Dr. Luke, the beloved physician, begins his introduction to the parables, with the words, “Now the [publicans] and sinners were all gathering around to hear Jesus,” Luke 15:1.
Who were the Publicans and Sinners?
Publicans were one of the social classes that the Jews hated the most. They were considered traitors of the nation because they worked for the Romans, charging taxes and extorting their own countrymen. In fact, many of them enriched themselves at the expense of their fellow citizens.
"The Romans (and local rulers like Herod Antipas) granted the right to levy taxes to those who collected more, allowing tax collectors to charge an additional tax on collected taxes. Publicans generally abused the practice and were considered dishonest, traitors, and 'sinners,'" (Bíblia de Estudo da Reforma [The Reformation Study Bible], p. 1551).
Not all tax collectors were unscrupulous and dishonest callous men. Many of them recognized their sinfulness and their hearts were open to a better life. They were greatly despised by the religious leaders. Many of these leaders were oftentimes more corrupt than the publicans, though they covered their corruption with a cloak of apparent holiness. Among the followers of Jesus, there were at least two well-known publicans: Levi Matthew and Zacchaeus.
Luke states that all publicans and sinners came to Him to hear Him. Why were these classes of sinners drawn to Jesus? Christ’s message, while disapproving of sin, revealed love and hope to every sinner who would accept it. Jesus had words of sympathy and mercy for them.
Divine grace offers hope to the most degraded sinner. No one must feel excluded from divine grace which, like the air around the globe, is within the reach of all.
Who were the "sinners" mentioned by Luke?
The Word of God states that " all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God," (Romans 3:23). Therefore, all human beings were born in sin (Psalm 51:5) and are under the law of sin (Romans 7:17, 20, 23, 24) while they do not wholly surrender to the control of God's Spirit.
“Sinners" in Luke 15:1 referred to people who lived in open sin and did not hide the spiritual misery that enveloped them. On the other hand, the Jewish leaders were also slaves of sin, though they practiced it in disguised form, hidden from the eyes of the people.
Sinners were "people who had an immoral conduct or dealt with things that the scribes considered incompatible with the observance of the law of God. One of the rabbinical rules was 'to not associate with sinners,' and the rabbis did not even teach such people," (Bíblia de Estudo de Genebra [Geneva Study Bible], p. 1348).
The Pharisees and scribes who were teachers of the law did not feel comfortable in the presence of Jesus because the pure, loving, and merciful character of Christ, by contrast, exposed their so-called "righteousness". They were annoyed to realize that those who were considered outcasts of society gathered around Jesus to learn from Him the words of life addressed to them. These outcasts felt that, even for them, open and avowed sinners, there was hope of redemption. How do you feel in Jesus' presence?
Scribes and Pharisees were extremely religious people. Imagine someone who wakes up in the morning and has no other purpose for that day other than to do God's will. This dedication to the divine was such that it impressed the people who lived with them and who did not have the willpower, dedication, and interest in the things of God that these individuals manifested. This concern could easily blind the devotee to the point of convincing him that he really was good and superior to other "sinners".
Jesus once told a story about how these people viewed “common mortals”: "The Pharisee stood by himself and prayed: ‘God, I thank you that I am not like other people—robbers, evildoers, adulterers—or even like this tax collector," Luke 18:11. In comparison with the people around us, we may feel the same kind of self-satisfaction and pride. Someone who does not believe in God can think that he lives better than many religious individuals he knows. And maybe he's right. Many Christians do not honor the name they claim to bear. It is possible that very spiritual people also feel superior in their way of living compared to their "brethren" in the faith. Two criminals entered a church to attend the service. The preacher was giving an exposition on the ten commandments. He would read and comment on each one of them. At the end, one criminal comments to his colleague: "At least I do not covet my neighbor's wife." Despite having lived a less than scrupulous life, he found something in himself that would guarantee him some amount of spiritual value.
If we compare our lives with that of other people, we can find several reasons why we feel superior to them. However, our standard of reference should not be people, but God. Who am I when I compare myself to the holiness of God? It was on this point that the contemporary scribes and Pharisees of Christ Jesus erred. They looked in the wrong place, their heart, not God's.
When the scribes and Pharisees noticed the words of the Divine Master were heard by the crowds of those who were considered "unclean", "sinners", and "publicans", they murmured the words, "this man welcomes sinners and eats with them,” Luke 15:2. Although the words uttered express the perfect truth about Christ (I thank God for that), what the leaders were trying to say was that Christ came down to the moral level of sinners and did not care about their sinful condition.
Jesus' attitude toward sin and sinners can be better understood when we look back on how He treated the woman who was caught in adultery and was brought to Him by the religious leaders. This wonderful story is recorded in chapter 8 of the gospel of John. Jesus stands at the entrance to the temple in Jerusalem teaching the crowd. At a certain moment, he notices a group of agitated people approaching and talking loudly. They obtain passage through the listening crowd. When the crowd clears, a disheveled and crying woman is thrown into the presence of Jesus. Someone from the group who had approached took the floor. He was a prominent member of the Pharisees. In his voice was perceived the tone of indignation against the woman: "Teacher, this woman was caught in the act of adultery," John 8:4.
Three things need to be said about what was happening there. First, though the Law of Moses prescribes the death penalty by stoning for such kinds of sins (Deuteronomy 22:22), there are no records in the biblical text that this sentence has ever been performed. Secondly, where was the man who had fallen into sin with this woman? This was not the kind of sin that was committed by oneself. Finally, the Pharisee himself made clear his intention and that of his colleagues: they wanted to embarrass Jesus. They wanted to find some reason to accuse Him before the Roman government or before the people. How? Palestine, the land where Jesus lived, was under the control of the Roman empire in those days. The Jews could not execute anyone without the express authorization of the imperial government. If Jesus ordered the Law to be fulfilled, they could accuse Him of rebellion before the authorities. If He said to leave it alone and see what would happen, religious leaders could spread among the people the news that He did not respect the sacred principles of Judaism. He could not be the expected Messiah if He did not respect the Law of Moses. It would be the argument used to demoralize Him. It seemed to be a perfect situation to corner Jesus.
At that moment Jesus stoops down to write with His finger on the ground of the temple courtyard. The man demands a response from Christ. In his eyes can be seen the look of triumph. It seemed like the game was won. It is then that Jesus gives him a bewildering answer: " Let any one of you who is without sin be the first to throw a stone at her," John 8:7. He leans and continues to write on the ground.
Those words had the same effect as an atomic bomb. One by one the accusers leave the place and leave the woman alone with Jesus. He stands and asks the trembling soul, "Woman, where are they? Has no one condemned you?" (Verse 10). She says there is no one left. Then there is a word of comfort for her: "neither do I condemn you...Go now and leave your life of sin," (Verse 11).
Jesus did not say that what she had done was right or that it did not matter. He knew it was an open transgression of the commandments of God, and, as such, it was something that hurt His heart. However, He knew how to separate the sin from the sinner.
Though His heart rejects evil, sin, transgression, He has a deep love for people who err. Like the Pharisees, we tend to do the opposite of what Christ did. We love sin, we identify with it, but we hate the sinner. How wonderful that God, who would have every right to throw stones at us, does not treat us as we deserve, but loves us. He loves us despite what we are and do. Loves, as He loved that woman that morning in the courtyard of the temple.
Christ's mission was to restore the divine image which has been degraded by sin. Rich in heavenly glory and majesty, Christ made Himself poor so that through His poverty we might become rich.
Paul expresses this profound truth in the following words: “Who, being in very nature God, did not consider equality with God something to be used to his own advantage; rather, he made himself nothing by taking the very nature of a servant, being made in human likeness. And being found in appearance as a man, he humbled himself by becoming obedient to death— even death on a cross," Philippians 2:6-8.