Now all the tax-gatherers and the sinners were coming near Him to listen to Him. And both the Pharisees and the scribes began to grumble, saying, "This man receives sinners and eats with them."
Tax-gatherers were mainly Jewish men who purchased from the Roman officials the right to collect various taxes and customs and tolls. The system abounded with abuses. The tax gatherers were "cordially hated and despised by their fellow countrymen" (I.H. Marshall, Luke, p. 143)—not only because they were looked on as unpatriotic, and dishonest, and greedy, but also because their job made them ritually unclean. So pious Jews saw them as being alienated from God. These tax-gatherers were coming near to Jesus to listen to him.
The other group coming near to him are called, "sinners." Verse 1:
Tax-gatherers and sinners were coming near to him to listen to him.
This sounds strange to us, because we know that all people are sinners in one sense; and because tax-gatherers certainly were. But it didn't sound strange in Jesus' situation. For the Pharisees and scribes, "sinners" was used for a class of persons who were marked by manifestly immoral lives or questionable occupations—people that no respectable Jew would have anything to do with. You can see an example of who is in mind from Matthew 21:32. Jesus said,
Truly I say to you that the tax-gatherers and harlots will get into the kingdom of God before you.
Or another example would be people with certain diseases or disabilities that many would take as a sign that they committed some great sin. (See John 9:1–2.) They were physically and morally unapproachable.
So the point is that these people: the tax-gatherers, the prostitutes, the maimed, and diseased—basically, the social and religious outcasts—were coming to Jesus and he was receiving them and eating with them.
This was so obviously offensive and morally incorrect that the Pharisees and scribes didn't even have to give any reason for their displeasure. All they had to do was state the obvious fact, and the guilt was plain to everyone. Verse 2: "This man receives sinners and eats with them." That's all you had to say. Guilty. Case closed. We know from sources outside the New Testament some of the principles that guided their behavior. One said, "Let not a man associate with the wicked, not even to bring him to the law" (Strack-Billerbeck, II, 208). In other words separatism and ritual purity took precedence over winning someone back to God's law through forgiveness and restoration.
So Jesus was unclean and lawless as far as they were concerned. Even more, he must join the sinners in their meals because he is like them. Jesus said in Luke 7:30,
The Son of Man has come eating and drinking; and you say, "Behold, a gluttonous man, and a drunkard, a friend of tax-gatherers and sinners!"
So he is seen as ritually unclean and lawless and guilty of the same dissolute drunkenness and gluttony they associated with the sinners.
Is that what it meant when Jesus "received sinners and ate with them"? No. And we will see more and more clearly, I hope, over the next three weeks what it did mean—for him then and for us today. But before we look at his response in parables, I want us to see Jesus' behavior the way Luke saw it.
The Deadly Result of Self-exaltation
Luke is putting his gospel together in a certain way to make some things crystal clear about Jesus. Luke chooses his accounts and puts them together with a point. And so I want us to back up and walk with Luke from the beginning of chapter 14 to our text in chapter 15. When I did this for myself, it doubled the impact of Jesus eating with sinners.
Apathy Toward a Man with Dropsy
In Luke 14:1–6 Jesus goes to eat with a Pharisee on the Sabbath. You see that in verse 1:
He went into the house of one of the leaders of the Pharisees on the Sabbath to eat bread.
So be careful of saying that Jesus only offered his acceptance and fellowship to tax-gatherers and sinners by eating with them. Here he is eating with a Pharisee.
Don't miss the obvious here: Jesus is moving around among non-disciples. That's not all he did. But he did a lot of it.
Then a man comes in who has dropsy. He was swollen with an abnormal accumulation of fluid in the tissues and cavities of his body. So here is one of those people whose appearance did not help people feel pleasant. Jesus asked the Pharisees if it was lawful to heal on the Sabbath. They were silent. So he heals the man. Response? Nothing. No worship. No repentance for hardness of heart. Just silence.
Picking Out Places of Honor
Why? Jesus puts his finger on it in verses 7–11. Verse 7:
. . . He noticed how they had been picking out the places of honor at the table.
In other words these people are so in love with the praise and the approval of men that they cannot see the glory of self-giving love. What do they care about a man with a gross disease like dropsy? He is diverting attention away from their main concern: how to be thought highly of. They are blinded and hardened by their love affair with self-exaltation. So Jesus tells them (in v. 10) that when they are invited to a dinner, they should go and recline at the last place. Because, as verse 11 says,
Everyone who exalts himself shall be humbled, and he who humbles himself shall be exalted.
One of the great cravings of our sinful human heart is the pleasure of being exalted by the importance of the people we know and the people we spend time with. We feel a kind of substitute significance when significant people take notice of us. And if we love this feeling enough, it will make us indifferent to unimportant people, and eventually make us contemptuous of them. In other words there is a close connection between the first issue in Luke 14 and the second issue: between apathy toward a man with dropsy and craving for the best seats at the feast. Craving our own honor blinds us to the beauty of serving the lowly.
"When You Give a Luncheon or a Dinner . . . "
So in verses 12–14 Jesus presses the issue of self-exaltation in a striking way:
When you give a luncheon or a dinner, do not invite your friends or your brothers or your relatives or rich neighbors, lest they also invite you in return, and repayment come to you. But when you give a reception, invite the poor, the crippled, the lame, the blind, and you will be blessed, since they do not have the means to repay you; for you will be repaid at the resurrection of the righteous.
So Jesus says to this man who invited him: You and your friends devote your life—in a kind of mutual admiration society—to having each other over for dinner and spending time with each other. And when you get together, you vie for getting the most attention from each other. And the result is that your life is one of "upright" indifference to the "the poor, the crippled, the lame, the blind." Why? Because there is no payoff in this world for your self-exaltation. They can't invite you back. They are a kind of black hole of charity. You give and you give and you give, and they stay blind and lame and maimed and poor, so they can't invite you back.
But Jesus says: there is a reward if you love the outcast, the unimportant. Verse 14:
. . . you will be repaid at the resurrection of the righteous.
In other words the power to get free from bondage to self-exaltation and apathy toward unattractive people with dropsy is to love what God will be for you in the resurrection more than you love hobnobbing with important people and the pleasures of a closed dinner circle.
In other words what frees you to live radically for others in this world is the confidence that this world is not the main world.
The Parable of the Banquet
Then in verses 15-24 Jesus launches into a parable about a banquet. It's a picture of God's invitation to the great banquet of Christianity. Verse 16:
A certain man was giving a big dinner, and he invited many.
But one by one they refused to come. One had a field to go see (v. 18). Another had to go check out five yoke of oxen (v. 19). Another had just married a wife and couldn't come (v. 20). Notice it's not evil things. It's just ordinary life that's keeping people from the kingdom. People who just live as if this world is the main world.
So the host of the dinner in the parable said to his servant (in verse 21),
Go out at once into the streets and lanes of the city and bring in here the poor and crippled and blind and lame.
Now notice that this list of people in verse 21 is exactly the same list as in verse 13. So he had told them before that when they give a dinner, they should invite the outcasts and the poor. Now he is telling them with a parable that this is what God does. God's heart is expansive toward the poor and the crippled and the blind and the lame. Verse 23:
And the master said to the slave, "Go out into the highways and along the hedges, and compel them to come in, that my house may be filled."
Jesus: Showing the Father's Heart and Filling the Father's House
Here we need to make the connection with Luke 15. You can see it clearly. In Luke 15 Jesus is eating with tax-gatherers and sinners. Pharisees and scribes are grumbling about it. What is he doing eating with the outcasts? Well, he will tell us in the next three weeks with the parables of chapter 15. But he has already told us—and shown us, in chapter 14.
God intends for his house to be full and for his eternal food to be enjoyed. So he sends his Son to give his life a ransom for many (Mark 10:45) and to personally call the guests to God's heavenly banquet. But the scribes and Pharisees are too much in love with the seats of honor, and with the ordinary things of this world (fields, oxen, and family), to care much about heaven or harlots or people with dropsy and bad reputations. So Jesus goes to "the highways and hedges" (v. 24) to find the poor, the crippled, the blind, and the lame—and the tax-gatherers and sinners. And he eats with them.
Which means he gives them a foretaste of what the Father offers—a banquet with the accepting, forgiving Son of God. What's he doing? He is showing the Father's heart and filling the Father's house. That's what Luke 15 is going to be about.
But what I wanted you to see this morning is that it is not just Luke 15. It is also Luke 14. It is the whole gospel of Luke. Indeed it is the gospel of our Lord Jesus Christ. The Son of Man came to seek and to save that which was lost (Luke 19:10). He sought them, he received them, he ate with them, and he saved them.
This is our life and our hope—that we have a Savior like this and a Father like this. And what chapter 14 makes plain is that to be saved by him is a call to be like him.
I want to talk more about that tonight from Luke 14:25–35. Is the call of Jesus an invitation to a banquet or a invitation to die?
Building a Fellowship of Suffering and Joy in the Service of Others
When I was in Tennessee speaking earlier this week to the TEAM missionaries at their annual conference I watched a video about the ministry of I.A.M. in Kabul, Afghanistan. Two million amputees owing to the war with Russia and then the civil war. Blindness. Orphaned thousands. Very little medicine and health care that we take for granted. All in a Muslim context of unbelief in Jesus Christ. But there, at risk to their own lives daily, Christian people inviting the poor and the crippled and the lame and the blind—and the sinner and the grateful and the ungrateful—to see Jesus and come to the banquet of love.
And the effect on me was to make me want to come back to Bethlehem and give my life to building with you a fellowship of suffering and joy in the service of others. To build a people who are so satisfied in all that God promises to be for us in Jesus that we don't need to be invited back and we don't need the seats of honor and who will not let our fields and our oxen (cars, computers) or even our families keep us from the kind of sacrifice and joy Jesus promises in pursuing the lost.
It's good to be home. I invite you to seek with me the Lord's power for this week's calling—and the Lord's revival to create a mighty army of Christians who will die to seek the lost. You will be repaid in the resurrection of the just.