Lately I’ve been thinking about misused and abused passages in the Christian Scriptures. I’ve been thinking about it so much that I’m contemplating a long-term series of posts which deals with those issues one by one. I’ve already written about Matthew 7:1 (why we should stop quoting “Do not judge” the way we do), and I’ve got four or five more lined up in the queue. Just this morning I encountered another, and I wanted to take a few brief minutes to sketch the wrongheaded ways we talk about Jesus spending time with “tax collectors and sinners” from Matthew 11:19.
- The bulk of Jesus’ time was spent with outcasts.
- Because Jesus hung out with tax collectors and prostitutes, so should we.
- Because Jesus hung out with outcasts, those church programs or events that don’t explicitly welcome outcasts are a waste of time.
- In fact, if Jesus came back now he would avoid modern churches because he’d be seeking these outcasts. Not only this, but we wouldn’t find him at church because he’d be at the clubs, bars, maybe even the strip clubs.
In practice, the (Scriptural) fact that Jesus shared table fellowship with social outcasts and sinners is combined an implied “WWJD” to criticize, condemn, and blame the church for perceived inadequacy. To put it bluntly, “tax collectors and prostitutes” becomes the litmus test for the orthodoxy of your ministry practices. Those church practices which explicitly welcome the social outcast are those which are most in line with Jesus’ expressed ministry purposes. Those church practices which do not target social outcasts are Pharisaical and self-serving. If “tax collectors and sinners” is not the answer to the question “Would Jesus do what you are doing in your church?” then your Church is condemned as inadequate.
I want to address this kind of thinking from two perspectives—the first, from that of Jesus’ time. The second, from that of the company Jesus kept.
Let’s begin then with the matter of how Jesus allocated his time. Did Jesus spend the bulk of his time with outcasts? Simply put, the answer is no. When we read the Scriptures what we see, first of all, is that Jesus spent the vast bulk of his time with his disciples. The primary allocation of the time of Jesus was to the group he was training to serve alongside him. What is the next allocation of his time? We read in Luke (5:16) that Jesus would often go off to lonely places and pray in solitude. Prayer was another significant element of Jesus’ time. What is next? In the Scriptures we see Jesus healing the sick, preaching the good news, and teaching the crowds. When it comes down to it, there are only a few, rare times when we see Jesus explicitly “hanging out” with the social outcasts of his day. He eats with Matthew and Matthew’s tax collector friends in Matthew 9. He eats with Zacchaeus in Luke 19. And what is especially noteworthy in both those cases is that Jesus is eating with those men after they have been called to follow Jesus. The criteria for their table-fellowship with Jesus was not their sin, but Jesus himself.
That, in fact, brings us to the matter of the company Jesus kept. It is incorrect to imagine that Jesus scans the crowd for outcasts and then seeks them out especially for his table fellowship. It is also incorrect to assume that Jesus prioritized his companionship for sinners as a category of their own. In fact, what we see is not that Jesus prioritizes sinners so much as seekers. It is not that the sinners make for especially great company, it is that the unifying factor of the group is that they are all seeking Jesus together. To put it plainly, Jesus hung out with the people who wanted to hang out with Jesus. That’s why he says that bit in Matthew 9:12, that “it isn’t the healthy who need a doctor, but the sick.” Jesus is the great physician, and the qualification for his company is not the kind of sickness so much as it is the acknowledgement of need.
In the end, the central error in our misuse of the language of “tax collectors and sinners” is simply this—that in reading this passage we have placed our focus on the sinner, when we ought to have placed our focus on Christ.
A final word. In terms of praxis—if we are truly going to do as Jesus does—right application of this passage would mean that we are focused not on the particular sins of an individual so much as we are focused on that individual’s receptivity to Jesus. We seek out anyone who is willing to hear the good news of new life in Christ Jesus, regardless of their social status or particular kind of sin. And this brings into focus the real danger to our church programs—not their homogeneity or socioeconomic breakdown—but that somehow, even subtly, we might come to believe or act as if we no longer need the doctor. Pharisaism is not the lack of obvious social outcasts in our fellowships; Pharisaism is forgetting that we ourselves are sinners in need of Jesus.