“Jesus spent his time with tax collectors and sinners.” This is a statement that I often hear as people talk about the Church today. Now it’s fascinating to see how it is used to make two very different points. And it’s also important to recognize that both of them are not accurate.
On the one hand, the statement, “Jesus spent his time with tax collectors and sinners” is often used to criticize the Church today. The point that is being made is that the Church is too withdrawn from society – it is too insular. Instead, she should be reaching out to others and meeting them where they are at. The Church needs to be seeking to speak the Gospel to all different kinds of people in all different kinds of settings.
There is, of course, truth to this. You will always be able to make the case that the Church needs to do more in sharing the Gospel. It will always be true that we are more comfortable being with people who are like us, and that we are less likely to reach out to those who are different. This is the old Adam in us and we need to put to him to death.
However, the statement, “Jesus spent his time with tax collectors and sinners,” doesn’t really support this argument. For you see, in the Gospels the tax collectors and sinners were coming to Jesus. Consider how our text begins: “Now the tax collectors and sinners were all drawing near to hear him.” Jesus was preaching the Gospel of the kingdom. And the tax collectors and sinners weren’t blowing him off. Instead, they were coming to hear what he had to say. They were interested and wanted to listen to Jesus. How I wish this was the response that the world usually gave to the Gospel!
On the other hand, the world, and those so-called parts of the church that have given into the world, say “Jesus spent his time with tax collectors and sinners.” By this they mean that Jesus accepted them. Here Jesus is being held up as the great example of non-judgmental inclusiveness. So yes, Jesus did spend his time with tax collectors and sinners. But he was not just accepting them as they were and affirming their life choices. Instead, Jesus was calling them to repentance by his message. As our Lord says in the last verse of our text, “Just so, I tell you, there is joy before the angels of God over one sinner who repents.”
Our text begins this morning as Luke tells us, “Now the tax collectors and sinners were all drawing near to hear him. And the Pharisees and the scribes grumbled, saying, ‘This man receives sinners and eats with them.’” Now the letters “IRS” probably do not give you a warm fuzzy feeling. Tax collectors have never been popular people in the world. But in first century Palestine, it was generally assumed that tax collectors were crooked. They could use their position to take more tax than was legitimate, and keep the extra for themselves. So, they could assess a shipment as being worth more than it really was, collect the tax and keep some. The problem was that people really had no recourse. They just had to accept that this was the way things worked.
The term “sinners” is a little more ambiguous, because the label is being applied by the Pharisees and scribes. Some of these people may have been living in a way that openly broke God’s law – who were living in public sin. But the Pharisees also had their own interpretation of the Torah, and they were likely to call someone who didn’t live according to this interpretation a “sinner.”
“Tax collectors and sinners” – these were people that the Pharisees considered to be unacceptable and to be avoided. And yet Jesus was willing not only to receive them but also eat with them. I mentioned last week that meals were a source of controversy between the Pharisees and Jesus. The people with whom Jesus was willing to eat was an issue because of what it meant. To eat with someone showed that you accepted them – that you were willing to associate with them. Where the Pharisees wanted nothing to do with tax collectors and sinners, Jesus regularly ate with them.
Jesus was willing to associate with tax collectors and sinners at meals. Yet as I mentioned earlier, we need to recognize Jesus’ purpose in doing so. Jesus had in fact called a tax collector to be one of his apostles. Matthew, also known as Levi in Luke’s Gospel, gave a great meal for Jesus and there were many tax collectors present. Here the Pharisees and their scribes grumbled at Jesus’ disciples, saying, “Why do you eat and drink with tax collectors and sinners?” And so Jesus answered them, “Those who are well have no need of a physician, but those who are sick. I have not come to call the righteous but sinners to repentance.” Jesus was with sinners in order to call those sinners to repentance.
Christ was doing this in order to bring salvation to them. That was his purpose in eating with tax collectors and sinners. In order to explain this, Jesus tells two parables in our text. In the first he describes a shepherd who has one hundred sheep. However, he has lost one that has gone astray. So he goes after the one that he has lost until he finds it. When he has brought it back he comes home and calls together his friends and his neighbors, saying to them, “Rejoice with me, for I have found my sheep that was lost.” Then Jesus concluded by saying, “Just so, I tell you, there will be more joy in heaven over one sinner who repents than over ninety-nine righteous persons who need no repentance.”
Next Jesus describes a woman who has ten coins, and loses one of them. She lights a lamp, sweeps the house and seeks diligently until she has found it. Then she calls together her friends and neighbors, saying, “Rejoice with me, for I have found the coin that I had lost.” Then Jesus concluded by saying, “Just so, I tell you, there is joy before the angels of God over one sinner who repents.”
In the parables this morning, our Lord describes his desire to save the lost, which is simply a reflection of God the Father’s saving will. These are not merely words, for it is the Son of God himself who speaks them in this world. God the Father sent forth the Son as Jesus was conceived by the Holy Spirit and born of the virgin Mary. True God and true man, he was in this world to make salvation possible.
It is important to recognize what Jesus is doing when he speaks these words. In chapter nine our Lord had told the disciples, “The Son of Man must suffer many things and be rejected by the elders and chief priests and scribes, and be killed, and on the third day be raised.” He had predicted his suffering, death and resurrection. Then a little later in that chapter we read, “When the days drew near for him to be taken up, he set his face to go to Jerusalem.”
Jesus Christ is on his journey to Jerusalem. He is making his way to the cross. He goes there to be numbered with transgressors. He goes to be the sacrifice for sin that gives us forgiveness. Jesus did suffer and die for you on Good Friday. But as our Lord had said, on the third day God raised him from the dead.
Jesus’ resurrection demonstrated that he was not just one more false messiah. His humiliating death on the cross was not an act of failure. Instead, it was God’s powerful action to save us as Christ won the forgiveness of sins. And now by his resurrection he has given us victory over death, for his resurrection is the beginning of our own resurrection that will take place when he returns in glory on the Last Day.
After his resurrection, Jesus told his disciples, “Thus it is written, that the Christ should suffer and on the third day rise from the dead, and that repentance and forgiveness of sins should be proclaimed in his name to all nations, beginning from Jerusalem. You are witnesses of these things.” Repentance and forgiveness of sins - they go together. To receive forgiveness, we have to admit that we need forgiveness. We must confess our sin. But repentance means more than just we that we are sorry for doing wrong. It is also involves the desire to turn away from sin and the act to do so.
You are here this morning because Jesus has sought you out. You were lost in sin, but Jesus came and found you. He did this through the work of the Spirit in Holy Baptism, and through his word. This was purely a matter of God’s grace because you were conceived and born as a sinner who had no desire to be found. Yet through his Son God has given you forgiveness, and through the Spirit sent forth by the Son he has called you to faith. And God rejoices in this! That note rings through in our text as both the man and the woman tell their friends and neighbors: “Rejoice with me.”
As long as we live as fallen people in this fallen world, we will continue to struggle against sin. Through Christ’s Spirit we do live in ways that please our Father. But we also stumble, and worse yet, we knowingly choose to act in sin. Yet the good news of our text is that Jesus always seeks us out. In love he always calls us back to himself. He calls us to repent and receive his forgiveness. He calls us to return to the forgiveness we have in our baptism. He suffered and died for us to win that forgiveness. He wants us to have it. There is joy in heaven when we repent – when we confess our sin and turn away from it – as we turn towards Jesus in faith.
This is how God acts towards you in Christ. He receives you back in forgiveness as a repentant sinner. He rejoices to do so. But because God has done this for you, this also means that we now forgive others. Jesus says a little later in this Gospel, about our brother, “if he sins against you seven times in the day, and turns to you seven times, saying, ‘I repent,’ forgive him.”
Forgive?!? Forgive my husband or wife? Forgive my brother or sister? Forgive my friend or neighbor? Yes, forgive, because God has forgiven you in Christ Jesus. This is not something that we can do on our own. Just as only the Spirit can call us to faith, so only the Spirit can enable the new man in us to direct we what do.
And so to be able to forgive others we need to be receiving the work of the Spirit. We need to be receiving the forgiveness that God gives. We do this as we make use of the Means of Grace. The Lord still welcomes sinners to his table as he gives us his true body and blood for the forgiveness of sins. He speaks his word of forgiveness to us in Holy Absolution, just as he did at the beginning of the Divine Service. He give us forgiveness through the Gospel as we hear and read God’s word. This is how the Spirit strengthens us in faith so that we can live out that faith in the world. This is how the Spirit gives us the ability to forgive others because of the forgiveness we have received from God through Jesus Christ.