Jesus, Friend of Sinners (Luke 5:27-31; 7:36-50)
Series: “Portraits of Christ” – Steve Simala Grant
February 16/17, 2002
Before getting into this morning’s sermon, I want to address two things. The first is that I want to publicly praise God for working in power in my family this week. Last weekend I stood before you in uncertainty, some fear, and great concern for the health of my son who was facing a test for Cystic Fibrosis. I asked for your prayers. And then I preached about our God of power. Well God demonstrated that those were not mere words; He answered our requests abundantly. All of Thomas’ tests came back clear – he doesn’t have any of the diseases we prayed against. And so I praise God this morning, as I have been all week, for answered prayer. Let me tell you about a second miracle in all of that – Joanne and I were both at peace throughout Monday when we had the tests and as we awaited the results. We were calm, even happy. I don’t understand that except as a miracle from God as He answered our prayers. God answers prayer, God is all-powerful, and God is good. Thank you for your prayers and support.
Second, I want to comment just briefly on the news from our search committee presenting my name as a candidate for our Senior Pastor position. I’m anticipating a wide range of reactions to this news, and I want to say that I welcome those reactions. This whole process is really one of discernment and decision-making, and it is a congregational process. The search committee has done a great deal of work, but the process is by no means complete! The next step is for our congregation to pray, to discern, to discuss, and to decide whether or not we believe God is leading us together in this direction. It is my desire to have a climate of openness around this decision – for you to feel free to ask, to question, and then to decide, prayerfully, where you believe God is leading us.
I think some of you might react with surprise. Until the beginning of November, that would have been my reaction also! I’ll share more about how I’ve felt God leading Joanne and I in the weeks ahead. I think some might react with a feeling of disappointment: I know the anticipation has been great, and we have been expecting a really huge change with someone new that we don’t know coming to fill this role. There will be change, I can guarantee that, but that change will come from someone you know, and it might not be as much change as there would be with someone completely new. Please feel free to express that reaction, and to ask questions along those lines. I hope to that some will react with joy and excitement. In all of these reactions, my prayer is simply that God’s will be done. It is now the job of the congregation to pray, discuss, and discern whether we believe God’s will is for me to fill the role of Senior Pastor here. I welcome that process, and all of the reactions and questions that come with it, and I welcome the end result, positive or negative.
Let’s have a word of prayer, and then look at God’s word.
The course was nearly over. My professor had demonstrated an incredible knowledge of the subject, had been insightful and inspiring and deep. And as he summed up the entire course on the life of Christ, he said these words: “You know, looking back over the whole life and ministry of Jesus, the thing that sticks out most is that Jesus really did come for sinners. That was what His life and ministry was really all about. He came for sinners.” That is the portrait of Christ that I want to look at this morning – Jesus, friend of sinners. To do that, I want to compare two stories of Jesus being invited out to dinner: Luke 5:27-32, and Luke 7:36-50.
Jesus eats with Levi (Luke 5:27-32)
I tried to think of a contemporary parallel to the “tax collector” in Jesus’ day, to help us understand how despised and hated these people were. “Olympic Figure Skating Judge” came to mind… so did “Alberta Learning Minister”… and of course “tax collector” is still a decent bet…
A bit of background might help us better understand why tax collectors were so hated. First, they made their living by overcharging, with the full backing of the Roman government. It could easily become extortion. So people hated them because they were cheats who profited richly at the expense of others, usually quite poor people. Taxes at the time could be extremely high – up to (and you’re not going to be able to believe this…) 50% of their income – what kind of society is that?? Second, tax collectors were traitors – they had sold out to the Romans and were punishing their own fellow Jews for personal profit. This also equaled an abandonment of their Jewish faith, or at least a lot of the ceremonial aspects that called for very limited contact with Gentiles, and of the rules governing the Sabbath. So they were cheats, traitors, and backsliders. We see even as we read the Gospels that the Pharisees often refer to “sinners” in a derogatory way, and when they want to take the point even further they refer to “sinners and tax collectors.” They were the bottom of the pile.
Enter Jesus. He is out walking in Capernaum one day and sees one of these despised tax collectors sitting in his tax booth (it could have been like a toll booth). He says just two words: “follow me.” And Levi gets up, leaves everything behind, and follows Jesus.
I want to pause there to reflect on that. It seems reasonable to conclude that Levi was familiar with Jesus, that he had heard Him teach. And obviously Jesus knew him also, for He called him to come and be one of His disciples. We have a really brief description of a moment of decision for this tax collector – Jesus calls. In this story, Levi answers, he comes, he leaves everything behind to follow Jesus.
It strikes me that the same is true for us. Jesus calls to us, invites us to come and follow Him. He makes the same invitation this morning; “follow me.” Our response must be the same as Levi’s – Jesus expects us to also leave everything to follow Him. Jesus said “whoever tries to save his life will lose it; but whoever loses his life for my sake will save it.” He also said, “if anyone wants to be my disciple he must deny himself, pick up his cross daily, and follow me.” As long as we try to hold on to our past, as long as we try to stay in control, as long as we try to follow Jesus without giving up everything, we will not succeed. We will not be able to “follow Him.” I learned that last week with my son – I had to give Thomas up, place him in Jesus’ hands, trust God to care for and heal him – so I know it is hard. But it is the only way. Jesus demands our all.
The story continues, and tells of a great banquet. A large crowd of “undesirables” gathers at Levi’s house for a meal, and more importantly for an opportunity to meet Jesus. I believe this was Levi’s method of witnessing – he met Jesus, decided to follow Him, and then invited everyone he knew to a giant banquet so that they could also meet Jesus. And they came, and had a feast. Scripture doesn’t tell us this, but I think Jesus was probably the life of the party – He was probably the focal point of the whole gathering. In my imagination I see Him talking with people all over the place, sharing a laugh and a joke, making a comment or insight that people would never forget, simply touching these rich outcasts on the shoulder in a way that changed them. Maybe He spoke to them as a group; we don’t know. But we do know that the religious leaders branded Jesus with the title “friend of sinners,” so I have no problem imagining Jesus being really friendly with this crowd at the banquet.
We also know that the “religious” folk did not approve. They were on the outskirts, looking in disdainfully. “Why do you eat and drink with tax collectors and ‘sinners’?” This was an affront, a serious error in judgment. Jesus was becoming a noticed religious leader, people were talking about Him, certainly He knew better than to taint His reputation by keeping questionable company. Certainly He knew that being found eating with tax collectors would become a Bill Clinton-sized scandal. The tabloids would have a field day with this one!
Frankly, Jesus didn’t care. I really believe that. The people around Him were quick to see people as a label and not as a person. And to equate that label with an absence of worth. Like today: “on welfare.” “street person.” “prostitute.” “homosexual.” “unemployed.” In Jesus’ day it was “tax collector.” “sinner.” The result is the same, a sense that these people aren’t really people, they have no dignity, no status, virtually no worth. Jesus didn’t care about the label, He recognized the person.
I live close to Whyte Avenue, and so Thomas and I often walk past some of the people our society marginalizes and labels and views as having little worth. I made a decision several years ago that, at the very least – the bare minimum – I would meet their eyes and smile. Sometimes I can do more, but at the very least I am going to acknowledge their existence as a person in my world. I refuse to walk by and ignore them or give them a blank stare as if they didn’t exist. Now I recognize that isn’t a lot, it certainly won’t change their situation or heal all their hurts. But at the very least I will try to treat them as a fellow member of humanity.
Jesus did far more. He became “friend.” You know who this tax collector named Levi is? He is Matthew, the disciple, the author of our first Gospel (Jews often had more than one name). This is very clear from the parallel accounts in the other gospels. He is one of the 12, one of Jesus’ closest disciples, an apostle. Jesus took the outcast – the hated – the despised; and made him one of His disciples.
I find hope there. I find hope for me first – I recognize that apart from Jesus I would be rejected and despised by God. I am a “sinner,” one of those who have turned away from God and deserve all the punishment that comes along with that rebellion. Yet Jesus calls me “friend.” Jesus turns me from a place of abandonment to a place of acceptance, from an outcast to a friend. That is the amazing truth of the Gospel. I find hope for my world second – I have hope for those around me, for those I bump into on Whyte Avenue, for you here today. Jesus can change things. Jesus has the power to make us new. He doesn’t care about the labels, about the status in society; He doesn’t even care if we think we are completely worthless and undeserving of His love! We are!! All of us!!! Yet Jesus befriends us anyways. Just like Levi, Jesus invites us to follow Him. Will you leave everything and follow Him?
Jesus eats with a Pharisee
The second story is found in Luke 7:36-50. It follows immediately on Jesus’ explicit words, which reveal how the people saw Him. I want to read those words first, then look at the story. (read vss. 33-35). We see here that the title “friend of sinners” is not a new one, it is one Jesus had during His life on earth.
The setting is the opposite of the last story. Now, Jesus is dining with the upper crust. This is a suit-and-tie affair; break out the nice sandals and be on your best behavior. Scripture doesn’t tell us much about what is going on – the reason for the invitation, or anything like that. But Jesus accepts the invitation, and goes to the Pharisee’s house. Jesus shows His impartiality here – He ate with Levi the hated tax collector, now He eats with Simon the Pharisee.
We need to understand that this meal wasn’t a private affair – people could come and listen and watch in that culture. Even so, though, a prostitute would certainly not have received a warm welcome in the house of a Pharisee. It would have taken great courage for her to do what Luke tells us she did. Luke tells us that she brings an expensive jar of perfume, and stands by Jesus’ feet. It probably helps to know that meals were taken lying down in Jesus’ day, propped up on one elbow with head towards the table and feet away. And this woman starts to weep, and as her tears hit Jesus’ feet she kneels and wipes them with her hair, she kisses His feet and then pours the perfume over them. I’m not even going to begin to imagine how many of the Pharisees’ rules are being broken by this time… and the whole scene is noticed by the host. His conclusion – obviously Jesus is not a prophet.
Jesus knows what he is saying, and so tells him a short parable and then asks him a rather unnerving question, yet one with an obvious answer. Who loves more, the one forgiven a little or the one forgiven a lot? The one who loves more is the one who has had more forgiven. I see this still today. The people who have had much more forgiven are often more excited about their relationship with Christ, often more eager to share it with others. There is a greater sense of how desperate they were, and how incredibly blessed and free they are today, and so Jesus’ observation holds: those who have been forgiven more love more. I think Jesus is pointing out a reality here and not describing an ideal. I remember a guy in Bible college who invented an elaborate testimony about being a drug addict etc. to make the point that we often glorify testimonies like that and somehow feel God has done less in people like me who have grown up trying to follow Him. That isn’t true, but it is how things are often perceived. Jesus isn’t saying that people who have been forgiven more are somehow superior, He is just pointing out the reality that those people have a greater love for the one who forgave the debt.
I wonder if the root of this is that we tend to take things for granted. We take for granted God’s forgiveness, and so feel that it is ok if we sin a little because we know God will forgive us. Especially if it is only a little sin… We often don’t realize the true nature of sin – that every sin is a turning away from God, it is a rejection of Him, it is rebellion against Him. And every sin grabs us and ties us up and keeps us from experiencing life. I think it is like having a physical ailment – if we were paralyzed from the neck down, unable to move any of our body except our head, and were suddenly healed, we would see a huge difference – and would have a great love for the person who healed us. But what if we just had a hand that didn’t work? We would adapt, get used to our handicap, adjust, and carry on. Of course it would be inconvenient, but we would get by. Here is my point: I think we do the same with sin. We get used to it, we adapt, we adjust, we carry on. We think “well it’s not too big of a deal, I can still see God doing some things around me, so it must be ok.” And we walk through life handicapped. We try to be like Levi, following Jesus yet without leaving everything behind – we try to carry our charts and ledgers and tax collecting stuff around with us. And the result is tragic – we miss out on God’s blessing for us, and we have no power to serve Him and make a difference in the world around us.
I had a conversation this week about whether or not we experience all that God desires for us, specifically in the context of our worship services. The person I was talking with said no, and made the observation that it is because we are too wealthy. We have too much, and so rely on ourselves and what we have instead of on God. I think he may be on to something there. It is hard for us to believe – to leave everything and follow God, because we believe we are self-sufficient. It strikes me that in the story, we are the Pharisee, we are the one who only owed 50 denarii.
And yet, you know the miracle of God’s grace is that it is freely available to all. The one who only owed 50 was forgiven just like the one who owed 500. Jesus ate with the tax collector, and He ate with the Pharisee. Jesus didn’t care about the labels, He cares about the person. His desire is that all of us experience His forgiveness, His power, His freedom from sin. And that we respond by loving Him deeply and passionately.
Jesus is friend of sinners. And that is a good thing, for each of us is a sinner. Each of us have turned away, have rebelled against Him, and need to turn away from our sin, turn towards Jesus.
And if we are to be like Jesus, we need to befriend sinners also. We need to be in relationships with those who don’t know Christ, so that they can come to know of Him and can be led to decide to follow Him. That can be tough for us, tough to truly befriend “sinners”. You know what made the difference for Jesus? He truly was a friend. They weren’t “projects”, they were people Jesus loved and appreciated and needed and who served Him. They were two-way relationships. They were authentic. That is what we need to build with people around us if we are to have opportunity to witness for Christ.
How does this apply to you? Do you need to accept Jesus’ offer of friendship, of forgiveness, for the first time? If so, come – accept His gift – be made whole.
Or have you, like Levi, heard His invitation yet haven’t left everything behind to follow Him? If so, let it go – lay it down – leave it behind. You will never regret it.
Maybe the picture of Jesus as friend of sinners challenges you to foster friendships with people around you who don’t know Jesus wants to be their friend. If so, do it. Start to build those friendships, and watch the opportunities God gives you to share the incredible news that Jesus is friend of sinners.
Jesus! what a Friend for sinners!
Jesus! Lover of my soul;
Friends may fail me, foes assail me,
He, my Savior, makes me whole.
Hallelujah! what a Savior!
Hallelujah! what a Friend!
Saving, helping, keeping, loving,
He is with me to the end.
Jesus! I do now receive Him,
[or Jesus! I do now adore Him,]
More than all in Him I find.
He hath granted me forgiveness,
I am His, and He is mine.