I once read the story of a preacher who visited an inner-city diner in the middle of the night. As he ate, a group of prostitutes entered. He overheard their conversation and discovered one of them had a birthday the next day. She announced it to the group but none of them seemed to care. She said, “No one has ever celebrated my birthday and I don’t expect anyone to start now.”
This weighed on the preacher’s mind. The next night, he returned to the diner in hopes the prostitutes would be there as well. He organized a small party and bought a cake for the woman’s birthday. Eventually, the woman entered and sat down. The preacher gave the cue and the diner began to sing “Happy Birthday”. As the cake was set in front her, her eyes welled with tears.
She treasured the cake so much so that she refused to let it be cut. Instead, she took it home with her. The preacher prayed with her just before she left. Later, the cook at the diner said, “I didn’t know you were a Christian. What church do you belong to?”
The preacher smiled and said, “A church that throws birthday parties in the middle of the night for prostitutes.”
The cook sneered, “Come on, man. There’s no church like that. If there was, I’d go join right now.”
Jesus built his church with sinners
In the days of Jesus, publicans were a reviled group of men. They were contracted by the Roman government–a godless and wicked authority–to collect taxes for the empire. If collecting taxes wasn’t bad enough, these men earned their living by demanding more from people than what they owed and the collectors were permitted to keep it for themselves.
The only thing worse than a publican in the sight of the Jews was a publican who was also a Jew. The occupation of tax collection inevitably meant that man would be banished from the community and practically shunned as an outcast and traitor.
Matthew, a Jew and a publican, was sitting at a toll booth when Jesus approached. No long dialogue was spoken between them. Jesus simply said, “Follow me.” Immediately, Matthew left his livelihood behind and followed Christ. (Matthew 9:9)
Religious zeal against the sinners
Soon after, Matthew threw what Luke called a “great feast” for a “great company” of other publicans (Luke 5:29). It was a large enough dinner party that it attracted the attention of some Pharisees–a group of the Jews based known for their fantastic knowledge of the law. They asked the Lord’s disciples, “Why eateth your Master with publicans and sinners?” (Matthew 9:10-11)
I read another (fictional) story of a homeless man going to worship one Sunday. He was unshaven, dirty, and his clothes were torn. When he entered the church, he was refused on the basis he would be a distraction to others. So, he went outside and sat on the front steps hoping he could at least hear the singing and preaching.
Another man walked up and sat next to him. After several minutes, they started talking with one another and the homeless man explained how he was not allowed into the church. The other replied, “I wouldn’t worry too much about it. I’ve been trying to get into this church for years and they just won’t have it. By the way, my name’s Jesus.”
Living with self-righteous blinders
Jesus overheard and said, “They that be whole need not a physician, but they that are sick. Go ye and learn what that meaneth, I will have mercy, and not sacrifice: for I am not come to call the righteous, but sinners to repentance” (Matthew 9:12-13).
The Lord’s church was never meant to be an elite club of only the most righteous. We have no righteousness at all apart from the grace of God (Romans 3:9-31). By the way, calling yourself a wretched sinner doesn’t necessarily mean you believe it.
Jesus quoted what should have been a familiar passage to the Pharisees (Hosea 6:6). God has never wanted, nor did he ever expect, any sinner to live up to the law. Rather, God’s plan was one of grace, mercy, love, and forgiveness despite our sin.
If we believe ourselves to be righteous and at all superior to others, we have tragically failed in understanding the doctrine of Christ. He was the only one to ever be truly righteous, yet he communed with the publicans and the sinners.