A painting showing three Biblical scenes of mercy. The center shows a good shepherd carrying a small sheep on his shoulder. To the right of it is the prodigal son weeping into the lap of his father. The left side shows a man lifting a man up off the ground. It may be the Good Samaritan helping the man who was attacked on the road to Jericho.

Jesus Ate With Tax Collectors, Prostitutes, and Other Sinners, and We Can Too

In the Gospels, Jesus regularly ate with sinners. This is the case even for those who are often rejected in the New Testament, such as tax collectors and prostitutes.

This is kind of surprising, isn’t it? Absolutely! However, if we study these accounts in the Gospel of Luke we find out why He did so.

Early in Jesus’ ministry He calls a tax collector named Levi (Luke 5:27-28). Not only does the man rise up and follow Him, but he even prepares a great feast in his own house. The text tells us, “Levi made a great feast for him in his house. There was a great crowd of tax collectors and others who were reclining with them” (Luke 5:29).

At this, the scribes and Pharisees complained. They asked, “Why do you eat and drink with the tax collectors and sinners?” (vs. 30). When Jesus responds to them we read of two great principles that are important for us to consider.

Jesus answered them, “Those who are healthy have no need for a physician, but those who are sick do. 32 I have not come to call the righteous, but sinners, to repentance.”

Luke 5:31-32

Jesus did not eat with tax collectors and sinners simply for the sake of physical nourishment. He was teaching them while they ate together. In verse 32 Jesus says that He came to call sinners to repentance. They needed to change their minds and turn back to God.

These sinners may have heard of the paralytic who had been healed earlier (Luke 5:17-26). If they did, they would have also been told of Jesus’ awesome claim of being able to forgive sins (Luke 5:20).

By hearing of the man who was healed, the common people would have looked to Jesus as a physician. He could heal through miraculous means. Many of these sinners were physically sick, but Jesus taught them to repent. After all, He was the Great Physician. They knew that they were both physically and spiritually ill, and believed that Jesus could heal them.

These ideas of sin and illness were contrary to the Pharisees and scribes. They viewed themselves as righteous, and did not eat with sinners. Likewise, they did not think they were sick. They were healthy, and in no need of a physician. From their perspective, if there was anyone who was sick, it was Jesus Himself (Mark 3:20-21).

The Sinner Who Washed Jesus’ Feet With Her Tears

Two chapters later, a Pharisee invites Jesus to sit down and eat with him. His name is Simon. The Lord accepts the invitation. From this passage, we recognize that Jesus was willing to eat with both common sinners, and also those who were more religious. This account is significantly different than the last.

A woman who is a sinner comes to Jesus. He does not forbid her to do so. Luke describes it as, “Behold, a woman in the city who was a sinner, when she knew that he was reclining in the Pharisee’s house, brought an alabaster jar of ointment. 38 Standing behind at his feet weeping, she began to wet his feet with her tears, and she wiped them with the hair of her head, kissed his feet, and anointed them with the ointment” (Luke 7:37-38).

What she does is startling. Simon is alarmed, and comes to the conclusion that Jesus isn’t a prophet. He couldn’t be one. He “…would have perceived who and what kind of woman this is who touches him, that she is a sinner” (Luke 7:39).

The implication of such a thought is that being touched by a sinner is a problem for the righteous. A real prophet would have kept himself from interacting with such a woman in that way. Maybe the Pharisees thought that when a sinner touches a righteous person it causes him or her to be unclean. There is no indication that Jesus held to such a teaching.

We need to keep this in mind. It is not sinful to be in the presence of a sinner. As I have said before, we all sin. So in a sense, we are all sinners. The difference is whether we are just in the presence of sinners, or actually participating in sinful activity with them. It was not sinful for the woman to wash Jesus’ feet or anoint them with oil. Nor was it for Him to be touched by her. What we never find in the Gospels is Jesus getting drunk or worshiping an idol. He never commits a sin to reach out to sinners.

In like manner, we can eat with sinners. We can watch movies with them, play sports together, and so on. In of themselves, such actions are not sinful. They would probably be done just as a part of having a relationship with someone. If we are shining the light of the Lord, these social outings help others learn that we are Christians. However, God never expects us to actually sin while doing such things. Drinking at bars, having riotous parties, and the like, should never be a part of any evangelism strategy.

Jesus welcomed sinners who sought Him out. These men and women knew that they were not right with God. They understood that they were sick, and needed the Great Physician. The woman who was a sinner certainly did.

After she washes Jesus’ feet, anoints them, and kisses them repeatedly, the Lord poses a question to Simon.

A certain lender had two debtors. The one owed five hundred denarii, and the other fifty. 42 When they couldn’t pay, he forgave them both. Which of them therefore will love him most?

Luke 7:41-42

He judges correctly. He says, “He, I suppose, to whom he forgave the most” (Luke 7:43). This is a great response, but sadly, He is not the one who loves the most. The next four verses highlight the contrast between the sinner and Simon, “Turning to the woman, he said to Simon, ‘Do you see this woman? I entered into your house, and you gave me no water for my feet, but she has wet my feet with her tears, and wiped them with the hair of her head. 45 You gave me no kiss, but she, since the time I came in, has not ceased to kiss my feet. 46 You didn’t anoint my head with oil, but she has anointed my feet with ointment. 47 Therefore I tell you, her sins, which are many, are forgiven, for she loved much. But to whom little is forgiven, the same loves little’ ” (Luke 7:44-47).

She shows great love to Jesus in a multitude of ways. Simon does none of them. Following this, “He said to her, ‘Your sins are forgiven’ ” (vs. 48).

The people around Him respond in the same way they did when Jesus forgave the sins of the paralytic. The chapter ends with the words, “He said to the woman, ‘Your faith has saved you. Go in peace’ ” (vs. 50).

This sinner showed love to the Lord. She demonstrated it by her actions. As we learn from Jesus’ words, she had faith that Jesus could forgive her of her sins. She was correct! She was forgiven, just as the paralytic was earlier.

The Value of a Sinner’s Repentance

What’s remarkable about all this is that God places a great value in the repentance of a sinner. In chapter 15 we find sinners still coming to Jesus. The beginning says, “Now all the tax collectors and sinners were coming close to him to hear him” (Luke 15:1). They did not come to Him in a defensive sort of way. They came in humility, and wanted to hear Him.

This was met with complaints from the scribes and Pharisees. The next verse describes it as, “The Pharisees and the scribes murmured, saying, ‘This man welcomes sinners, and eats with them’ ” (vs. 2). Yes, He did, and it would be good for us to do the same. That’s assuming such individuals are repentant and want to hear the Word of God, just like those who did in the first century.

In this chapter we have a strong reminder of why we should be willing to spend time with those who are seeking God, but have not obeyed the Gospel yet. Jesus teaches the tax collectors and sinners three of His most famous parables.

In the first, a shepherd leaves ninety-nine sheep, and goes after the lost one until he finds it. He carries it on his shoulders, rejoicing. When he comes home, he calls together his friends and his neighbors, saying to them, “Rejoice with me, for I have found my sheep which was lost!” Jesus ends the story with the words, “I tell you that even so there will be more joy in heaven over one sinner who repents, than over ninety-nine righteous people who need no repentance” (Luke 15:7).

His second parable is similar. It also teaches the value of a sinner, but this time the subject is a lost coin. A woman lights a lamp, sweeps the house, and seeks diligently until she finds it. After doing so, she calls together her friends and neighbors, and rejoices with them. Jesus then says, “Even so, I tell you, there is joy in the presence of the angels of God over one sinner repenting” (Luke 15:10).

The third is the longest, and also the most famous. The Parable of the Prodigal Son tells the story of a man who asks for his father’s inheritance, and goes to a foreign country. There he wastes his property with riotous living. After a severe famine strikes the land, he gets a job feeding pigs. While doing so, he comes to his senses. He realizes that his father’s hired servants have bread to spare, but he is dying from hunger.

He decides what he is going to do, “I will get up and go to my father, and will tell him, ‘Father, I have sinned against heaven and in your sight. 19 I am no more worthy to be called your son. Make me as one of your hired servants’ ” (Luke 15:18-19).

He knows he has sinned. He knows he is not worthy. He knows he is willing to take a lower position as a servant. He knows he needs to return to his father. Amazingly, these facts are very close to what we need to do today before coming to God. Such a person knows that,

  • He or she has sinned
  • He or she is not worthy and needs God’s grace
  • He or she is willing to be a servant of the King
  • He or she can only come to the Father through His Son, Jesus Christ
The Prodigal Son in the Arms of His Father by Gustave Dore. The prodigal son is on his knees with his face buried in his father's chest. The father is grabbing him by his clothes. He is looking upward to heaven with a great expression on his face.

The prodigal son goes to his father. Jesus describes it this way, “He arose and came to his father. But while he was still far off, his father saw him and was moved with compassion, and ran, fell on his neck, and kissed him” (Luke 15:20).

The father isn’t angry when he sees his son. He doesn’t scold or chastise the young man. Instead, he has compassion on him.

When the Lord was with tax collectors, prostitutes, and sinners, He knew that they were repentant. Their desire to turn from their old ways and be forgiven was apparent. As such, He taught them the truth, and many followed Him. He did not reject them. These sinners were made in the image of God, of great value, and needed to be redeemed.

In the Parable of the Prodigal Son, we again see the value of an individual. There is rejoicing in the return of the prodigal. The son confesses that he has sinned, and is no longer worthy to be considered as such. Before he can ask to be one of his hired servants, the father responds.

But the father said to his servants, “Bring out the best robe and put it on him. Put a ring on his hand and sandals on his feet. 23 Bring the fattened calf, kill it, and let’s eat and celebrate; 24 for this, my son, was dead and is alive again. He was lost and is found.” Then they began to celebrate.

Luke 15:22-24

The father’s elevation of his son’s status, and a celebration of him being alive again, are all wonderful to read. Such statements are incredibly encouraging. They remind us of just how exciting it is when sinners are lifted up out of sin. The Father desires that we repent, and go to the One who forgives us of our sins.

From the Word of God, we know that the person who can do this is Jesus Christ. Thankfully, we have the many accounts of many sinners coming to Him. When we read them, we understand that God welcomes those who repent and want to learn the truth. We should also keep that in mind when people come to us today. Christians have the Word of Life, and need to share it with others. May we be encouraged to do so, knowing the great value of not only the Word that walked among us, but also the sinner as well.

Images Used

Jesus the Good Shepherd and the Merciful Father by pumukel from Pixabay.
The Prodigal Son in the Arms of His Father by Gustave Dore from creationism.org.