Tax Collectors and Sinners
The Pharisees complained that Jesus went to dinner parties with tax collectors and sinners. But who were these people? How did they fit in the world of their time?
Sociologists assign people to upper, middle, and lower classes. In industrialized nations, the middle class is relatively large. In Palestine in the time of Jesus, what we know as middle class was rather small. It was made up of professional people such as shopkeepers, tradesmen, fishermen, and educated people such as the Pharisees and scribes. Being a carpenter, Jesus most likely belonged to this class.
Even smaller than the middle class was the upper class. This class included the very wealthy such as the aristocratic families of the Herods, the high priests, and the rich nobility that owned most of the land.
The majority of the people in Palestine belonged to the lower class, known as the poor. All sorts of people belonged to this class, such as orphans and widows, the blind, the crippled, and the mentally ill. Having no other means of livelihood, people with physical and mental handicaps became beggars. To this class also belonged outcasts. One can be an outcast without necessarily being poor economically. Such were tax collectors and sinners.
The tax collectors were Jews who collected taxes from fellow Jews for the Roman Empire. They made their living by charging an extra amount. Some of them made more than a living. They exacted any amount they could and thus became well to do. They were considered traitors who became wealthy by collaborating with Roman authorities at the expense of their own people.
The sinners who are grouped with the tax collectors were not ordinary sinners. The Pharisees along with others could readily admit that everyone is, after all, a sinner and in need of God's mercy and forgiveness. But the sinners associated with tax collectors were in a special class. These were people who deliberately and persistently transgressed the requirements of the law. Included in this group would be money-lenders who charged interest on loans advanced to fellow Jews. This was a clear violation of the law of God stated in Leviticus 25:36-38.
Also in this group of sinners might be prostitutes who made their living by their ill-gotten gains. These were individuals who sold themselves to a life of sin in deliberate disregard of the law of God.
Yet, Jesus apparently associated with such people at dinner parties. The Pharisees charged that Jesus was "a glutton and a drunkard, a friend of tax collectors and sinners" (Luke 7:34). Even though Jesus belonged to the middle class, he reached out to people of the lower class. On one occasion Jesus said to some religious leaders in Jerusalem, "The tax collectors and the prostitutes are entering the kingdom of God ahead of you" (Matthew 21:31).
It's not hard to see why the Pharisees and others were upset that Jesus had table fellowship with people who were morally questionable. These individuals were profiting by disobeying the command of God and betraying their own people. They were what the Old Testament calls the wicked, unworthy to be part of the people of God.
Now, if Jesus had fellowship with tax collectors and sinners in order to preach to them, the Pharisees would not have fussed. After all, who would have objected that tax collectors and sinners were forsaking their sinful lifestyle, making restitution, and seeking a life of righteousness? The Pharisees believed that God offered forgiveness when sinners repented. They could even rejoice that a wretched sinner saw the light and was converted from a life of debauchery.
But what infuriated the Pharisees was that Jesus was not explicitly or directly asking tax collectors and sinners to do any of this. Some of them no doubt did repent, such as Levi (Luke 5:28). But Jesus seems to have accepted them as they were and was freely having dinner with them without requiring that they first clean up their lives.
Of course, Jesus did have a message to proclaim to them. But his message was not, "Straighten up your life and keep the law." Rather, his message was, "The kingdom of God is yours; you are included." By eating with them, he was extending to them the kingdom of God.
When we read about the protest of the Pharisees, we are quick to condemn them and to side with Jesus. But if Jesus were physically present in our world today, would we as church people be comfortable if he spent his time with cheats and swindlers, sexually deviant individuals, gays and lesbians? Would we not be infuriated if he constantly went to their dinner parties and didn't come to ours?