Imagine that Jesus was coming to speak at your local church. Throughout the New Testament, we see that Jesus taught in the synagogues on a regular basis, so it’s not too far of a stretch to think that he might be scheduled to speak in a church if he was traveling around today.
You get dressed in your Sunday best, and when you enter the church all the regular attendees wear suits and ties, and nod approvingly to you as you look for a seat. But then you look over at the person sitting next to you, and it’s the homeless drunk you always see walking around downtown, talking to himself.
You start to look around at the crowd and notice a whole lot of people whom you have never seen in church before. They look like convicted criminals, prostitutes, gang members, drug addicts, and, oh, there’s the used car salesman who ripped you off last year … and before you can stop the thought from forming you think, “Why are they here?”
Jesus came on the scene at age 30 in the small province of Judea in the Roman Empire. Some people thought he was the promised Messiah, the savior of the Jews, come to overthrow the Roman Empire and set up his kingdom. Some people thought he was a lunatic, some thought he was a heretic and troublemaker based on the people he chose to hang out with. And some people weren’t really sure yet, but they followed him because his words made them feel alive.
In Luke 15, we read about a unique gathering of different groups of people who come around to hear what Jesus has to say: Tax Collectors, Notorious Sinners, and Pharisees. All gathered together in the same place at the same time to experience Jesus for themselves.
Tax collectors are mentioned as their own social class on many occasions in the New Testament – they were the most hated and corrupt group of people in the world. The Roman Empire set them up to collect taxes for the emperor in each of its regions, and typically tax collectors were of the same nationality and from the same community as the people they were taxing.
Because they usually knew the people they were taxing, knew what they did for a living, and knew how much money they had, the tax collectors would over-tax the citizens that they ruled, skimming an extra portion off the top for themselves before sending the tax money to the Roman capital. Sometimes they even went as far as notifying the Roman government who the wealthiest citizens were so that the Romans could enforce an even heavier tax burden on those individuals.
Notorious sinners were famous for doing terrible things, and committing the worst sins. They were criminals, thieves, liars, murderers, rapists, adulterers: bible-times gangsters. They caused problems everywhere that they went. These people lived their lives doing evil, satisfying their own desires, doing anything they could do that would provide them instant gratification. The quick fix was always best for them.
Notorious sinners refused to deal with truth or consequences; they only pursued what “felt right” and did not worry about anyone or anything but themselves and their own desires. Not only were notorious sinners self-serving, but they also lacked the ability to take direction from anyone and they were so good at being bad that they negatively influenced those around them to the point that they also became notorious sinners. They were feared, looked down on, and shunned. From a spiritual perspective, these people lived their lives in complete darkness.
The Pharisees were a sect of Jewish people made up of scholars and religious men who believed they were separate and holier-than-thou because they upheld the entire written and oral law. The full law, or Torah (the first five books of the Old Testament), contains a total of 613 commands. On top of that, the Pharisees had an oral law that was passed down, containing thousands of additional laws to prevent anyone from breaking one of the other laws.
The Pharisees were very vocal about their beliefs and boasted about their good deeds. They did not hesitate to cast judgment when others were falling short of their impossibly high standards. They were very proud in nature and truly believed that because they held themselves to this high standard of the law, they were actually better than everyone else around them. This attitude of pride was well-known by anyone who came in contact with a Pharisee. Because they were the experts on the law, they didn’t actually need God to speak to them about his plans or purpose. They interpreted the commandments to benefit themselves, and set themselves up as examples while condemning others.
When Jesus burst onto the synagogue scene, their world was literally shaken to the core. Jesus created so much controversy for the Pharisees because he taught the heart of the law, and they only knew the rules of the law. They disagreed with Jesus publicly and privately at every opportunity, but Jesus didn’t hold back on what he had to say to them.
Following Jesus’ Example
Jesus didn’t coddle the notorious sinners, pardon the tax collectors, or affirm the Pharisees’ morality. He offended, challenged, pushed all three groups out of their comfort zone, and made them believe they could change their destiny. They were willing to risk their reputations in order to hear his message.
Jesus never made people in any of these groups jump through hoops in order to receive forgiveness for their sins. Today, sometimes the hardest place to find forgiveness is within the four walls of a church. Some church people like to remember the mistakes, problems, and issues others have, and hold them over their heads. Many churches today have done such a good job of creating a series of hoops to jump through before someone can be considered an acceptable Christian or church member that people who don’t “belong” in church are never found anywhere near their buildings.
From the very beginning of his ministry, Jesus modeled the exact opposite of this behavior. He had misfits, sinners, and rejects around him all the time and accepted them exactly how they were. All that mattered to Jesus was that they were willing to instantly drop everything to follow him.
Jesus offers no-strings-attached forgiveness and the promise of a new life to anyone who is willing to lay down their past and follow him. Jesus wants to forgive those who want to be forgiven, who need to be forgiven for the terrible things they’ve done. Jesus loves to call notorious sinners to a life they deemed impossible, and we should be excited about any opportunity we have to help someone experience this forgiveness and change.
As we consider what it means to reach the lost around us, I wonder what it might look like for all of us to follow Jesus’s example and embrace the nefarious sinners, tax collectors, and Pharisees of our day into our church buildings and faith communities? How might our evangelism capacity and effectiveness increase if we remember that Jesus welcomed those far from God into his presence repeatedly and offered them a shot at total transformation? Let’s all give it a shot together and see what happens.
Content adapted with permission from Notorious: The Gospel Jesus Intended by Doug Garasic.
Doug Garasic is the author of several books, including Notorious; The Gospel Jesus Intended and is the Founding Pastor of Rust City Church, located in Northeast Ohio. Since 2011, Doug and his team have launched campuses, developed a ministry training school, and impacted thousands of lives in the heart of the Rust Belt. Not only does Doug love his hometown, he also loves helping churches and coaching pastors all over the United States.