lord was that God was impelling them to do so. Yet, I think there were at least two other reasons as well (both of which were part of the Father’s design).
First, the folks who gathered around Jesus had a crying need: They needed the salvation that Jesus alone could provide (See Luke 19:9; Acts 4:10-12 & Psalm 130:1-8). Most of us, much of the time do not realize how badly we need salvation from our self-directed lives and from things that separate us from the God who desires our fellowship, who – alone – can make us more like Jesus. The tax collectors and sinners somehow knew that Jesus could supply an escape from spiritual bondage.
Second, our Lord exuded a welcoming attitude toward those people whom society rejected out of hand. We can deduce this from the disgust of the Pharisees that Jesus even dined with such folks! Every sinner who regrets his/her way of life avoids self-righteous people like the plague. Who enjoys the company of proud moralists or “perfect” Pharisees – even if one’s sins are not very noteworthy? Yet those the Father draws can detect the humility of Jesus and are attracted to his gentleness. Do “sinners” see in us arrogance and a critical spirit, or humility and a desire to befriend them? One spirit repels the very sheep the Lord is seeking, while the other reflects the heart of God – a deep concern and profound compassion for those whom the world rejects.
1. Parable: an illustrative story that has one main point yet may have some analogous points of contact with the way God operates and relates to us, or how people perceive Him.