The Pharisees’ relationship with God was based on a religious contract of “dos” and “don’ts”. And the Pharisees were proud because of their seeming ability to keep the religious contract. In Luke 15 Jesus shows that the Pharisees had totally misunderstood who God really is. – Peter Youngren
Luke 15 is love’s declaration of war against self-righteous religion. The well-known parables of the good shepherd, the woman who lost her coin, and the father and his two sons constitute Jesus’ response to the attacks from indignant Pharisees. We read, “Then all the tax collectors and the sinners drew near to Him to hear Him. And the Pharisees and scribes complained, saying, “This Man receives sinners and eats with them…” (Luke 15:1-2)
Verse 2 summarizes the entire gospel: God receives sinners and has fellowship with them. This is our fantastic message that regrettably is heard all too seldom.
“Sinners” were those who did not live up to the standard taught in the synagogue. Tax collectors were worse than regular sinners, rejected by the Pharisees and despised by the general population. They were Jews employed by the Romans for the purpose of collecting taxes from Jews – wealthy citizens who stole money without being held accountable for their criminal activities. These were the “scum” of society, hated to the degree that there is maybe no parallel today. The zealots were a religious group who saw it as an act of worship toward God to murder a tax collector.
Jesus was fellowshipping with sinners and tax collectors to show what was His actual ministry: “to seek and to save that which was lost.”
Here we see Jesus having a celebratory meal with the most despised people you can imagine. To eat with somebody was not as we may see it – just a quick lunch or a cup of coffee. No, according to the Middle Eastern custom it was a way to have fellowship, to show acceptance and solidarity, to embrace another person. The Amplified Bible’s translation of the first two verses of Luke 15 reads, “Now the tax collectors and [notorious and [a]especially wicked] sinners were all coming near to [Jesus] to listen to Him. And the Pharisees and the scribes kept muttering and indignantly complaining, saying, This man accepts and receives and welcomes [preeminently wicked] sinners and eats with them.” (Luke 15:1-2 Amp) – Peter Youngren
Why did Jesus have fellowship with sinners and tax collectors? We could conclude that Jesus didn’t have sufficient wisdom to understand that such an association would negatively influence His ministry. On the contrary, since Jesus was full of wisdom we realize that Jesus was fellowshipping with sinners and tax collectors to show what was His actual ministry: “to seek and to save that which was lost.”
War against religiosity
The parable about the good shepherd who sought the lost sheep, the woman who found the lost silver coin and the father who welcomed his lost son home was more than an answer to the questions of the Pharisees: it was a declaration of war against everything that was known as religiosity. Jesus and the Pharisees were on a collision course concerning who God really is.
Jesus and the Pharisees were on a collision course concerning who God really is.
Through Jesus we see God’s heart fully revealed. Jesus said, “No one has seen God at any time. The only begotten Son, who is in the bosom of the Father, He has declared Him.” (John 1:18) The contrast is razor sharp: Jesus versus the Pharisees, the heart of God contra the mindset of religion. – Peter Youngren
To better understand Jesus’ message we must first know something about the Pharisees. They were a spiritual movement based on the Holy Scriptures: the Torah, Psalms and the Prophets. They looked upon themselves as representatives of God’s will on earth. Jesus could have been born some seventy-five years earlier, but then the Pharisees would have just been in the beginning of their movement. God saw to it that Jesus came at a time when the Pharisees were at the top of their influence. It seems to have been God’s intent that the gospel of grace would confront the pharisaical attitudes. The Pharisees only knew a God of demands and Jesus had come to show them God who is love, even until death.
The Pharisees only knew a God of demands and Jesus had come to show them God who is love, even until death.
Jesus’ reference to the bosom of the Father refers to the time before time began when Jesus shared the joy and love in the Holy Trinity. Church fathers used to call this “perichoresis,” loosely translated a circle, a dance of love where God the Father, Son and the Holy Spirit lived in an eternal, mutual love. God is love and has always been found in this love.
God did not create people because He was lonely but so that this full fellowship of love would be shared by people. In Adam humans walked away from this love but in Christ we are restored to it.
Jesus’ behavior in Luke 15 shows us the Father’s love towards sinners, but it was also offensive to everything the Pharisees saw as holy. How could the Messiah have fellowship with sinners? God is, after all, holy and cannot have anything to do with sinners, so they thought, and so many still think.
Contract or Covenant?
For the Pharisees, their relationship with God was based on a religious contract of “dos” and “don’ts”; and that too seems to be true for many today.
A contract is about two or several parties who make an agreement where they commit themselves to live up to certain obligations. A contract has nothing to do with love or trust, but rather it points to the opposite: to demands and possibilities of taking one another to court. The Pharisees were proud because of their seeming ability to keep the religious contract better than the world around them. Their life was about performing spiritual merits and their joy was in the fact that they were better at it than others. They were on a higher level than “sinners and tax collectors.” That’s the way it is in all religions.
Luke 15 reveals the covenant of love: God’s love given to us freely and without pay.
The religious contract becomes a mirror where we view both self and others. In the story about the Pharisee who prayed at the front of the temple, we read that he prayed “within himself.” Even his prayer life had become a sort of theatre; a mirror where he showed his own ability compared with those who were “less” holy.
Luke 15 reveals the covenant of love: God’s love given to us freely and without pay. God is the God of the covenant and His covenant is always connected to people like Abraham, Isaac and Jacob – frail and faulty individuals invited into God’s covenant of love, in spite of themselves. In Christ we become Abraham’s children, graciously embraced into the dance of love.