Tax Collectors and Sinners

I’ve noticed over the years that many Christians love to protest things they deem as “worldly” or “satanic”—ranging from secular music to Super Bowl halftime shows. While I certainly support any person’s personal decision to avoid something that is beneficial for their life, I am baffled by the need some have to publicly proclaim that they are against these things and that all other Christians should be against them as well, especially when many of these things are quite trivial.

After last week’s Super Bowl LI, I wrote a piece about this that explores how we can become a variation of the very ‘evil’ we are condemning when we take on the voice of accusation instead of a voice of love.

For example, if we make a big scene because we saw an article on Facebook with proof that a pop star’s halftime routine involves satanic rituals we can very easily take on the voice of accusation, even though we may think we are only trying to protect others from this apparent evil.

We also tend to do this when we perceive things to be too sexualized. “Oh my gosh, I can see her stomach! Why would they put this crap on TV when there are kids watching??” Interestingly enough, this is often spoken by the same people who have no problem visiting a beach or swimming pool. Let’s face it, I’ve even seen people dressed this way in Walmart and I have not yet abandoned going there or created a Facebook group to boycott this present darkness.

I’m not defending these things and saying we should keep silent; the purpose of my writing this is to discuss our knee-jerk reactions and how we can become more Christlike in our responses so that Jesus doesn’t need to send a PR team behind us to clean up the messes we make. Again, I am not criticizing anyone’s personal decisions to avoid certain things; I believe that every Christ follower should do what the Holy Spirit leads them to do—without feeling compelled to become everyone else’s Holy Spirit in the process. (For more on this, see Romans 14.)

In Luke 5, Jesus states that His mission is not to call the righteous, but sinners, to repentance.

“After this, Jesus went out and saw a tax collector by the name of Levi sitting at his tax booth. ‘Follow me,’ Jesus said to him, and Levi got up, left everything and followed him. Then Levi held a great banquet for Jesus at his house, and a large crowd of tax collectors and others were eating with them. But the Pharisees and the teachers of the law who belonged to their sect complained to his disciples, ‘Why do you eat and drink with tax collectors and sinners?’” (Luke 5:27-31, NIV).

In this instance, Jesus called a tax collector—a “worldly” perpetrator of evil—to follow Him. The man is so awestruck and filled with gratitude that Jesus would choose him that he throws a massive party at his house and invites all of his friends. Mind you, this would not have been a wholesome, family-friendly crowd. Yet, we see Jesus in the middle of the party, dining with those we would think He would avoid. Apparently the Christians were there too (even though there was no such thing as a Christian in Jesus’ day), because in the next verse we see them complaining to Jesus’ disciples.

Let’s pause for a moment here. The disciples were with Jesus at the party that was full of tax collectors and sinners, and hosted by one of their less-than-model citizens. The religious elite were apparently there as well, which I find odd, because if they truly had a personal conviction that such evil should be avoided, they would have been as far away from the party as they could get. Instead, we see them complaining to the disciples instead of taking their concerns to Jesus.

How many times do we do this exact same thing? We watch the evil halftime show that we posted about on Facebook, only to post again stating it was just as terrible as we expected it to be. We then complain to other Christians about what we have seen. We think we are doing something good, not realizing that Jesus is present at the party and it is actually Him we are complaining about! The religious spirit is not nearly as upset with the sinner as it is the fact that Jesus is present with the sinner, which could easily be misconstrued as an endorsement of their behavior.

“Jesus answered them, ‘It is not the healthy who need a doctor, but the sick. I have not come to call the righteous, but sinners to repentance’” (Luke 5:32, NIV).

That last verse could also be phrased like this: “I have not come to call those who think they are righteous, but those who know they are sinners.” While Jesus proclaimed the good news to all people, His focus was the outcasts who had been been shut out by the religious system, not the self-righteous within the system.

His response also revealed their hypocrisy and the deep personal need they refused to acknowledge. Think with me about the parable of the man who was forgiven a large debt. (You can find this in Matthew 18:21-35.) He owed a huge debt and Jesus forgave it, but his response was to immediately go out and find someone who owed him a much smaller debt and demand they pay. Jesus did not tell this parable as a lesson in economics; He told this parable to illustrate that we can know the degree to which His mercy has touched our hearts by the amount of mercy we freely give to others. In other words, “be merciful, just as your Father is merciful” (Luke 6:36, NIV).

In saying, “I have not come for the healthy, but the sick” Jesus is not telling the religious leaders that He did not come for them. Rather, He is revealing that they too are indeed sick! It is just a different kind of sickness. There are two types of evil: The obvious evil, such as murder, adultery, and Super Bowl Halftime shows, and the more subtle evil that veils itself in religious morality: pride, elitism, self-righteousness, and policing the behavior of others by smacking them with the plank sticking out of your own eye (see Matthew 7:5). Jesus came for the perpetrators of both types of evil, but His work is only effective with those who can acknowledge that they have taken part in this evil. Because the latter crowd rarely choose to do so, He shrugs and moves on, as if to say, “I guess you are healthy and have no need for Me then.” This is why we often find Jesus in the places we don’t expect Him to be.

Am I saying that those who condemn Super Bowl halftime shows on Facebook are the same as the religious leaders who couldn’t see their own need for a Savior? Am I saying that the show itself is akin to the party in the tax collector’s home that Jesus attended?

No, I’m not saying either of those things.

What I am saying is we must be slow to condemn things as “evil” and call for boycotts, because in our haste to protect each other from evil it is possible to end up becoming a form of the evil we are condemning, and rejecting the very thing Jesus is present in.

I’m saying we should be slow to judge and quick to extend mercy. I’m saying we should be known more for what we are “for” than what we are against. I’m saying we should be slow to call a concert a “party for Satan,” because it may actually be a party held for Jesus in the home of a tax collector. I’m saying we shouldn’t be afraid to get close to things that appear “worldly” or “evil,” because those may be the very places where Jesus is at work turning hearts toward Him, and we may miss the opportunity to partner with Him in this work if we are standing on the protest lines outside.

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