On Tax Collectors and Notorious Sinners

“Tax collectors and other notorious sinners often came to listen to Jesus teach.” Luke 15:1 NLT

My pastor has often pointed out that tax collectors were so hated by society that they needed their own label because even the “notorious sinners” didn’t want to be associated with tax collectors. Of course this draws a laugh because every culture has its pariahs, and we all love to hate someone. This verse in Luke usually sets my mind to thinking about who was in the crowd whenever Jesus taught. We know that religious leaders came because their questions are often part of the story – sometimes because they were outraged, sometimes because they were genuinely confused, and sometimes to set a trap to catch Jesus in blasphemy.

We know that regular folks came to hear Jesus, too, and some of them brought their whole family. Several accounts of Jesus feeding a large crowd make mention that 5,000 men were fed, not counting women and children. We know that Jesus blessed children and chastised his disciples for keeping children away from him. It sounds like the crowds that came to hear Jesus teach were a mix of every socioeconomic group and every type of profession (if you’re a Monty Python fan, you may know that Jesus had a soft spot for cheesemakers, though…), so I love that Luke felt he needed to point out that “tax collectors and notorious sinners often came to listen to Jesus teach.”

There are a lot of reasons I love this notation. I love that this bunch of people who were obviously not part of “respectable society” came to hear Jesus, and came often. Can you see the bunched up look on the prim and proper church lady’s face when “those people” showed up and sat down to listen? We all know someone who might fall into the “notorious sinner” category – today they would probably be unwed mothers, addicts, or divorcees; I imagine the categories were much the same in Jesus’s day. I love that these people didn’t give two hoots what polite society thought about their presence – they came to hear Jesus, maybe several times. They knew they needed hope of redemption from their situation – a source of rescue outside themselves. I love imagining what people thought of the notorious sinners and tax collectors coming to hear Jesus – “It’s about time that one got some religion…” or “How dare they show up to hear a man of God speak?” I wonder how many members of polite society were genuinely pleased and nonjudgmental about the notorious sinners’ presence.

I wonder how many of us are happy to welcome into our churches with equal joy the notorious sinners of our day. Can we really claim that the tax collectors and notorious sinners of our time come often to our churches? Or is it horribly uncomfortable for someone different to come in and then to come back? Do we share the love and healing of Jesus in a way tangible enough that notorious sinners are drawn to hear more, just like they were drawn to listen often to Jesus teaching? I love that one single sentence both comforts and challenges me because Jesus still offers hope and healing to everyone, and I need to be sure that I am not hindering anyone, notorious sinner or not, that is drawn to Jesus. I must admit that it is too easy to judge someone’s appearance or situation and assume that they will never change. And in the next breath I must admit that I must not really believe that God is all-powerful or the source of grace if I can so readily judge another human. I’m really no different from a notorious sinner because I am still a sinner. And maybe that’s what I love the most about this sentence in Luke: the irony that anyone who judged the tax collectors and notorious sinners who showed up to learn from Jesus is even more in need of that teaching and grace. Here’s to notorious sinners and tax collectors; may we be ever gracious to each other.

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