I visited a Pentecostal church back in the 80’s. It was a very conservative congregation. Standing outside near the front entrance was a shabbily dressed man smoking a cigarette. He looked out of place in front of a church where folks were wearing their Sunday-best as they prepared to hear an old-fashioned hell-fire sermon. I’m ashamed to admit I hesitated to talk to the man who others ignored. I was young, single, and what would the young ladies of the church think of me if the saw me talking to this visitor who seemed to be the kind of person the preacher warned you about? I won’t go into the details of this man’s story other than to say he was there because he had a relative who attended the church, and he was waiting to meet him after the sermon was over. I’m glad I stopped to talk to him. I think this is the kind of encounter Matthew wrote of when he wrote that Jesus spending time with tax collectors and sinners. It also shows that people today have the same kind of reactions and motivations that people had in Jesus’ day. It is something that opens the door to an important discussion of loving the sinner but rejecting the sin. Let’s look at some background and some of what Matthew had to say.
Tax collectors during Jesus’ time were not respected. They were known to collect more than the allotted amount and keep it for themselves. They were considered crooks. The 9th chapter of Matthew describes how a Tax collector named Matthew was called to follow Jesus. It also records the unfavorable reaction of those who saw Jesus with Matthew as they gathered with other tax collectors. This is important: I think the big take here is the judgement people made at seeing this and what Jesus said in response. Verses 12 and 13 record Jesus saying to them, “…It is not those who are healthy who need a physician, but those who are sick. Now go and learn what this means: ‘I desire compassion, rather than sacrifice,’ for I did not come to call the righteous, but sinners.”
I think these verses clearly tell us Jesus was with tax collectors and sinners to bring them the Gospel. I also think this scripture has implications. Consider, Matthew says Jesus was with them, but doesn’t say Jesus participated in their sin. It doesn’t record Jesus being in fellowship with them in the way 2 Corinthians forbids. While 1 Corinthians tells us, “Do not be deceived: “Bad company corrupts good morals,” doesn’t the context make it clear the writer speaks of “fellowship” with other church members who live in sin; that is, to accept the sin as having God’s approval? I think this speaks to corruption inside the church and is something quite different from Matthew’s point. Matthew’s metaphor isn’t about corruption in the church. He speaks of bringing healing to the sick, a metaphor of bringing the Gospel to those who need it. To be clear here: Doesn’t Corinthians warn of condoning sin while Matthew speaks of loving sinners who need to repent? We may not know what conversations Jesus had with the tax collectors and sinners, but I think it’s important that he was there even though others would judge him for keeping such company.
In summary, Jesus’ work was not restricted to the temple. How many people go to church, sing hymns, listen to a sermon, and study the Bible, but seldom, if ever, share the Gospel outside of Christian company? Jesus didn’t limit himself to worship inside a church. He did not avoid “those” people to protect his witness. He went out to call the unrighteous to righteousness. It doesn’t say he handed out bible tracts and walked away, or even encourage folks to go to the synagogue. Matthew said he ate with them knowing well that others who thought they were among righteous would look on in judgement.
What are your thoughts?