Will the REAL Contestant Please Stand Up?
There was a TV show years ago named “To Tell the Truth” where contestants would try to fool a panel of judges who could ask them questions about who they were. They could have been Jokers, Sinners, Lovers, or Winners, but they were not well-known celebrities. They were usually not someone that everyone in the audience or game show panel would know at a glance. The catch: the contestants came in groups of three, so there were two phony contestants answering as well. They acted as if they were indeed the actual person, and they usually presented themselves pretty well as the “true” contestant.
At the end, the host would say, “Will the REAL _____ please stand up”, and the audience would gasp because they had bet on one of the phony ones based on what they could tell from surface appearances (and the lies with which they presented themselves).
Do Appearances Matter?
The same thing happened in the New Testament: the people who presented themselves as righteous were often sinners. And real sinners were engaged by God Himself. When Jesus called Levi (Matthew) from his tax collecting job, Matthew threw a big party for Jesus and invited all of his tax collector-type friends.
The Pharisees were scandalized because religious men like them did not associate with such low-class people. They questioned Jesus about why on earth he would associate with “tax collectors and sinners”. “And when Jesus heard it, he said unto them, “They that are whole have no need of a physician, but they that are sick: I came not to call the righteous, but sinners.” (Mark 2:17 ASV) Apparently, Jesus did not hesitate to attend (and enjoy!) parties with less than respectable participants.
A Common Criticism
When you read through the gospels, this was not an isolated complaint about Jesus and his companions. Matthew and Mark certainly mention it, and John pointed out that the first miracle Jesus did was to turn water into wine at a wedding party. Luke’s Gospel refers to the way the Pharisees criticized Jesus several times: Luke 5:30-32 says, “But the Pharisees and the teachers of the law who belonged to their sect complained to his disciples, “Why do you eat and drink with tax collectors and sinners?” Jesus answered them, “It is not the healthy who need a doctor, but the sick. I have not come to call the righteous, but sinners to repentance.”
In Luke 7:33-34 [Jesus said] “For John the Baptist came neither eating bread nor drinking wine, and you say, ‘He has a demon.’ The Son of Man came eating and drinking, and you say, ‘Here is a glutton and a drunkard, a friend of tax collectors and sinners.’
And also, in Luke 15:1-2 it says “Now the tax collectors and sinners were all gathering around to hear Jesus. But the Pharisees and the teachers of the law muttered, “This man welcomes sinners and eats with them.”
The Pharisees presented themselves as righteous, but they were sinners. Jesus hung out with sinners, but he was righteous. Will the REAL sinners PLEASE STAND UP? This issue comes up over and over. One of the amazing hallmarks of Jesus’ earthly ministry was who he found acceptable, and who he hung out with. Clearly he was quite comfortable with sinners, and apparently they in return were comfortable with him.
Get Outside the Walls
There are two different aspects of his approach that make me stop and think. First of all, I wonder sometimes if we the church are really emulating Jesus by hanging out primarily with “we, the church”. I have a feeling that our mission calls us far outside the walls of the institutional church and into authentic relationships with people who wouldn’t darken the doors of a church. This is such a challenge because we all tend to gravitate into safer, insulated positions with folks who make us feel comfortable.
It’s funny—the Pharisees talk about sinners like they are another group of which they are not a part. You know, “there’s sinners, but then there’s us.” Sometimes we, the church, give that impression as well. One certain application of these verses is to pray that God would introduce you to someone who is an outsider so that you can love them into the family, and never forget that everyone in the family started out as, and STILL REMAINS a sinner.
Only Sinners Need Apply
That brings me to the second application, which is more personal, and more direct. Jesus said he came “not to call the righteous, but sinners.” We aren’t acceptable to God because we are perfect, He doesn’t call us or use us because we are better than others, and He doesn’t love us only if we perform according to His specifications. He loves us as the rotten selfish disobedient sinners we are, and he calls us in the midst of our sin to become heirs to his glorious kingdom.
If you have ever sinned, if you struggle with sin, and if you think that you are somehow unworthy of God’s love or that you are not good enough to go to church, just remember what Romans 5:8 says: “But God commends His love toward us in that, while we were yet sinners, Christ died for us.” (Italics mine) If you, like me, happen to STILL be a sinner, this is some seriously good news. All of us sinners, whether in the church or outside of it, have a lot in common. We’ve all been invited to a wedding party. We all need to bring along as many other sinners as we can. Who you gonna invite?
A Surprising Guest List
In Bible-quoting contests, all the Pharisees were the winners,
And they looked down on Jesus just because he ate with sinners.
Their grand self-righteousness was earned,
Because of all the church they learned,
And lowly folks (like me) were spurned.
But Jesus talked to sinners, and he didn’t ostracize them,
Or worry when the Pharisees would scorn and criticize him:
He merely said, when “righteous” folk would sneer and ask him why,
“It is the sick for whom I came, and sinners for whom I die.”
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