Luke 15:1: Now the tax collectors and sinners were all gathering around to hear Jesus.
This is the verse so far this year that has made the most impact to me! It is the very beginning verse in one of the most famous chapters in the Bible, featuring the Parables of the Lost Sheep, Lost Coin, and Prodigal Son. This chapter is famous due to the parables that speak of God’s relentless and reckless grace, but this first verse has really made an impact on me the last couple of weeks.
Here’s the question that came to my mind that in the past I’ve just taken for granted when I’ve blown through this verse in order to get to the “good” stories: Why were sinners so willing and even eager to listen to Jesus? Jesus didn’t have an easy message that tickled people’s ears. Jesus never compromised on sin and said that everything they were doing was acceptable. They weren’t gathering around Jesus because he was putting on some sensationalistic show of signs and wonders. At this point in Luke’s narrative the emphasis is on Jesus’ teaching and miracles are hardly even mentioned.
Why did the “lost” seek out Jesus rather than run from him? I believe the answer is his compassion. Jesus loved them and showed them that love with a compassionate instead of condemning attitude. He preached more what he stood for than what he stood against. In the next verse, it’s going to tell us that Jesus “welcomed sinners and ate with them.” One of the definitions for the Greek word translated as “welcomes” in this verse is to “receive as a friend.” This was Jesus’ attitude toward those who were lost in sin. Jesus welcomed them; he was compassionate and accepting of them despite their sins and faults. He was a friend and not a foe. Jesus had an attitude that lost people were attracted to, do we? For us as individuals and as a church to reach people we are going to have to show that same love and acceptance and create an environment where no matter what you have going on in your life, you are welcome to be a part of my life and you are certainly welcome to walk through the doors of our church.
Every decision that we make as individuals and as a church moving forward ought to be based on reaching the “tax collectors and sinners,” in our day, those that we would call “lost.” A person who is “lost” biblically is a person who is dead spiritually to God. A person, who if they do not ever receive the grace of Jesus in their life, will suffer the eternal consequences of Hell being separated from God’s presence forever.
Are we creating an environment (in our personal lives and in our churches) that the “lost” would want to come to? Do we have the same attitude as that of Christ Jesus who was compassionate and not condemning, who was welcoming of them as a friend even though he had differences, and who preached more for what he stood for then against.
Most of the time in our day, the “tax collectors and sinners” don’t come to us anymore. If anything, they run from us. They aren’t eager to listen to what we have to say about Jesus, because for far too long we’ve been saying the wrong things. We haven’t shown them love, grace, and compassion. We’ve come off as judgmental and hypocritical. It’s time to change that.
And to do that, we can’t wait for them to come to us. We have to go to them. We are to go to them and give them love and grace and compassion. We are to go to them and welcome them as friends and then maybe, just maybe after establishing a real relationship with them, they might try coming to church. But even if they don’t, we still go to them with the same Christ-like attitude that He had with the tax collectors and sinners.
And should they ever come to church, what’s the environment like? The “lost” have been dodging church and Jesus most of their life. That’s why first impressions at church are so important. For some Christians, it takes years of going to a “lost” person, befriending them, investing in their life, and inviting them to come to church for that one person to try “church” just once. And if anything goes wrong, they may never come back again. People focus a lot on their church buildings, but the reality is that you can have the coolest building in the world, but if it’s filled with a bunch of judgmental jerks then the “lost” will walk out the door and likely never set foot in a church again. And even worse, they may walk away from God altogether.
Focus with intentionality this year on what sort of environment you are creating. Are you creating the sort of environment where “lost” people would come eager to listen to what you have to say about Jesus? If not, what needs to change?