Just Who Exactly is a “Sinner”?

by Andrew Forrest

Just who exactly is a “sinner”? If you are anything like me, you get this wrong all the time.

9As Jesus passed on from there, he saw a man called Matthew sitting at the tax booth, and he said to him, Follow me. And he rose and followed him.

10And as Jesus reclined at table in the house, behold, many tax collectors and sinners came and were reclining with Jesus and his disciples. 11And when the Pharisees saw this, they said to his disciples, Why does your teacher eat with tax collectors and sinners?12But when he heard it, he said, Those who are well have no need of a physician, but those who are sick. 13Go and learn what this means: I desire mercy, and not sacrifice. For I came not to call the righteous, but sinners. (Matthew 9:9-13)

One of the striking things about Jesus–repeatedly mentioned in all four Gospels–was that he deliberately reached out to the people despised by the religious establishment of the day. These “tax collectors and sinners” were people who were WRONG: they were collaborators with the hated Romans, they deliberately betrayed their fellow Jews, they totally disregarded the Torah. They were WRONG. And yet Jesus graciously reached out to them, even having dinner with these sorts of people. It’s an amazing example of what love looks like. We should go and do likewise.

But there is a problem, and that problem is that we often misunderstand who the “tax collectors and sinners” are in our own day. In the time of Jesus, the Pharisees were the religious establishment, and in the Gospels they are outwardly pious, but inwardly self-righteous and hard-hearted. They despised the tax collectors and sinners. Disregarding their good opinion, Jesus deliberately reached out to the people the Pharisees despised. In diagram, it goes like this:



X is Jesus; Y are the Pharisees, who are enemies of Jesus; and Z are the “tax collectors and sinners.”

Jesus→hated by the Pharisees→reached out to the people whom the Pharisees despised

Or, to put it another way, Jesus reached out to the people that the people who didn’t like him didn’t like.

So far so good. The problem comes when we try to determine who the “tax collectors and sinners” are in our day. Who is Z?

Here’s what we do: we decide that the “tax collectors and sinners” in our day are the people that are despised by the people that we don’t like. We’re X, our enemies are Y, and “tax collectors and sinners” become Z, who are despised by Y. When we read the gospels, our “tax collectors and sinners” become the people we don’t like don’t like. For example:

  • If we are a secular liberals, our “tax collectors and sinners” are the people that Trump voters supposedly despise.
  • If we are a social conservatives, our “tax collectors and sinners” are the people that the New York Times editorial board supposedly despises.

What we do today is we take groups that we feel are unfairly marginalized or despised, and we put them in the place of Z, “tax collectors and sinners.” But this gets the example of Jesus backwards; we draw the wrong conclusion because we misunderstand where to place ourselves in the diagram. When Jesus talks about showing mercy to the tax collectors and sinners, we do this subtle thing where we place ourselves in the position of Jesus and start shaking our head and clucking our tongue at the Pharisees, these wicked self-righteous people who just don’t get it. It’s as if we think



X is Jesus AND us; Y are the Pharisees, who are enemies of Jesus AND us; and Z are the “tax collectors and sinners.”

But this is the point: we are not with Jesus–we are not X; rather, we are Y.

We are the Pharisees, which means Jesus is asking us to love the people that we know to be WRONG.

A few examples:

  • If we are secular liberals, our “tax collectors and sinners” are NOT the people that Trump voters supposedly despise. Our “tax collectors and sinners” are TRUMP VOTERS. They are the people we are supposed to love.
  • If we are social conservatives, our “tax collectors and sinners” are NOT the people that the New York Times editorial board supposedly despises. Our “tax collectors and sinners” are THE MEMBERS OF THE NY TIMES EDITORIAL BOARD.

Do you see what this means? I get the story of Jesus and the “tax collectors and sinners” EXACTLY backwards when I think it applies to the people I don’t like. In fact, it applies to me, and how I love the people that I personally don’t like, even the people I think are morally WRONG.

So, who are your “tax collectors and sinners” today? Who are the people that you don’t like, the people that are wrong? In the Gospels, we read that Jesus reached out to the tax collectors and sinners–the people who were wrong–with love and kindness.

Go and do likewise.

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Sunny Kern August 28, 2018 - 1:48 pm

That is a different approach to the text. I have always thought of the Pharisees as the self righteous who kept people they considered unworthy or unclean away from God, and Jesus as the one opposed to self righteousness and always seeking to connect people to God. In one sense, he was the one who welcomed the stranger (outsider). He was always removing the obstacles that kept people from God. The obstacle he had the most difficulty removing was self righteousness which May be the most deadly thing that keeps people from God. Welcoming the stranger or outsider is one of the forgotten items in the great judgement scene in Matthew 25. So, who are the strangers and how do we welcome them within our sphere of influence.

Andrew Forrest August 28, 2018 - 2:47 pm

I’m with you, I think. I think you’re right about the point of the story in context, but what worries me is that we each assume that we aren’t like the Pharisees any more. I think that kind of Christian self-righteousness proves the point of the story–that Christ breaks down barriers that scandalize us.

Sunny August 28, 2018 - 4:05 pm

Yep, like the Gentile controversy. I attended a seminar a number of years ago in which the presenter talked about his journey to being enlightened about Satanism. But, what struck me and stuck with me most was the downward spiral he described that gets a person to that place they can justify doing horrible and unkind things to people. The presenter said that the turning point or tipping point was when someone could be identified as substandard. That would justify whatever you did to them. So it was with with slavery, Hitler and historically every other terrible thing done to people. The self righteous justified what they said about and did to the substandard. It appears this is the kind of self righteous political climate we live in, and it has invaded the church. Winning declares us righteous and others unrighteous.

Andrew Forrest August 28, 2018 - 4:07 pm

Yes. Wow. Absolutely. You first have to see yourself as above the other to permit yourself to treat them like that. Makes total sense.

Yes: the Gentile Controversy! Is there a harder concept to get across to modern American Christians than the thought that the Lord was being gracious when he welcomed us in–that we don’t automatically deserve it?


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