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How to Walk as a “Friend of Tax Collectors and Sinners”

When the religious elite of Jesus’ day called Him a “friend of tax collectors and sinners,” they didn’t mean it as a compliment. These two monikers marked the bottom of their social barrel. 

“Tax collectors” were fellow Jews who had partnered with the occupying heavy hand of Rome to enforce the payment of taxes from their own countrymen. They had a reputation for taking more than was needed, and considered traitors. 

“Sinners” referred to those guilty of breaking the more severe commandments, according to the Theology du Jour. Frequent offenders were the sexually immoral and those who were friendly to Gentiles. To be sure, the religious elite overlooked many offenses they committed (like greed, pride, and corruption), while condemning as “sinners” those who simply sinned differently than they did. Isn’t it great we’ve matured beyond this? In case you’re wondering, yes, that last question was dripping with broken-hearted sarcasm. How tragically often history repeats itself.

Every culture still (silently or verbally) assigns “tax collectors” and “sinners,” with a large chasm of distance, judgment, and suspicion aimed at the very people Jesus dined alongside as He cried out that, “the sick need a doctor.” In a recent Barna poll, people who claimed “no religious faith” were asked their biggest hindrances to embracing Christianity. Their top four answers were:

#1)  Hypocrisy of Christians,

#2)  Judgmental nature of Christians,

#3)  Christians being overly political, and

#4)  Christians’ treatment of the Homosexual Community

By contrast, they held a positive worldview concerning Jesus. This should greatly alarm us. “Tax collectors and sinners” are drawn to Jesus, but they have a difficulty actually seeing Him clearly because of the judgment they experience from His followers. 

In light of this, here are FOUR WAYS we can follow Jesus in befriending, knowing, loving, and delighting in those who most often encounter judgment from the religious.

1. HUMILITY: Remember All of the Ways You Still Look Like One...

“Two men went up into the temple to pray, one a Pharisee and the other a tax collector. The Pharisee, standing by himself, prayed thus: ‘God, I thank you that I am not like other men, extortioners, unjust, adulterers, or even like this tax collector. I fast twice a week; I give tithes of all that I get.’ But the tax collector, standing far off, would not even lift up his eyes to heaven, but beat his breast, saying, ‘God, be merciful to me, a sinner!’ I tell you, this man went down to his house justified, rather than the other.” Luke 18:9-14

It’s pretty incredible to note that sixty-six times in the New Testament, Jesus doesn’t call His followers “sinners,” but “Saints,” a word literally meaning “Most Holy Places” of His Presence. That said, we are saints who still “sin” sometimes. We fall short. We judge wrongly. We need our Savior’s sustaining grace every moment of every day and have arrived nowhere except at the feet of the Father who lovingly welcomes BOTH prodigals home. 

This is perhaps the biggest adjustment needed for followers of Jesus. We need to be baptized in a humility that stops seeing the world through the lenses of “us and them,” and instead sees “no one according to the eyes of the flesh any longer.” It is time to follow the actual way of Jesus, running to all with eyes that refuse to judge people based on their history, but see them according to their created dignity, and partner with the Father to restore them to their destiny.

2. PRESENCE: Choose Proximity over Preaching…

Now, don’t get me wrong. I love preaching. I am a preacher! There is a vital place for the preaching of the Gospel, and a number of opportunities we will get to share the love of God in a moment with a stranger (see point 4). But in asking how to be a “friend” to those who sin differently than you, we desperately need to recover the art of slow and meaningful relationships without the coercive agenda to get them to “pray our prayer.” 

Jesus "reclined" with tax collectors and sinners, and no, I don’t think He was just there to preach, or to condemn them for their sin. He loved them. And they loved Him. When they planned a social function, they never invited a single Pharisee, but Jesus’ name was at the top of the list. Why? 

Jesus spent time in their world, taking interest in them. He saw them and spoke dignity into them. He actually cared for them. And continually, He took every opportunity to extend to them the love and hope their hearts were longing for. It wasn’t a contrived presentation, but a compassionate pursuit of the hearts of his friends. So much of what we need as followers of Jesus is to breathe and remember what it is to be human, positioning our hearts to slow down and simply love our literal neighbor as if they were ourselves. 

3. PRAYER: Talk to God about them often, and hear what He’s saying…

You and I will have a hard time remaining distant, awkward, or indifferent toward those we regularly pray for. Try this: for the next month, allow God to put one person who fits our culture’s “tax collector and sinner” box on your heart. Set an alarm to pray for them every day or twice a day (ex. 8:00 am and 8:00 pm). When you pray, take a minute to ask God to tell you how HE sees them. I promise, you will begin to see and treat them the way heaven does!

4. COURAGEOUS CONVICTION: Know the Hope You Hold…

“Always be prepared to give an answer to everyone who asks you to give the reason for the hope that you have. But do this with gentleness and respect.” 1 Peter 3:15

When asked about His heart for those the religious culture most despised, Jesus shared how we are all sick, needing a doctor, and He desperately longs for “sinners to come to repentance.” The word “repent” means to “turn around.” It is to be facing one way, trusting in one thing, wrestling under one weight, and to shift your eyes to see the transforming love and kindness of Jesus that changes everything

Here’s the truth: we were all created to know and walk in intimacy with God, and no matter what we’re feeding our souls at this moment, our hearts are starving for Him. If you’re going to spend time with people who don’t yet know Jesus, it is vital that you know with confidence how to share with them about turning from death to life. You don’t need a PhD. Your testimony of what He’s doing in you is a great place to start. But I promise you: what they need is HIM. And He’s brought you near as a light to love them, and in His time and way, to help lead them from the darkness to the sustaining radiance of His very heart, even as those who love you truly continue to help you move closer to the light.  

May we love fully, without coercion, production, or reservation; and may we trust our God to do what HE delights to do in drawing all hearts to Himself!

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This is my favorite line: Jesus "reclined" with tax collectors and sinners, and no, I don’t think He was just there to preach, or to condemn them for their sin. He loved them. And they loved Him. This is beautiful. Stop and imagine who you "recline" with: dear friends and family, people who see the real you. AND you see the real them! This is true human connection without agenda. Isn't this true Godly love? The real thing! John 13:35 💞

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