And as he reclined at table in his house, many tax collectors and sinners were reclining with Jesus and his disciples, for there were many who followed him. And the scribes of the Pharisees, when they saw that he was eating with sinners and tax collectors, said to his disciples, “Why does he eat with tax collectors and sinners?” And when Jesus heard it, he said to them, “Those who are well have no need of a physician, but those who are sick. I came not to call the righteous, but sinners.”
By Michael A. Milton, PhD
Our age is “A Secular Age” as the Canadian philosopher Charles Taylor put it. And it is becoming more so. How do we bear witness to Jesus Christ In a world like ours?
The Bible says that Jesus ate with sinners. Mark 2: 15 tells not only of a suppertime gathering but an obvious feature of Jesus’ ministry: he kept company with scoundrels. Now, this became a problem for Jesus. For in the eyes of the Pharisees, Jesus’ choice of table companions was an endorsement of their sins and, thus, an indictment of Himself. Jesus had a problem with the religious ruling class. They had a problem with Jesus. If you are a paragon of piety which the Pharisees fancied themselves, Jesus just didn’t fit. The Lord’s association with “low life” characters cast suspicion on His piety. His dinner parties with undesirables placed Him in the same class as the tax collectors and the sinners. I ask again, “How do you witness,” “How do you share Christ” in a world like ours? You certainly can’t do it then by retreating from the culture. Nor can you do it by participating in the culture.
Jesus heard the fidgety pharisaical folly and responded, “Those who are well have no need of a physician, but those who are sick. I came not to call the righteous, but sinners” I believe this also left a question hanging over the heads of the Pharisees, “So, boys, which are you?”
This Scripture teaches us that there is a way to follow Jesus into the often dirty, seedier side of town, with a mission to bear witness and with the mission to bring others with you when you walk away, to bring sinners to Christ, and to bring Christ to sinners. How so?
We Are with Them but Not of Them
Well, first of all, I would say in answer to the question “How do we bear witness to those caught up in sin?” that we, like Jesus, are with them, but we are not of them. Jesus did not participate with tax collectors in their stealing or in the other sins that were notorious with His dinner guests. He was with him but he was not of them. Jesus was with sinners in the common things of humanity, like eating and drinking, having supper, and gathering together as a community. He did not retreat from the world. Jesus was with them, but He was not of them. H. Richard Niebuhr’s Christ and Culture is a classic from 1951 that addresses the question, “How do believers relate to worldly culture?” Of the five possible responses, Niebuhr advances the ideal of “Christ transforming culture.” The word “culture” can be theoretical and nonhuman. It is easy to speak about culture rather than people. However, culture is the expression of everyday life by human beings gathered in a given community. People like you and me. People like the tax collectors and prostitutes and rabble-rousers in Jesus’s day. Together they are the culture. As Jesus was with them yet not of them. So must we also be.
We Are with Them for Jesus Is for Them
The Pharisees’ piety was such that It excluded other people. Their piety was something they (were convinced) had earned, something they had built, something they had cultivated. Their self-serving show of religion was, in a word, a sham. False piety can be weaponized to elevate self by diminishing others. Their piety was merely white-washed tombs. Jesus was with the common people of all backgrounds because He was for them. All of the disciples came out of some sort of quagmire of sinful behavior, doubt, unbelief, or despair. So did we. The Bible says that God sent His only begotten Son into the world to save because the world is already condemned. God is for us.
We Are with Them because We Are with Him
We’ve got to ask ourselves, “Who are we in the story?” Are we just observers? Pharisees? Or, are we the tax collectors and sinners at the table? The answer is self-evident. We go to those in need of Christ because He came to us. We are not the pious produced by good works. We are sinners saved by grace. God has saved you to share His life with others. Let your light shine, not as a pompous and prideful person of piety but as a sinner saved by grace. In the name of the Father and the Son and the Holy Spirit Amen.
Intersecting Faith and Life:
The Pharisees weaponized their piety to put others down. How can we reveal our brokenness to lift others to God?
Michael A. Milton (PhD, Wales) is a long-time Presbyterian minister (PCA) and a regular contributor to Salem Web Network. In addition to founding three churches, and the call as Senior Pastor of First Presbyterian Church, Chattanooga, Dr. Milton is a retired Army Chaplain (Colonel). He is the recipient of the Legion of Merit. Milton has also served as chancellor and president of seminaries and is the author of more than thirty books. He has composed and performed original music for five albums. He and his wife, Mae, reside in Western North Carolina. His most recent book is a second edition release: Hit by Friendly Fire: What to do when Another Believer Hurts You (Resource Publications, 2022). To learn more visit and subscribe: https://michaelmilton.org/about/.