Sinners and Tax Collectors

Yeshua says that the healthy do not need a doctor but the sick. Who are the well and who are the sick?

Painting of Zacchaeus the rich tax collector in the tree (Luke 19:1-10), by Niels Larsen Stevns, Danish Painter, 1913. (Image: Gunnar Bach Pedersen [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons)

The disciples of the sages often criticized our Master for eating with, associating with, and even teaching “the tax collectors and the sinners.” The Pharisees and Torah scholars implied that Yeshua was guilty by association. His behavior puzzled them. He claimed to be a prophet of God sent by God, but rather than rebuking the sinners, He seemed to rebuke the righteous. They reasoned, “If He eats with sinners and fellowships with sinners and even takes sinners for His disciples, then He must be a sinner.”

Yeshua always seemed to aim sharp criticisms at the religious and the faithful while at the same time generously offering warmth, acceptance, and gentle teaching to the irreligious and lawless of society. It seemed like Yeshua denounced those who strove to live their lives according to God’s Torah while sympathizing with those who lived in open rebellion to God. He was a friend to tax collectors, terrorist-like zealots, fallen women, and sinners—that is to say, the secular Jews of His day.

Yeshua explained to the Pharisees that He had business with sinners and tax collectors in the same way that a doctor has business with sick people. He told them, “It is not those who are well who need a physician, but those who are sick. I have not come to call the righteous but sinners to repentance” (Luke 5:31-32).

This explains why Yeshua sharply criticized the pious people of His day. He regarded them as the healthy and the righteous of Israel. Therefore, He held them to a much higher standard than the secular Jews, and he was quick to point out hypocrisy and pretense. He did not level His criticisms as a rejection of the religious, rather He sought to bring correction.

On the other hand, when He taught among irreligious people, He did not rebuke them as He did the Pharisees and Teachers of Torah. The irreligious stood outside of the domain of Torah. It does no good to rebuke someone for disobeying a law in which they do not believe. He sought to first entice the sinners and tax collectors to repent and return to the Torah. He needed to bring them into the kingdom before holding them up to the standards of the kingdom. The Pharisees and Torah scholars interpreted this behavior as hostility toward themselves and love for lawlessness. They criticized Him saying, “He hangs out with bad company.”

To better explain the two different approaches, the Master told a series of three thematically linked parables: the parable of the lost sheep, the parable of the lost coin, and the parable of the lost son. The three parables describe His goals and illustrate the reason for His friendship with sinners. His focus on the sinners and the secular did not imply an endorsement of sin or secularism, nor did His strict manner with the religious imply a rejection of piety. The three parables communicate the heart of His mission: calling the lost sheep of Israel to repentance.

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