“This Man Receives Sinners” (Luke 15:1-10)

Fourteenth Sunday after Pentecost
September 15, 2019

“This Man Receives Sinners” (Luke 15:1-10)

“This Man Receives Sinners.” So said the Pharisees and the scribes about Jesus. They meant it as an insult: “This man receives sinners.” We hear those same words, and we take them as the most wonderful good news: “This man receives sinners!” I guess it depends on what you think about “this man,” Jesus, and whether or not you put yourself in the category of “sinners.”

Our text is the Holy Gospel for today, from Luke 15. First, let’s set the stage and identify the players in this drama. There’s Jesus, of course, the traveling teacher who had become quite a sensation. His teaching, though, was different from what the rabbis were teaching. And he had this nasty habit of calling out the religious leaders of the day, like the Pharisees and the scribes, and taking them to task for their hypocrisy. And the people that came to Jesus, the crowds that followed him, didn’t always fit the profile of respectable pillars of the community.

The people coming to hear Jesus, the ones he hung around with–they were the riff-raff, the rabble, the disreputable bunch. “The tax collectors and sinners,” our text says. Now you and I may not like to pay taxes, but perhaps we wonder why tax collectors would be singled out as a particularly bad group. Well, a couple of reasons. For one, Israel at that time was ruled by the Romans, and the tax collectors were local Jews willing to collect taxes for Rome–to work for the enemy! And two, tax collectors as a group had the reputation of being corrupt–shady guys who would skim a little off the top to line their own pockets. So tax collectors, collectively, were looked down upon, and not without reason.

Tax collectors and “sinners,” it says. “Sinners” is a comprehensive term, to include publicly recognized sinners of various descriptions. It could be prostitutes, it could be adulterers, it could be anyone who did not measure up to the standards of respectable society. Outwardly recognizable sinners, that’s the idea. These were the kind of people who were coming to hear Jesus. And the thing was, Jesus wasn’t distancing himself from them or pushing them away.

This is what was so shocking to the other players in our drama, the respectable religious folk. The Pharisees and the scribes are the two groups mentioned. The Pharisees were the “separated ones,” the “holier than thou” ones, who devoted themselves to keeping God’s laws–at least on the surface, in a making-themselves-look-good kind of way. And just to be sure they wouldn’t come close to breaking God’s commandments, they built a hedge around the law, adding on extra commandments of their own, like, how many steps you could walk on a Sabbath day’s journey. Those were the Pharisees. The scribes were the experts in God’s law, the Bible scholars of their day. They would debate fine points of Scripture, but they couldn’t see the forest for the trees. The Pharisees and scribes would “strain out a gnat and swallow a camel,” as Jesus put it. They would be sure to give a tithe of their spices, of mint and dill and cumin, but they neglected the weightier matters of the law, like justice and mercy and faithfulness.

So here you’ve got these two groups on the stage. Over here, there’s Jesus hanging around with the riff-raff. The tax collectors and sinners are coming to hear him, and he’s welcoming them. Over there, standing a ways off, are the respectable religious elite, the Pharisees and the scribes, and they are offended that Jesus would act in such a shocking way. So they begin to grumble, “This man receives sinners and eats with them.”

Notice how they refer to Jesus as “this man.” They won’t even say his name, they dislike him so much. Well, let’s say it straight out: They hate him. They hate Jesus because he had exposed their hypocrisy. They hate him out of jealousy, because he was drawing away crowds and becoming popular. Thus he was a threat to their religious leadership. And they hate Jesus for associating with uneducated fisherman and crooked tax collectors and morally inferior sinners. It looked like he was being soft on sin.

So Jesus tells them a story. A couple of stories, actually. And they follow a common pattern. Something is lost–a lost sheep, a lost coin–and the owner goes searching for the lost one, finds it, rejoices, and invites the friends and neighbors to rejoice also over this finding of the lost.

That’s the pattern, and the application is clear: “Just so, I tell you, there will be more joy in heaven over one sinner who repents than over ninety-nine righteous persons who need no repentance.” So here is Jesus, going out and seeking these sinners who had lost their way. He finds them and brings them home–home to God, back home with God’s people. Yet what is the reaction of the religious leaders? Instead of rejoicing, they’re grumbling. Jesus is rejoicing, heaven is rejoicing, the angels are rejoicing, but the Pharisees and the scribes are grumbling.

“This man receives sinners and eats with them.” Exactly the wrong reaction, in the way they meant it. The recovery of a lost sinner ought to be cause for great rejoicing. But the Pharisees and scribes’ whole perspective was wrong–in particular, in a couple of ways.

One, they thought Jesus was being soft on sin. But he wasn’t. It wasn’t like Jesus was telling the tax collectors, “Hey, it’s OK to continue being crooked in the conduct of your business”. It wasn’t like he was telling the prostitutes and adulterers to go on being sexually immoral. By no means. “Go and sin no more,” he would say. Notice how, at the end of each story, Jesus repeats the phrase, “over one sinner who repents.” So Jesus was calling sinners to repentance.

And second, the Pharisees and scribes refused to put themselves into the category of “sinners.” They refused to see themselves as sinners who needed to repent. Notice how Jesus contrasts “one sinner who repents” with “ninety-nine righteous persons who need no repentance.” That’s how the Pharisees and scribes regarded themselves: as the “righteous persons who need no repentance.” But really they did need to repent. The very fact that they were grumbling instead of rejoicing showed they were not on God’s wavelength. And no matter how outwardly righteous and religious they appeared before men, they could not fool God, who knew their hypocrisy and their merely surface obedience to his commands. In reality, the Pharisees and scribes, with their pride and self-righteousness–they too were sinners in need of repentance.

Now how about you? Will you be one of the lost sinners found by Jesus? Or do you think of yourself as one of the righteous who need no repentance? If you think you’re righteous enough as you are, then I’ve got nothing to offer you here today. You’re on your own. Good luck with that. But if, on the other hand, you realize you are a sinner–no better, really, than a tax collector or a prostitute when it comes to righteousness before God, because you know you’ve got that same greed or lust inside you, in your heart, even if you’ve been able to keep it from cropping up too bad and wrecking your life. . . . If you realize you’re a sinner–maybe you’re a sinner of the Pharisee or scribe variety, someone who has led a respectable life and prided yourself on that very point, how much better you are than the riff-raff, but now you realize that your pride is itself a sin. . . . If you realize that you are a sinner, then I’ve got good news for you today. And it’s all about Jesus: “This man receives sinners and eats with them.”

Everything hinges on who this man Jesus is. If he was just some guy back then who was nice to sinners–well, that wouldn’t do us any good, would it? The real question is whether or not God welcomes sinners. And the fact that Jesus receives sinners shows that God receives sinners too. For Jesus reveals the heart of God toward us. When you see Jesus, you see God. Jesus is more than just some guy from way back when. This man Jesus Christ is the very Son of God, come from heaven, in the flesh, to make God known to us. And what we see in Jesus is a heart of love and mercy and forgiveness. If Jesus receives sinners, then God does too.

But I thought God was supposed to be tough on sin! Here it looks like Jesus is being too easy on sinners. Even if he was calling them to repentance, that still doesn’t take care of the sins they committed, nor does it deal with the sins they’re going to commit, no matter how hard they try. By receiving sinners is Jesus being soft on sin? Far from it. In fact, Jesus takes sin so seriously that he takes the heavy burden of all those sins and carries them to the cross. There the Son of God–this man Jesus–suffered and died in the place of tax collectors and sinners and Pharisees and scribes and all lost ones like you and me. The only way Jesus can be doing the right thing in welcoming sinners is if their sin–all of it–is being dealt with, effectively. And it has been dealt with–paid in full, atoned for, forgiven–once and for all, on the cross where Jesus died. By his holy blood, all sins are covered, all sinners are welcomed back. Christ’s resurrection, then, is the proof that God accepts his Son’s sacrifice and that it opens up the way to life everlasting for us, just as Jesus now lives and reigns to all eternity.

Your sins are forgiven, my friend! Jesus receives you and welcomes you! You were lost, like that sheep out in the open country, but your Good Shepherd came and found you and laid you on his shoulders and carried you back home. Now you’re home with Jesus, home where you belong, and there’s a lot of rejoicing to do. And one day this same Jesus will return and receive you safe and sound into your heavenly home, where the rejoicing will last forever.

“This man receives sinners and eats with them.” Yes, he even eats with them! That was so scandalizing to the Pharisees and scribes–that Jesus would actually dine with known sinners! He practiced table fellowship with them. To eat at table with someone was to show full acceptance toward that person. And Jesus was doing that with sinners.

Indeed, Jesus still does that here today. Here at the Lord’s Table, Jesus welcomes you into fellowship, into communion, with him. Here he gives you his very body and blood for the forgiveness of your sins. So bring those sins up here to Jesus, and he’ll take care of them. Think of it this way. Imagine there’s a big sign over this altar: “FOR SINNERS ONLY,” it says. Do you qualify? If so, if you realize you’re a sinner in need of forgiveness, then come running up here and find a Savior who welcomes you and forgives all your sins.

“This man receives sinners and eats with them.” The Pharisees and scribes meant it as an insult. But for lost sinners like you and me, this is the greatest good news: “This man receives sinners and eats with them!”

Published in: on September 14, 2019 at 11:50 pm  Leave a Comment  
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