23. An Audience of “Sinners”

23 – An Audience of “Sinners”

“Now all  the tax collectors and sinners were all drawing near to listen to him”

We now need to take an extended look at the older son of this father, but before we do, it would serve us well to ask a question, not about any of the characters inside the story we are exploring, but about the audience, or should I say the audiences, who were listening  to the story.

Hear again Luke’s introduction to his trilogy of stories found in Luke 15:

“Now all  the tax collectors and sinners were all drawing near to listen to him.
And the Pharisees and the Scribes were grumbling and saying,
‘This fellow welcomes sinners and eats with them!’
So he told THEM this parable.”

Who is the “them”? To whom did Jesus direct these three parables?  There are two obvious possibilities.  There is a crowd of “tax-collectors and sinners”, and there is a group of religious leaders represented by “the Scribes and Pharisees”.  Here in one place we find the bad and the good, the sinners and the saints, the irreligious and the hyper-religious, the most reputable and the most disreputable of people.

Often when Jesus is teaching, a very diverse audience gathers, but his words are sometimes aimed for a specific sector of that audience.  In the Sermon on the Mount this takes place.
“When Jesus saw the crowds,
he went up into a mountain;
and after he sat down his disciples came to him.
and He taught THEM saying….”

The question again is, who is the “them” to whom Jesus is addressing these words of the Sermon on the Mount? The primary audience seems to be the disciples.  But Jesus knows that the larger crowd is eavesdropping, and so his words are intended to draw them in too.  His words are for his followers, but he is not insensitive to others who might want to join them. So he speaks directly to the one audience, and indirectly to the other.

In this set of three parables I think that Jesus is speaking directly to the religious leaders.  But he knows that the so-called “sinners” are eavesdropping, and his words are meant to help them too. He is also aware that his disciples are with him, and his words will have another import for them. Years later, when Luke includes this story in his gospel, he will have the church of his own day firmly in mind, for they also need to hear this story.  In the next few chapters we need to look more closely at each of these audiences.  First let us look more closely at the secondary audience: the Tax Collectors and “Sinners”.

Who are these Tax Collectors?

We know a lot about these people. When the Persians, and the Greeks and the Romans ruled over Judea they created a class of  people called “tax farmers.’ Here is the way the system worked in Jesus’ day.

The Latin title “publicani” was the name given to wealthy Romans who bid for the right to collect taxes from certain countries or regions, and to turn in an agreed-upon amount to the central government.  The Publicani then farmed out the collection of taxes to local individuals in each area of their jurisdiction. These local “farmers” also bid for the contract, and in turn were required to remit to the publicani the amount specified in their bid. Then, so they could make an ample living, these tax farmers could set their own rates, to enable them to return the required taxes to their overlord and still end up with a handsome profit.

If you hated Rome, you would also hate their henchmen. The tax collectors were seen as collaborators with the occupying forces, and thieves to boot. They were ostracized by their own country men, so they banded together for company, and with others of ill repute, those usually called “sinners.”

Though hated throughout the empire, Jesus and Luke both paid a lot of attention to these men. (Luke 3:12-13, 5:27-32, 7.29-35, 15:1, 18:9-14, 19:1-10.) They may be despised, but they are also hungry for hope and gathered around Jesus wherever he went, hanging on to his words.  Jesus  will even select one of these tax collectors, Matthew, to be one of his 12 intimate followers. Luke’s gospel has been called “The Gospel for the Outcast” and none were more despised than the tax collectors.

Who are these so-called “Sinners”? 

Throughout Judea it would have been recognized that all people were sinners and that “there is none righteous, no not one.”  None-the-less there were some people who were  called “Sinners” with a capital “S”. In modern translation the word often appears in quotation marks.  It refers to an identifiable group of people who were to be shunned by respectable and religious society.

William Barclay tells us that the term carries the same significance as the Old Testament term, the “am ha-arets”- “The people of the land”.  Barclay writes, ”The pharisaic regulations laid it down, when a man is one of the People of the Land, entrust no money to him, take no  testimony from him, trust him with no secret, do not appoint him guardian of an orphan, do not  make him the custodian of charitable funds, do not accompany him on a journey.” [i]

Who are these so-called sinners?  First of all they are the outwardly irreligious. They are those who obviously break the God’s law – drunks, thieves, prostitutes and such like.

But Jeremias [ii] tells us that this title was also used to refer to those who followed a “dishonorable calling” and these were also deprived of civil rights, such as holding office, or bearing witness in legal proceedings. These included excise-men, tax collectors, shepherds, donkey-drivers, peddlers, tanners and others who obviously, in the minds of the elite, belonged to the riffraff of society. To call them second class citizens was being overly generous.

And yet, Luke in his Gospel for the Outcast, speaks of them frequently. (5:8. 5:30-32,  6:32-34, 7:34-39, 13:2-4, 15:1-2, 7, 10, 8:13 19:7, 24:7.) They were attracted to Jesus, and Jesus to them.

What drew such people to Jesus?

Luke speaks of “all” the tax collectors and sinners coming to Jesus.  The  word “all” can mean several things. It can mean every last one of them, or many of them, or the majority of them, or all who were in that vicinity.  At least they were conspicuous by their very numbers.

Luke says that they “kept coming near.” It is the present progressive tense. They were coming and kept coming, and kept coming. This happened a lot!  Apparently it was not unusual for such outcasts to feel this overwhelming attraction to this traveling rabbi.

And these tax collectors and sinners gathered around, Luke says, “to hear him.” The previous chapter has ended with the challenge of Jesus, “He who has ears to hear, let him hear!” (Luke 14:35) At these words, these so-called sinners may have started to push their way to the front of the crowd, eager to hear every word. Maybe even ruffling the feathers of the Pharisees that they brushed past.

So what was the attraction?  Several reasons can be surmised, some nice and some not so nice.

What may have drawn them initially, may have been the miracles.  Who would not want to be part of the greatest show on earth.  A miracle a day was better than a circus.  Healings, demonic deliverance,  miraculous food, power over the weather, and raising the dead would guarantee a following in any age of the world. These “sinners” may have been curiosity seekers and nothing more.

These “sinners” may also have loved the way Jesus responded to the high and mighty. In the preceding chapter Jesus was highly critical of the Pharisees, and the sinners would have loved the way he took those kind of people down a peg or two.   They would have loved the sport.

On the positive side, however, they felt that he was willing to be a friend to those who had few friends. He did not try to avoid them as though they were contagious. He seem to be no (dis)respecter of persons, but would sit down for a meal with a Pharisee (Ch 14) or with a tax collector (Ch 19).

Whatever other motives drew them, however, there was one other reason that seemed to be most dominant: Jesus  made intuitive sense to them.  St. Mark reminds  us that “the common people heard him gladly.”  His words drew them in. He  didn’t teach like the other rabbis did.  The Good News he announced actually sounded like good news indeed! So when Jesus tells the story of the lost sheep, the lost coin and the lost son, they would have recognized themselves immediately, and knew that they too were welcome in the Father’s house.

Is it any wonder that on the day of Pentecost and the weeks that followed, thousands upon thousands were drawn into the life of the early church and were baptized into its fellowship. This may have been due less to Peter’s sermon, or the pyrotechnics of Pentecost, but because they had been attracted to Jesus, while Peter and the other apostles were simply harvesting what Jesus himself had sown.



Theological Reflection

Jesus was “attractive” to the sinners and to the truly saintly. People were  drawn to him. They wanted to be with him. Thousands would gladly miss a meal, than leave early from any event that included this man.

On the other hand it appears that in our culture, the church has become quite unattractive. Participation in the church has been in decline in the “Civilized West” for the past half century.  I have heard young people announce “Jesus I like: the church I don’t.”  Some want to call themselves “Jesus Followers” not Christians, in order to create some distance between themselves and how the church is perceived both by themselves and by the surrounding culture.

Some of us think this unattractiveness is tragic, and we must do whatever we can to arrest the decline.  We think we need to make the church as attractive to the outsider as possible.  But how shall we do that? Do we become “seeker sensitive” or even “seeker driven” to try to draw outsiders in.  Do we exchange our hymns for praise choruses? Do we cash in the organ and buy a drum set?  Do we change our sermon illustrations from Wordsworth & Shakespeare to Saturday Night Live?  Do we minimize the sacramental and replace it with dramatic skits? Do we move from printed books and adopt high tech visuals?  Perhaps so. If we care deeply about reaching the outcasts we need to do things that help “the common people hear us gladly.”

Some times because the changes we make are not substantial, we may be changing only our ”ways and means” and so see no change in results.  At  times we look like we are merely putting lipstick on a pig, or using cosmetics to cover up the zits.  When I use the word “substantial,” I mean that which is essential, foundational, and substantive. We can change the peripherals quite easily (not without pain of course!) but changing “our nature” might demand a revolution more profound.

Perhaps we need to consider “the outsiders coming in” to be an unintended consequence of our activities, instead of the purpose of our actions. We might want to make our intended purpose to be “insiders going out” to be a part of the wider community, as salt and light and leaven.  St. Francis is reputed to have said, “Go everywhere preaching the gospel, and if you must, use words.” The Pauline text to the careless Corinthian Church, “Come out from among them, and be separate” may have become a favourite text of the descendants of the Pharisees, but it is not to be a normative text for the church that follows Jesus. But our fear of being contaminated by the world has made us tentative about being part of it, and has turned us into hit and run evangelists, feeling safer when we retreat to home base.

But if it is imperative that we become “insiders going out”, it is just as critical that we “not forsake the assembling of ourselves together.”  If we are to work well in our world we need to be equipped for every good work.  We will need to touch base with one another, pray for one another, affirm our faith in  the presence of one another, and receive guidance for living well from one another.

As we gather together we find ourselves loving one another and enjoying the fellowship of kindred minds. And that is a good thing. But our gathering together must not be only or primarily to enjoy the fellowship. Rather we should see ourselves gathering as fellow students (The original meaning of disciples) in “the School of Christ” where we learn how to live like Jesus and live well in our world. And if people from the outside want to join us in fellowship and learning, that is an added bonus! And hopefully they would be welcomed.


[i] William Barclay, The Gospel of Luke. (DSB) (Philadelphia: Westminster, 1956) p. 206.

[ii] Joachim Jeremias, Jerusalem in the Time of Jesus (London: SCM, 1969), pp. 303-312.

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