Luke 15:1–2 records, "Now the tax collectors and sinners were all drawing near to hear [Jesus]. And the Pharisees and the scribes grumbled, saying, 'This man receives sinners and eats with them.'" Who were "sinners" and why would eating with them be so offensive?
Why is it significant that Jesus ate with sinners?
In order to understand the significance of Jesus eating with sinners, we must first understand the people who sought to use Jesus' actions as an assault on His character and ministry—the Pharisees. The Pharisees were one of two Jewish parties that ruled Israel during the time of Christ. Although the Pharisees accepted the written Word (i.e. our Old Testament) as inspired by God, they gave equal authority to their own oral traditions, known as the "tradition of the elders" (Mark 7:3; Galatians 1:14). The Rabbinic regulations of the Pharisees forbade them from eating with "sinners." According to them, "sinners" were Jews who did not adhere to the law of Moses nor the additional, difficult to know and follow, Pharisaic rules and regulations. Sinners included those who lived immoral lifestyles as well as the Jewish tax collectors. Jewish tax collectors were especially despised since they were viewed as traitors to their own people by collecting taxes on behalf of the Roman overlords. For a Pharisee, eating with a sinner or tax collector was to defile oneself. For the Pharisee, righteousness came through ritual purity and separation from "sinners."
When Jesus called the tax collector Levi (also known as Matthew) to be one of His disciples, and subsequently ate a meal at Matthew's home, the Pharisees saw this as scandalous and used it as an opportunity to impugn Jesus' character (Matthew 9:9–13; Mark 2:14–16).
Jesus responded by saying, "Those who are well have no need of a physician, but those who are sick. I came not to call the righteous, but sinners" (Mark 2:17).
It is important not to misunderstand Jesus' words here. He does not mean that only some people are sinners who need to repent and believe in Him (Romans 3:23; Acts 17:30). If this was Jesus' meaning, then Paul, who was the most zealous of Pharisees, would not have called himself "the chief of sinners" (Philippians 3:4–6; 1 Timothy 1:15). What Jesus is saying is that He has come to save those who recognize their own sinfulness. The self-righteous Pharisees did not recognize their need for forgiveness and salvation through Christ. They trusted in their own legalistic observance of rituals and rules. The kingdom of heaven belongs to those who are "poor in spirit" (Matthew 5:3), knowing they have nothing to offer in themselves but are in need of God's mercy and grace.
This distinction between self-righteousness and acknowledgement of spiritual poverty is illustrated clearly in Jesus' parable of the Pharisee and the tax collector: "He also told this parable to some who trusted in themselves that they were righteous, and treated others with contempt: 'Two men went up into the temple to pray, one a Pharisee and the other a tax collector. The Pharisee, standing by himself, prayed thus: "God, I thank you that I am not like other men, extortioners, unjust, adulterers, or even like this tax collector. I fast twice a week; I give tithes of all that I get." But the tax collector, standing far off, would not even lift up his eyes to heaven, but beat his breast, saying, "God, be merciful to me, a sinner!" I tell you, this man went down to his house justified, rather than the other. For everyone who exalts himself will be humbled, but the one who humbles himself will be exalted'" (Luke 18:9–14).
In this parable, Jesus teaches us a very important lesson about how to be justified or made right with God. It is not the self-righteous Pharisee, but the humble sinner who is declared righteous in God's sight. Not because he is righteous in himself, but because he humbly receives the righteousness of Christ that comes through faith (Romans 3:21–24). Jesus ate with sinners because He "came to seek and to save the lost" (Luke 19:10). Cultural taboo did not hinder His purpose or stop Him from sharing God's mercy with those in need. Those who receive the righteousness of Christ through faith in this life will dine with Him again in the life to come (Revelation 3:20; 19:9)
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