Tuesday, April 14, 2009

Tax Collectors and sinners - Who are the sinners in Luke's Gospel?

When studying Luke’s Gospel it is well worth asking the question who are the sinners spoken of in Luke’s Gospel and what literary purpose do they serve. This is really to ask a hermeneutical question so as to properly understand Luke’s Gospel.

In a recent article in Southern Cross April 2009[1] John Dickson and Greg Clarke speak to this as they ask “The God who loves us to death” and point out in effect that God is not a cosmic child abuser as some have suggested.

Let me quote their comment
“All scholars agree: one of Jesus’ most striking habits was to associate with the immoral and irreligious – those classed as ‘sinners’. The word sinner sounds strange but in the first century it was a potent insult. The Psalms of Solomon is a Jewish text probably written by Pharisees in Jerusalem shortly before Jesus. It does a good job conveying the contemporary attitudes towards sinners: ‘But [the righteous] shall pursue sinners and overtake them, for those who act lawlessly shall not escape the Lord’s judgment. They shall be overtaken as by those experienced in war, for on their forehead is the mark of destruction. And the inheritance of sinners is destruction and darkness. The text goes on to say how the hoped for Messiah would ‘smash the arrogance of sinners like a potter’s jar’ and ‘condemn sinners by the thoughts of their hearts.’
Dickson and Clarke’s point is to argue that “We can say with some confidence that Jesus’ habit of associating with sinners was not exactly Messiah-like.” And their point is that Jesus whilst associating with such people did not at all condone their sin, but came to save sinners and not the righteous.

Their article is certainly a challenge to smugness, however it’s not their topic as such that I am concerned with here but their understanding of the word sinner in the Gospels, specifically in Luke.

Their point is worth understanding in the hermeneutical task of understanding Luke’s Gospel. My question is that I wonder just how far the historical point from the Psalms of Solomon as to the meaning of sinners actually contributes to understanding ‘sinners’ in Luke’s Gospel? I consider that Luke is telling us that ‘sinners’ in Luke’s Gospel is meant to stand in contrast to the self-righteous standing of the Pharisees and in the end shows their sin in rejecting the Messiah, Jesus. The people the Pharisees called sinners were people who broke the Pharisees standards, Standards as set out in the 613 specific laws that they operated by. If you broke any of those 613 laws you were a 'sinner' in their eyes. Yet Jesus’ point is that all are sinners. John the Baptist came calling all to repent and be baptised. What was startling in that message was that baptism was something that Jews required only of proselytes, those gentiles wanting to become God-fearers. Now that tells us something about what the Jewish leaders, the Pharisees thought about themselves doesn’t it?

So in Luke 5:29-32 when Jesus ate with tax collectors and sinners - did you notice how the NIV puts sinners in inverted commas, as ‘sinners’ – he is eating with those considered bad by Pharisees standards and this creates a problem as it is their standard – it’s not God’s standard. Then also we need to ask ourselves – are not tax-collectors also sinners? So why mention tax-collectors as though they are some separate group. It’s because Luke is showing Jesus came reaching out to those rejected even by Israel – those considered traitors to Israel – the tax collectors, and those considered lawbreakers by the Pharisees standards. Jesus in his actions is actually confronting the Pharisees standard of sin. The contrast becomes stark and blatant. Even more so when these sinners accepted, indeed welcomed the Messiah, something that these students of the law, these Pharisees didn’t! Indeed the Kingdom of God came to even such as these!

That’s great news.
In Christ,
[1] Sydney Anglican magazine.

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