Jesus’ ministry was summed up by the Pharisees in this way (Luke 15:1-2 also Matt 11:19; Luke 7:34).
This man receives sinners and eats with them
Having assessed Jesus’ approach to ministry, the Pharisees also questioned it. Why does Jesus “eat with sinners” (Mark 2:16 NET)?
When the experts in the law and the Pharisees saw that he was eating with sinners and tax collectors, they said to his disciples, “Why does he eat with tax collectors and sinners?“
As we look back on Jesus’ ministry mission statement and how he dealt with sinners we can end up with a lot of questions too. Who should I eat and hang out with? Where should I hang out with them? What should I tell them about sin? What expectations should be placed on the sinners for there to be a continued close relationship? How long should I hang out with them if they keep sinning? How should we handle sinners in the church? These are all good questions. And ones that are being hotly debated.
Here is how Jesus defended His “eat with sinners” approach to ministry (Mark 2:17 NET):
When Jesus heard this he said to them, “Those who are healthy don’t need a physician, but those who are sick do. I have not come to call the righteous, but sinners.”
Here are some observations based on reading through the three accounts in Gospels where Jesus eats at the home of Levi (Mark 2:13-17; Matt 9:9-13; Luke 5:27-32).
Jesus had compassion on sinners and invited them to the meal. The Pharisees had written off the people that Jesus had invited to dinner. Their attitude was clear: Those people are sinners, they are people that should be avoided. The Pharisees clearly thought they were “better than them”. The attitude is most clearly seen in this parable (Luke 18:9-14). When Jesus addresses the Pharisees’ question, He says (Matt 9:13):
Go and learn what this saying means: ‘I want mercy and not sacrifice.’ For I did not come to call the righteous, but sinners.
Jesus is quoting Hosea 6:6. He also uses this passage when the Pharisees question his actions on the Sabbath (Matt 12:1-7). The implication is clear. Jesus wants us to understand that love and mercy are more important than legalism. That was true in Hosea’s day, Jesus’ day, and is true today. In Hosea 6:4 the prophet compares the love of the people with a vapor, it is nonexistent.The same is true for the Pharisees.
Jesus shows compassion for the people ignored by the religious leaders and sits down to eat with them.
Jesus invited them to the meal with the goal of healing them. When Jesus explained His ministry mission statement to the Pharisees he compared it a doctor ready to help the sick. I don’t know many people who go to the doctor when they are healthy. I don’t even like going when I am sick. Jesus knew that the people he was eating with were sick even if they did not know that right away. He came to seek the sick and lost, but He did so with a purpose (Luke 15:1-7). As people hung around Jesus they would have to grapple with:
- accepting that there is an illness
- admitting that they are sick
- deciding they want to get better
- going to the doctor for help
Learning what we can from Hosea (as Jesus asked us to do), we see the offer to heal and revive people mirrors the message in that book. God, through Hosea, warned the people that they were sick (4:1-2), and that they needed to be healed by returning to Him (5:13-6:3).
Jesus spent time with sinners without participating in their sin. The meal was in the home of Levi. When He shared a meal and spent time with sinners, Jesus was not encouraging or participating in their sins. He went and established relationships with people but He was not going to places where people were engaged in sin. Nor was Jesus downplaying the seriousness of sin. As people “hung out” with Jesus they would have heard Him say things like this:
- Deal with the sin in your life. (Matt 7:1-5)
- It would be better to die than to cause someone to sin (Luke 17:1-2)
- Correct other sinning believers, forgiving those that repent (Luke 17:3; Matt 18:15-17)
- When you are corrected, repent of your sin (Luke 17:3; Matt 18:15-17)
- Avoid sinning at all costs (Mark 9:43-50; Matt 18:8-9)
- Once you are made well, go and sin no more (John 5:14; 8:11)
Jesus did not change the meal to suit the sinners. Jesus knew that not all would accept what He taught, but He ate with them anyway. And as they spent time together He spoke truth into their lives. Some, like the Pharisees, chose not to come and join the dinner party because they did not like what was being served. Others would come to the table to eat, but would leave when the Jesus’ teaching got uncomfortable and challenged them to change (John 6:66; Rich Young Ruler (Matt 19:16-22); Parable of the Soils (Mark 4:13-19)).
But Jesus did not change what He taught, nor stop reaching out to the lost. When some left the table He went and invited others to join Him (Matt 10:14; Mark 6:11; Luke 9:5; Matt 22:1-10).
We should be thankful that Jesus ate with sinners. If Jesus did not eat with sinners than He would be eating all alone. We are all sinners. We are all invited to sit and eat with Jesus. None of us deserve to sit (or recline) at the table and enjoy a meal with Him. That is what the Pharisees missed. It is also why I chose a picture of the Last Supper. When Jesus ate this meal with the disciples, He was eating with sinners. The problem is not who Jesus ate with. He sits at a table where sinners are welcome to come and grab a seat and join Him. A table where there is plenty of food and where there is always room for one more. The problem is with those who choose not to stop and eat with Jesus and those who get up and leave unchanged.