Summary: This sermon looks three groups of people mentioned in the Scripture Pharisees, sinners and tax collectors
Pharisees, Tax Collectors and Sinners
Luke’s Gospel was originally written on a scroll. He assumed his readers would always start at the beginning of his Gospel and read through to the end. Thus, in recording what we now know as Luke 15, Luke’s readers would have just heard the preceding 14 chapters. The problem is that today the Gospel is often read and even preached in a random fashion with only just a narrow portion of Scripture used. As a result, we miss some of the larger themes of the Gospels and how they inform the meaning and purpose of individual passages. A key to understanding any Scripture in the Gospels is to know what preceded it.
In Luke 4, Jesus has just returned to Nazareth one weekend. The head of the local synagogue, a Pharisee, honored Him by asking Jesus to read from one of the prophetic scrolls. Jesus chose a very well known passage to Jews of his day, Isaiah 61,which spoke of the coming Messiah. “He has sent me to proclaim release to the captives and recovery of sight for the blind, to set free those who are oppressed,to proclaim the favorable year of our Lord. The Spirit of the Sovereign Lord is on me, because the Lord has anointed me to preach good news to the poor.” The word poor does not just refer to just the economically poor but also those who are of low status and considered outside of the boundaries of God’s people.
In Luke 4, Jesus declares that He has come to proclaim good news to sinners that God is willing to forgive all sin and to bring into being a new spiritual community which will includes all those outside God’s will. Forgiveness is a major theme in Luke 15. This wasn’t “good news” to the Jewish leaders of Jesus’ day, especially the Pharisees, because extending mercy and compassion to people who are not living like them contradicted their faith and practice. In fact, it ignited their rage (Luke 4:28) to such an extent that first they sought to silence Jesus by first discrediting him and then when that didn’t work to get rid of Jesus by killing him. In their practice of Judaism, where mercy to “outsiders” is often conspicuous by its absence, Jesus declares that the purpose of His ministry will be bringing God’s mercy and compassion to the blind, i.e., those who are physically or spiritually blind. Likewise, He will be proclaiming “Good News” and will be an advocate for social justice for those deprived of it. This is an “in-your-face” challenge to His observant Jewish hometown audience and the Pharisees because it contradicted their view of what the Messiah will do when He comes! Instead, Jesus calls them to compassion and this is central to the parables taught in Luke 15.
There are three groups of people mentioned in our Scripture today, one of whom, the Pharisees, is at odds with the others two, the tax collectors and sinners. First, let’s talk about the tax collectors and sinners. These two groups are often are mentioned together in the Gospels, sometimes with prostitutes as well. Now one thing you need to understand is that people were different back then than we are today. This is so weird but they didn’t like to pay taxes! Back then, they even hated tax collectors. We on the other hand love to pay taxes. April 15 is probably the biggest celebration day of the year. I know most of you have your “Have you hugged your IRS agent today?” bumper sticker on your car. Seriously though, in reality, we’re all the same. Culturally speaking, tax collectors were some of the most hated people in Jesus’ day because they were thought to be crooks. Romans had tax collecting stations throughout Israel. A person would bid to become a tax collector and would have to pay up front the taxes they would collect. The tax collector would then recoup their money by collecting taxes and any collected money over the taxed amount was profit or salary. You can imagine that the tax collectors often took advantage of this to live a very nice life, better than most who struggled and lived in poverty. And it was at the expense of the people in their region. It didn’t help that most tax collectors drove BMW or Mercedes chariots. So the Jewish people hated tax collectors. They were not only considered to be traitors because they dealt with Rome, which made them unclean. They were also thought to be thieves, taking excessive money from the poor.
But what is a sinner? A sinner is someone who breaks God’s law. 1 John 3:4 says, “Everyone who sins breaks the law.” The Hebrew and Greek words for "sin" throughout the Bible revolve largely around two images. The first means "to step across or go beyond a set boundary or limit," like stepping out of bounds on basketball court or football field. The second image is "to miss the mark,” like an archer shooting for a bull’s eye and missing the target. God has defined boundaries, standards, hopes and dreams for us, the playing field on which we are to live our lives and the target we are to aim for. It’s in His Word that God shows us how we are to live and names sin is. Col. 3:5-6 mentions impurity, evil desires and greed. Galatians 5:19-21 names “sexual immorality, impurity, lustful pleasures, idolatry, sorcery, hostility, quarreling, jealousy, outbursts of anger, selfish ambition, dissension, division, envy, drunkenness, and wild parties. These are the type of people Jesus hangs out with and why he received the scorn of the Pharisees because they perceived them to be outsiders and beyond God’s grace.