Irony of ironies it is all ironies; to paraphrase Solomon. I hear from people quite often that Jesus hung out with tax collectors and sinners. They often substitute prostitute for sinner to really drive home their point. The compelling reason for this argument stems from a desire to build a case against what many call contact or cold evangelism.
Furthermore, they seem to think that referring to Matthew 9 makes their case for them. The greatest irony is that they clearly miss the point of what was happening there. Moreover, I think the use of tax collectors and sinners is an easy go to. Not that it is from laziness, but instead from lack of confidence in their understanding of Scripture.
Where the Problem Lies
Contemporary western Christianity has been inculcated with the idea of relationship first, then the Gospel. One can hardly blame the individual people that make up the Church Universal for something that they have been taught. Especially if it has been taught to them wrongly.
Much of this stems from the faulty presupposition that Christianity is a relationship and not a religion. Furthermore, when one hears this from the pulpit and from esteemed Christian speakers frequently, it becomes the norm. As with any cliché that enters Christian vernacular, once ensconced, it is incredibly difficult to remove.
Consider these phrases:
“God helps those who help themselves.”
“God never gives you anything you can’t handle.”
“Cleanliness is next to godliness.”
“God told me…”
“Where two or three are gathered we are having church!”
Not one of these phrases has any biblical backing. However, they and many others, are riddled around the landscape of the modern western church.
Even more troublesome is the willingness of the Church to embrace anything that sounds right. When a well-meaning believer tells me “Jesus hung out with tax collectors and sinners.” I have no doubts that they also recite “It is a relationship, not a religion.”
This is truly where the problem lies. Men (and sadly now women) in positions of authority in the broader church, have lost the dogged determination that once marked the way the Church communicated her message. We have become accustomed to sound bite preaching. Moreover, the hearer has come to expect “theology on the half-shell”. For the preacher to keep their audience they must cater to short attention spans. Consequently, those who once were responsible to correct error, now foster that error for the sake of numbers.
Who Were the Tax Collectors and Sinners
In the Jewish society at the time of the Roman occupation tax collectors were the dregs of the wealthy. These men were the ancient Jewish equivalent of a mob boss making it big. When Rome took over a region the emperor would impose taxes on the land. It wasn’t always logistically easy to send Roman tax collectors into the region so there needed to be a solution.
Therefore, the solution was to sell the right to collect taxes to the highest bidder. In come the tax collectors. These people would pay the tax to the Roman governor ahead of collecting it. This purchased them the right to collect that tax from their fellow Jews. After the emperor was satisfied the tax collectors could collect as much money as they wanted to recoup their costs.
Consequently, these tax collectors were viewed as traitors and sellouts to their own people. They were profiting off the misery and “slavery” of their fellow countrymen. The religious system offered them no relief and they were outcasts. Wealthy, but unwelcomed.
The sinners of the tax collectors and sinners societal set, were often the “moral” dregs of society. Any person who flaunted the law of God and used their sin to earn money. The sinners could have been those who charged a usury or prostitutes. Moreover, these folks were often considered unclean and untouchable.
When Jesus told the parable of the Pharisee and the publican He was speaking about the tax collectors and sinners. The publican was nice combination of the two to illustrate a point. These were the people Jesus was often seen with. These outcasts and rejects of Jewish society were the ones who were often rejected by polite society. Yet Jesus went to them.
Why the Outrage when Jesus was with the Tax Collectors and Sinners
In a previous article, Bars and Strip Clubs, I spoke of the somewhat Pharisaical mentality that permeates the western Church. Today the more conservative congregations tend to have a very dim view of people who frequent such places. The Pharisees and those who followed them had the same dim view of tax collectors and sinners. Moreover, the protests of the Pharisees resemble the same protests that are offered by conservative evangelicals.
A prim and proper religious elitist of Christ’s day wasn’t to be seen in the company of such dregs. The people who were looking to discredit Christ were more than happy to point out how He and the disciples had defiled themselves by hanging out with the enemies of God.
How could anyone call Jesus rabbi after seeing Him with such rabble?
This was the reason for the outrage. The Pharisees would never lower themselves to such depths, nor would they counsel their disciples to reach down to these rejects. In the eyes of the religious elite these folks were beyond hope. Jesus didn’t see it that way.
It is clear from Matthew’s Gospel that Jesus was there for a purpose. That purpose was not lost on Christ’s disciples, and it should not be lost on us.
Reading into the Tax Collectors and Sinners
Today, the less biblically literate crowd reads into the account of Jesus being seen with tax collectors and sinners. They see this account as justification for continuing their attempts at lifestyle evangelism. Even worse, they justify their own sinful lives. When they see the attitude of the more biblically conservative crowd toward modern day tax collectors and sinners, they rejoice to go the opposite direction. They see themselves as being more Christ-like.
Moreover, they fail to read the whole account in context and narrowly focus on the part they deem most important. Their presupposition is that Jesus was just living life with these folks and demonstrating that He lacked the judgmental heart of the Pharisees. This appeals to them emotionally because it feels good to hang out with outcasts rejected by the uptight conservatives.
Consequently, both groups miss the bus. They are both wrong. The Pharisees saw Jesus defiling Himself and they were appalled. Today, the crowds who tell street evangelists that they are doing it wrong and that we are to just hang out with tax collectors and sinners, fail to recognize that Jesus was on mission. He was with those folks for a reason.
They simply, but errantly, see Jesus as just hanging out with the tax collectors and sinners affirming them. These are the people I mentioned in a previous article that send women into a strip club to hang out and chat with strippers. Their goal is to only befriend them. They see Jesus as the epitome of this activity, because they have failed to fully understand what Christ was saying to the Pharisees when they questioned Him.
Taking Truth to Tax Collectors and Sinners
When the Pharisees questioned Jesus for rubbing elbows with the tax collectors and sinners, He didn’t really defend Himself. Christ didn’t reply with the responses I hear today. “These people need to know how much I care before they will care how much I know.” “How can I tell them about having a relationship with Jesus if I don’t have a relationship with them first?”
That wasn’t the view of Christ at all. Jesus was sitting amid these wretches and eating with them, but it wasn’t all fun and frivolity. His response to the Pharisees was quite public and deeply poignant.
“Why does your master eat with tax collectors and sinners,” the Pharisees asked the disciples. Moreover, there was every chance that these working-class disciples would have been taken aback by Jesus as well.
Jesus doesn’t even give His disciples a chance to reply. He is reclining at the table in the middle of a meal with the worst of the worst. Without getting up or missing a beat, He responds with the most mood-killing reply He could give. “I didn’t come to take care of you “righteous types”. I came for these nasty sinners.” (Forgive my paraphrase.) Jesus dealt a death blow to any burgeoning friendships He was hoping to build. He made it clear that He agreed with the Pharisees, the tax collectors and sinners were rotten people. However, He also pointed out the self-righteous hypocrisy of the Pharisees. No one in the room was getting off the hook.
Jesus was there to preach the Gospel and He wasn’t shy about it at all. He was going to point out the wickedness of the people that had gathered with Him. The bonus was that the Pharisees showed up to take a verbal rebuke as well.
Let’s be Honest, appealing to Jesus Here is an Excuse
Let’s just get it out of the way. As much as I rebuked modern religious elitists, I want to rebuke those who misuse this account from Jesus’ life. You are intentionally misreading this because it allows you to excuse your desire to be comfortable.
Sure, there is a time and place for hard Gospel conversations. Sitting down at the Christmas dinner gathering and calling out Uncle Bob for shacking up with girlfriend #6 isn’t going to end well. Especially when he already knows where you stand on the matter. Furthermore, Jesus doesn’t command us to make every conversation about the sins of others.
However, and this is a big however, Jesus doesn’t excuse our lack of Gospel preaching because it gets uncomfortable. He understood our frailties and the fragile nature of our relationships. He knew what it was like to have people turn on Him for preaching truth.
In Matthew 8 Jesus casts the demons out of a man and the entire village shows up to tell Him to leave town. He knew what it was like to be unpopular even when He had the best interest of people in mind.
We need to be brutally honest with one another and with ourselves. We hate being uncomfortable around others. No one likes that awkward silence that comes with being recognized as the “religious zealot” in the room. Therefore, many point at this account of Jesus with tax collectors and sinners and make it about relationships. They fail to see that Jesus was concerned with their spiritual condition and not in forming a relationship with them.
Tax Collectors and Sinners Were His Mission
Jesus came into the world to call sinners to repent. That was His mission. He came and modeled that mission perfectly. Christ wasn’t interested in improving their socio-economic standing. He certainly wasn’t concerned with raising their level of popularity and acceptance in society. He warned His followers often that they would be persecuted for the sake of His name.
Moreover, He made it clear that the will of the Father was His motivating purpose. Having relationships with tax collectors and sinners meant nothing if He wasn’t preaching about sin and salvation to them. He was starkly distinct from the Pharisees in this regard.
Consequently, He could speak truth to the situation as we see Him do in John 3. “I did not come into the world to condemn the world but to save it.” Christ was the perfect balance of what it means to live in relationship with people while preaching the Gospel to them. This is what our focus and our goal should be. Are we seeing people in the most despicable places as a mission field in need of Gospel preaching? Or are we seeing them as projects to be befriended and cultivated for the sake of our comfort?
Look, I can’t be the Holy Spirit to you. I am not able to judge or ascertain when and where you should be engaging in Gospel conversations. However, I can tell you who. Everyone!
As I have said repeatedly, we should be front-loading the Gospel into all our relationships. That is best place to start. Once you have that foot forward, follow it with the next. The best place to start is right where you are. Don’t make excuses. Please don’t allow modern Christian clichés such as “It is about relationship and not religion”, to stifle your obedience to the Great Commission. Furthermore, certainly don’t misuse Scripture to excuse your lack of obedience. Learn from Christ and you won’t need excuses.
Soli Deo Gloria!