I’ve been a Christian for as long as I can remember. I was raised in a Christian home. I went to church three times a week, attended a Christian high school, dated only Christian girls, and graduated with a degree in Bible from a Christian University.
I was “born and raised” inside the Christian subculture and since becoming an adult I’ve worked and been educated exclusively inside of that same subculture. Over the past 30 I’ve served five churches in a pastoral capacity, taught at three different Christian colleges, and worked for two different para-church organizations. And I have to confess; it’s comfortable for me inside “the bubble”. I know the rule. I know the language. I know what’s expected of me—you know—what’s “sin” and what’s not. Or maybe better said, I know what sins are acceptable within the subculture and what sins are not.
Because of this, I feel particularly qualified to make the following statement—we Christian-types often take “sin” more seriously than we do grace and mercy.
Christians take sin seriously. So seriously, in fact, that have instituted extra rules and regulations to govern our beliefs and behaviors. Protections to keep us from accidentally wandering into sin or associating with people who might lead us astray. You know the types.
We set up expectations for where we go, what we consume, with whom we associate, for whom we vote, and what theological assertions are up for interpretation and which ones are not.
Most of these regulations are couched in terms of doctrinal purity, personal holiness, and Christ-like character but I wonder…would Jesus take “sin” as seriously as we do?
Luke 15 houses three of the most well-known stories in the Bible: the lost sheep, the lost coin, and the lost son. Most of us—even if you’re not an insider like me—have heard, or at least heard of, these stories. A shepherd leaves the 99 “found” to search for the lost one. A woman lights a lamp and searches all over the house until she finds the lost coin, and a father welcomes home and celebrates when he wayward and rebellious sons return.
These stories come within particular cultural context—a religious context that took sin VERY seriously. It’s not too much of a stretch to assert that Jesus told these three stories to answer the unasked but insinuated question, “Jesus, don’t you take sin seriously?”
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 inaugural audience for these stories was complex; it contained both religious outsiders (tax collectors and sinners) and religious insiders (Pharisees and teachers of the law)—the lost and the found. Don’t miss this. Jesus is telling his stories about lost and found things to a group of lost and found people—sinners and righteous. The stories weren’t just told to them they were about them.
The wandering sheep wasn’t just a wandering sheep it was a wandering person. The lost coin wasn’t just misplaced money but the lost in Israel who didn’t even know they were lost. I wonder how it hit the tax collectors and sinners. What did they think as the stories progressed?
Jesus was eating with and welcoming these outsiders which was a surprise to everyone—especially the religious—since most religious leaders didn’t welcome such people.
Don’t miss this. Good Jews in Jesus’ day didn’t associate with tax collectors and sinners. They were on the outside of religious life. Any association with them would cause a person, no matter how holy and righteous, to become ceremonially unclean and therefore be placed outside of the worshiping community. To eat with a sinner meant that you were contaminated by their sin. Given this context it’s perfectly understandable why these upstanding religious leaders would express shock that Jesus, “welcomes sinners and eats with them.”
This is the questions and supposed answer that vexed the Pharisees:
Question—“Jesus, do you really take sin seriously?”
Answer—“How can he, when, ‘(he) welcomes sinners and eats with them’”?
I often wonder, when I read these stories, how different we church folk are from the religious leaders in Jesus’ day. Yeah, we read these stories and know them backward and forward. We know who we are supposed to be. We’re supposed to be like Jesus. The one who welcomed sinners and eats with them, but is that what we do?
In my experience, as a life-long insider, it isn’t. We take sin (at least some of them) seriously. But are we in danger of taking sin more seriously than we take the example of Jesus?
Jesus took and takes sin seriously. He takes it so seriously in fact that he gave his life to deal with the world’s sin problem. The one who knew no sin became sin for us (2 Corinthians 5:21). Maybe that the point of these stories. The fact that Jesus ate with sinners and welcomed them around his table illustrated how seriously he took and takes sin because it foreshadows the searching, redeeming, and loving work he would do on the cross.
Nearness not distance is what tax collectors and sinners need and it’s what sinners still need. Jesus showed that he took sin seriously when he came near to us—his fallen and sinful creation—so that he could take away our sins. If you and I are going to follow the way of Jesus we’re going to have to come to grips with the fact that taking sin seriously is not demonstrated by distance but through nearness.
To read more about overcoming sin visit https://discoveryseries.org/courses/walking-free/