Eating with Sinners and Publicans

Those of us who profess to be the followers of Christ are called upon to engage in introspection every once in awhile (2 Corinthians 13:5). It is good to ask ourselves: what are we supposed to be about? Who are we out there trying to help?

We’re out there to try to help all people. Sure, that’s what the Scripture says (1 Timothy 2:1-4)…but are we really?

Let us hear the example of our Lord.

And it came to pass, as he sat at meat in the house, behold, many publicans and sinners came and sat down with Jesus and his disciples.

And when the Pharisees saw it, they said unto his disciples, “Why eateth your Teacher with the publicans and sinners?”

But when he heard it, he said, “They that are whole have no need of a physician, but they that are sick. But go ye and learn what this meaneth, ‘I desire mercy, and not sacrifice’, for I came not to call the righteous, but sinners,” (Matthew 9:10-13).

We certainly read this passage and rightly castigate those Pharisees for how they missed the boat. Yet how often have we have missed the Pharisee in ourselves? Is it not likely that if we were there we would ask the same thing as the Pharisees did?

Let us explore this passage in more depth.

And it came to pass, as he sat at meat in the house, behold, many publicans and sinners came and sat down with Jesus and his disciples, (v. 10).

Notice who Jesus has association with– sinners. He has association with those who would need Him the most. We can see the type of result that this association would bring from the example of Zacchaeus in Luke 19:2-10:

And behold, a man called by name Zacchaeus; and he was a chief publican, and he was rich. And he sought to see Jesus who he was; and could not for the crowd, because he was little of stature. And he ran on before, and climbed up into a sycomore tree to see him: for he was to pass that way.

And when Jesus came to the place, he looked up, and said unto him, “Zacchaeus, make haste, and come down; for to-day I must abide at thy house.”

And he made haste, and came down, and received him joyfully.

And when they saw it, they all murmured, saying, “He is gone in to lodge with a man that is a sinner.”

And Zacchaeus stood, and said unto the Lord, “Behold, Lord, the half of my goods I give to the poor, and if I have wrongfully exacted aught of any man, I restore fourfold.”

And Jesus said unto him, “To-day is salvation come to this house, forasmuch as he also is a son of Abraham. For the Son of man came to seek and to save that which was lost.”

Again, would we be joyful with Zacchaeus or be one who would scowl and despise Jesus for being seen with such a sinner? After all, wouldn’t Jesus “have the appearance of approving evil” by being with a sinner?

Jesus was about saving that which was lost. To save the lost, He had to be around tax collectors and whores. He did that which was socially frowned upon and suffered heat for it: but there was value in doing so.

And when the Pharisees saw it, they said unto his disciples, “Why eateth your Teacher with the publicans and sinners?” (v. 11).

Let us not believe that the Pharisees were asking an innocent question: they were trying to trap Jesus yet again. How could the Son of God be with such “terrible” people?

Why do the Pharisees have that attitude? Well, because they surely felt that their righteousness was secure. To be with the outcasts of society would mean defilement in their eyes, and they had to be these lofty holy people. While we have no right to such pretensions, how often do they in truth make up who we are?

It is fairly evident that our churches have become gentrified to some degree or another. What I mean by that is most of our churches are made up of socially upstanding people who have attained at least some level of public righteousness. Most of the churches that I am aware of are rural, small town, or suburb congregations. I know of at least two major metropolitan areas where there are four or five times more churches in the suburbs than in the inner cities. Yet what do we see in the New Testament?

Or know ye not that the unrighteous shall not inherit the kingdom of God? Be not deceived: neither fornicators, nor idolaters, nor adulterers, nor effeminate, nor abusers of themselves with men, nor thieves, nor covetous, nor drunkards, nor revilers, nor extortioners, shall inherit the kingdom of God. And such were some of you: but ye were washed, but ye were sanctified, but ye were justified in the name of the Lord Jesus Christ, and in the Spirit of our God, (1 Corinthians 6:9-11).

Who made up the church in Corinth? There were at least some who would be very easily frowned upon in our society and in churches. Thieves. Homosexuals. Drunkards. You know, “real sinners”. We, of course, are not nearly those kind of sinners– even though we put on airs as to having no hierarchy of sins, we make a hierarchy of sins in our minds and our “venial” sins never quite compare to these “monstrosities”. Well, if you were in Corinth in the first century, you would be having association with those former monsters who still were working things out. Do you think that when Paul came to preach to them that they had already ceased stealing, or committing homosexuality, or stopped drinking? Far from it. No, they were sinners who heard the Word and were convicted and repented of their sins and were baptized. Then they worked on getting rid of the sin in their lives. They were sinners. They were cleansed in Christ. In the end, they are really no different than us.

My brethren, hold not the faith of our Lord Jesus Christ, the Lord of glory, with respect of persons. For if there come into your synagogue a man with a gold ring, in fine clothing, and there come in also a poor man in vile clothing; and ye have regard to him that weareth the fine clothing, and say,

“Sit thou here in a good place;”

and ye say to the poor man, “Stand thou there, or sit under my footstool;”

Do ye not make distinctions among yourselves, and become judges with evil thoughts? Hearken, my beloved brethren; did not God choose them that are poor as to the world to be rich in faith, and heirs of the kingdom which he promised to them that love him? (James 2:1-5).

While it may be uncomfortable to consider, is it not very possible and indeed likely that many of our churches have become the church that James here condemns? How many times will we send out our evangelism materials to the new areas, to the nice subdivisions with the nice big house and white picket fence and 2 car garage and leave the old neighborhood with all the “sinners” out of the list? How many times will we use the arbiter of “giving potential” to in any way influence how we promote the Gospel? How was it actually done in the New Testament?

But when he heard it, he said, “They that are whole have no need of a physician, but they that are sick,” (v. 12).

The response of Jesus should really be impressed upon us. Who are the people who convert? The ones who know that they are spiritually lost and need the Savior. Where are we going to find these people? Well, look in the Bible. Where did the Apostles find them? Among the Jews? No, not really. They were “whole”. Among the Gentiles? Absolutely. In city after city they found people who were Gentiles– heathen, idol-worshipping, orgy-participating pagans– who recognized in the message of God that they were wrong and needed redemption. They are the ones who converted. They did not become holy, come into a church, and then get baptized. They heard the message of God while still in their sins, recognized the darkness that pervaded their lives, and immediately sought to make it right.

The first Christian centuries were marked by a significant proportion of converts from the lowest classes. The reason should not be too hard to figure out. When life is good it is easy to believe in the work of your hands and be complacent; when life is not good, you yearn for spiritual wholeness and eternal redemption.

But go ye and learn what this meaneth, ‘I desire mercy, and not sacrifice’, for I came not to call the righteous, but sinners,” (v. 13).

How do we normally interpret this verse? Normally we take Jesus’ declaration of people being righteous at face value and percieve in His statement that “only” those who are sick require Jesus.

But wait a second. Who is righteous? “There is none, no, not one,” (Romans 3:10). Surely Paul and Jesus are not contradicting one another, are they?

When returning to this passage I am struck now by the sharp barb that Jesus has just thrust toward the Pharisees, and they probably did not even realize it. What does it mean that Jesus does not call the righteous? It does not mean that there actually are people righteous apart from the blood of Christ; it means that Jesus can do nothing with those who proclaim themselves as righteous. After all, as it is written,

And he spake also this parable unto certain who trusted in themselves that they were righteous, and set all others at nought: “Two men went up into the temple to pray; the one a Pharisee, and the other a publican.

The Pharisee stood and prayed thus with himself, ‘God, I thank thee, that I am not as the rest of men, extortioners, unjust, adulterers, or even as this publican. I fast twice in the week; I give tithes of all that I get.’

But the publican, standing afar off, would not lift up so much as his eyes unto heaven, but smote his breast, saying, ‘God, be thou merciful to me a sinner.’

I say unto you, This man went down to his house justified rather than the other: for every one that exalteth himself shall be humbled; but he that humbleth himself shall be exalted,” (Luke 18:9-14).

Who is the one who goes to the hospital or to see a physician? The one who is sick or is healthy? The one who is sick, of course. But what if the person who is healthy is, in reality, sick, but is either ignorant of his illness or denies that the illness exists? What of him?

We can read from the New Testament how the vast majority of the Jews were these “righteous” people. They certainly felt righteous. They were God’s Chosen People, after all. They were better than the Gentiles, and they knew it. The only problem was that they had sin just like the Gentiles, and the Gentiles were at least willing to humble themselves and repent.

Consider the following:

And as they went out, they besought that these words might be spoken to them the next sabbath. Now when the synagogue broke up, many of the Jews and of the devout proselytes followed Paul and Barnabas; who, speaking to them, urged them to continue in the grace of God. And the next sabbath almost the whole city was gathered together to hear the word of God. But when the Jews saw the multitudes, they were filled with jealousy, and contradicted the things which were spoken by Paul, and blasphemed.

And Paul and Barnabas spake out boldly, and said, “It was necessary that the word of God should first be spoken to you. Seeing ye thrust it from you, and judge yourselves unworthy of eternal life, lo, we turn to the Gentiles.

For so hath the Lord commanded us, saying, ‘I have set thee for a light of the Gentiles, That thou shouldest be for salvation unto the uttermost part of the earth.'”

And as the Gentiles heard this, they were glad, and glorified the word of God: and as many as were ordained to eternal life believed. And the word of the Lord was spread abroad throughout all the region, (Acts 13:42-49).

In Acts 13 just before this citation Paul had preached a riveting Gospel lesson regarding how Jesus was the Christ. Notice how the Jews were more than willing to hear at first and urged him to return the next Sabbath. Yet when all those nasty Gentiles heard of the preaching and came out also, the Jews in their sanctimony were jealous and began speaking against Paul. Paul preaches to the Gentiles and they willingly hear the word of Life.

Substitute “Christians” for “Jews” and “godless heathen Americans” for “Gentiles” and see how it sounds. By “Christians” I am not necessarily speaking of those in the Lord’s church, for denominationalists often will not hear because they feel that they’re already saved and righteous and holy and all of that. Yet how many times will Christians continually, in truth, work against the word of Life because they are convinced of their own righteousness? How many Christians, if you asked them if they were “righteous” or “sinners”, would say “righteous” without really thinking about it? We inculcate the message of righteousness from all of our encouragement in the assemblies, and it is certainly something for which we should strive. Yet in all of our striving toward righteousness we must remember that we are indeed sinners and would have no prayer of redemption without the blood of Christ. Jesus came to call the sinners, not the “righteous”– the “righteous” were too blinded by themselves to see the truth in Him.

Brethren, do we make up the church of Christ or do we make up the church of the Pharisees? The church of Christ, in the New Testament, can be described as a spiritual hospital for recovering sinners. The church of Christ, in the New Testament, represents all the people who finally figured out that there was no profit in sin like there is in Jesus and in all humility took on the name of the Crucified One. The church of the Pharisees is a social club, a group of people who are righteous and know it, and do not want to be defiled by associating with all those nasty Gentiles out there. To associate with those Gentiles would mean that others might think that they were participating in their sin, and that it was obvious that they crossed lines of social “decency” that just should not be crossed. Those heathens should figure out on their own how nasty their ways are and then become righteous, and then maybe they can be a part of the social club of the church of the Pharisees.

Is this message hitting too close to home? It very well may be. Go back to the Old Testament; hear the words of the prophets. They condemned these very same attitudes in Israel. God’s people perpetuating social injustice has always been abominable before Him. God has always sought for His people to do right to others and to help others.

Let us be honest with ourselves: we are not entirely righteous. We all are still recovering sinners. We, in our humility, should welcome in anyone who wants to be freed from the bonds of sin and begin working toward righteousness. Perhaps we need to look at the church more in terms of a spiritual hospital and go out to bring in the sick. Right now we have latent expectations for people to come to us already cleansed and whole: only Jesus can cleanse and make whole. We cannot expect people to make their life right with God and then convert– or, if nothing else, we should not give people the impression that to be a part of the church you have already be righteous. It is high time to remove any veneers we may like having of our own righteousness, lest we be condemned in the same manner as the Pharisees, not understanding how God “desires mercy, not a sacrifice”. If we are going to wear the name of the Crucified One and profess His path, then we must recognize that He calls sinners, not the “righteous”. Let us strive diligently to call sinners to repentance!


Eating with Sinners and Publicans

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