Now the tax collectors and sinners were all drawing near to hear him. And the Pharisees and the scribes grumbled, saying, “This man receives sinners and eats with them.”
(Luke 15:1-2, ESV)
Who we hang out with says everything about our priorities, and the type of people who want to hang out with us says everything about our character. Our natural motion is toward relationships with people who are like us. Similarities become the common ground on which our relationships are built.
That’s our natural motion, at least on a human level. But disciples of Christ are called to far more than the natural, human ways of life. Born again through water and Spirit, we have moved from the kingdom of the natural into the Kingdom of the supernatural. Jesus is the one who purchases our entrance into that kingdom and the example of how to live a Kingdom life. As his people we become students of his ways, striving with all the Spirit’s power that moves within us to walk like our master walked. As the Apostle John wrote, “By this we may know that we are in him: whoever says he abides in him ought to walk in the same way in which he walked.” (1 John 2:5-6, ESV)
If we are in Christ’s Kingdom then we “walk in the same way in which he walked,” right? If so, then when we read in Luke 15 that “the tax collectors and sinners were all drawing near to hear him,” we should search our own lives and ask whether or not this is true of us. Are sinners drawing near to us? Is there room in our lives for them? Would we welcome them, befriend them, eat with them, and love them, or would we avoid their uncleanliness?
As I examine my life I see a wide gap between the types of people Jesus spent time with and the people I spend time with. First and foremost, Jesus had a small core of followers who he was intensely close with. His disciples were constantly in his presence, observing, learning, and practicing what he taught them day-by-day as they lived out the mission together. Jesus also ministered to the masses. He fed the 5000 who came to hear his teaching, healed all who he came in contact with, and generally ministered to everyone who he came in contact with. Lastly, as is noted in Luke 15, Jesus welcomed and ate with the sinful and outcasts of society.
Contrast this with our general, natural network of relationships. For most people in modern day America we swim in a large but shallow pool of acquaintances with none who are truly “in” our lives as disciples. Unlike Jesus, who made his whole of life ministry, our ministry is generally kept to scheduled hours of service and volunteering. The vast majority of us give little thought to the needy masses within our society. And of course, most people in the church today (particularly those raised in church contexts) are neither welcoming nor eating with those who society sees as sinners.
Do people in your religious contexts say of you “he/she welcomes sinners and eats with them”? If not, there’s a problem. Our savior welcomed us while we were still in sin. How much more ought we to be people who drunkards, drug addicts, the sexually immoral, the homeless, the liberal politician, and all who religion declares as wicked be welcomed by us?
If we want to see God work mightily in and through us then we need to be following his Spirit’s leading, and his Spirit will always lead us to follow the Son. When Jesus leaves the religious establishment and enters the bars, slums, and back alleys we should follow him. It’s there in those dark, sin-coated places that the brilliant light of the King will draw men and women to repentance and faith. It is, after all, the kindness of God that leads to repentance.
We who are far from the sinners of the world need to repent of our pride and fear and move outward in faith, trusting that our God will go with us like he went with Jesus. Remember, Jesus holds you secure in his hand. Get out of your safe, Christian, churched bubble. Quit your Bible study. Go out into the world where those who are sick and dying live. Go with the massive power of the Gospel, both in word and deed, to befriend, love, serve, and minister to sinners. If people in your church look at you and gossip under their breath about how you’re spending too much time downtown near the bars, that you’re hanging with people that “decent” people don’t spend time with, that you’re not at the church building as much as you should be, just smile. Know that they said the same thing about Jesus. You’re in good company when religious people look down on you.