Now all the tax collectors and the sinners were coming near Him to listen to Him. Both the Pharisees and the scribes began to grumble, saying,
“This man receives sinners and eats with them.”
Luke’s own editorial comment, describing the context in which the three parables of chapter fifteen were told, is too often overlooked. The tax collectors were despised both because they collaborated with the hated Roman occupation (or, in Galilee, worked for Herod Antipas) and because they were usually guilty of extortion. Sinners, on the other hand, was a term of abuse that the Pharisees gave to common people ignorant of the law.
The Pharisees ostracized both groups. So when Jesus associated with them, they were outraged. “This man receives sinners,” they said in shocked horror. But Luke records this with his approval and even admiration. So should we.
In fact, sinners are the only people Jesus receives. If He didn’t, there would be no hope for us.
The Lost-and-Found Parables in Context
Jesus told His three lost-and-found parables in order to highlight the fundamental difference between Himself and the Pharisees. He welcomed sinners; they objected and rejected them. They had a false notion of holiness. They thought they would be contaminated by contact, so they kept their distance. Jesus, however, fraternized with them freely and was even called “a friend of tax collectors and sinners” (Matthew 11.19).
If Pharisees saw a prostitute approaching, they would gather their robes around them and shrink from her, but when a prostitute approached Jesus, He did not shrink from her but accepted her devotion.
So the question before us is whether we resemble Jesus or the Pharisees – whether we avoid contact with sinners or seek it.
We must not misunderstand this. The fact that Jesus received sinners does not mean that He condoned their sins. On the contrary, all three parables end on a note of repentance and celebration. Jesus rejected the opposite extremes of Pharisaism and compromise. There is joy in heaven, He said, over even one sinner who repents.
What About Us?
Because “this man receives sinners,” we must receive them too. Such is the nature of our calling and commission.
“Two men went up into the temple to pray, one a Pharisee and the other a tax collector. The Pharisee stood and was praying this to himself: ‘God, I thank You that I am not like other people: swindlers, unjust, adulterers, or even like this tax collector. I fast twice a week; I pay tithes of all that I get.’ But the tax collector, standing some distance away, was even unwilling to lift up his eyes to heaven, but was beating his breast, saying, ‘God, be merciful to me, the sinner!’
I tell you, this man went to his house justified rather than the other; for everyone who exalts himself will be humbled, but he who humbles himself will be exalted” (Luke 18.10-14).
Justification is a legal term, the opposite of condemnation. The Old Testament magistrates were instructed to justify the innocent and condemn the guilty. So we can imagine the indignation of the Pharisees when Jesus pronounced the sinful tax collector justified and the upright Pharisee condemned. Was Jesus daring to ascribe to God an action He had forbidden to human judges?
Differences Between the Pharisee and the Tax Collector
The two actors in the parable both went up to the temple to pray. But there the similarities end and the dissimilarities begin.
First, they had an entirely different opinion of themselves. Five times the Pharisee used the personal pronoun “I.” But the tax collector used it only once and in the accusative, “God, be merciful to me, the sinner.” This is the language of true penitence.
Further, their different opinion of themselves was reflected in their posture. Both stood (in customary Jewish fashion). But the Pharisee stood erect, proud, and ostentatious, preoccupied with himself, whereas the tax collector stood “some distance away,” eyes downcast and beating his breast.
Next, they had a different object of confidence for acceptance with God. The Pharisee trusted in himself that he was righteous, while the tax collector trusted in God’s mercy alone.
There is where we belong, alongside the tax collector, not weighing our merits but begging the pardon of our offences through Jesus Christ – trusting not in our own righteousness but in His manifold great mercy.
– John Stott, Through the Bible, Through the Year