All the tax collectors and sinners were gathering around Jesus to listen to him. The Pharisees and legal experts were grumbling, saying, “This man welcomes sinners and eats with them.”
Tax collectors were employed by Rome to excise taxes from the population in order to fund Roman infrastructure and projects. Or, to simply line their own pockets. And, they were generally employed from the local population. Essentially, tax collectors in Israel were Jews collecting money from their Jewish brothers and sisters to fund a pagan, emperor worshipping dictatorship and to probably take a little off the top for themselves. Needless to say they were not the most well respected or highly regarded people within the Jewish community.
And the sinners? Generally they were everyone else who for whatever reason was considered unclean, unworthy or unfit to be a part of the upstanding Jewish community. This group of sinners could have included lepers, prostitutes, criminals, thieves, the disabled and infirmed, Gentiles, Samaritans and anyone who happened to enjoy some bacon with their breakfast or cheese on their hamburger. Those who did not completely follow the instructions in the Torah (or Law) as interpreted by the Pharisees and legal experts were sinners. The Pharisees and legal experts needed to know who were the “sinners” and who were not because associating with sinners, especially by sharing a meal, meant that you became equally unworthy and unfit to participate in the Jewish community and became ritually unclean in the eyes of God.
And here is Jesus, a Jewish teacher, communing and eating with tax collectors and sinners. Shouldn’t Jesus be over with the Pharisees and legal experts, grumbling about how horrible those tax collectors and sinners are and how great it is they are not a tax collector or sinner?
But he’s not. Jesus is with all the tax collectors and sinners.
ALL of them. Yup, all of them. It’s in the Greek too. “All the tax collectors and sinners…” I imagine there is some hyperbole on Luke’s part but it is a great image. Every tax collector and sinner is standing around Jesus listening to him.
And the Pharisees and the legal experts are standing to the side grumbling.
Those who are supposed to be unclean and separated from God and his chosen people are right up next to Jesus, listening to him.
Those who are supposed to be ritually pure, clean and closest to God are standing apart, grumbling about Jesus.
Which is the better picture of God’s kingdom?
Tax collectors and sinners who might not be up to the God’s standard, yet they are close to Jesus and listening.
Pharisees and legal experts who know God’s word, have it memorized, yet are standing apart and grumbling.
It’s easy for me to join in with the Pharisees and legal experts. It’s a lot easier to stand to the side and point out all the tax collectors and sinners and grumble about them. Grumble about how they do not dress appropriately, cannot pronounce Leviticus correctly, do not know the eighth commandment, forgot to set their clocks back and probably do not tithe 10% or more of their gross income. Grumbling is easy because I do not have to change, and I am not really creating an environment where others want to change. They will stay the same and I can keep on grumbling about them from the sidelines.
It is a lot harder for me to willingly join the tax collectors and sinners. That means admitting that I am a tax collector or sinner. That I have wrongly taken advantage of someone, I have turned my back on my community/family/friends in order to serve the “powers” of the world, I have not lived up to God’s standard and have even turned my back on him. Yet, this is the group closest to Jesus and listening to him. Being able to admit that I am right there with the sinners and tax collectors means I am the closest to Jesus. Once we admit that we are a tax collector or a sinner we can draw closer to Jesus and actually begin to listen. We can stop lying to ourselves and see that we are just like ALL the other tax collectors and sinners, (“for all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God” – Romans 3:23) and truly begin to hear what Jesus is saying to us.
During Lent, as we take time to examine our lives, take a moment to see where you choose to grumble and where you should admit your tax collecting and sinful ways. Grumbling changes nothing and creates distance between you, the community and Jesus. Acknowledging your sins, admitting and confessing them allows you to draw closer to Jesus, joining the rest of the sinners, and opens your heart to listen.
Less grumbling, more listening.