Now the tax collectors and sinners were all drawing near to him. And the Pharisees and the scribes grumbled, saying, “this man receives sinners and eats with them.” — Luke 15:1,2 (ESV)
Notice the contrast in these 2 verses. The contrast is between the “tax collectors and sinners” and the “Pharisees and scribes.” In other words, it is between the sinners and the religious. Now notice what each group does with Jesus.
The “sinners” are the ones who were “drawing near to him.” They wanted to be around Jesus. They were not running from him, but were rather drawing near to him. There is an account in Matthew's gospel where he shares his story of how he met Jesus. And after that 1st encounter, Matthew threw a party at his house that Jesus attended. That's right. Jesus hung out with a bunch of “sinners and tax collectors” at a party. They loved Jesus. Why? My guess is because they knew he loved them and because he treated them as valuable.
In contrast, the Pharisees and scribes sat together in a huddled little group and grumbled and complained about Jesus. They did not like what he was doing. What exactly was he doing? Accepting and eating with “sinners.” They did not like the fact that he kept company with those, who in their minds, were not worthy. These were people who were broken, confused, and even rebellious. These were people who did not make the cut or hold up to the standard set up by those with religious power. In other words, they were just like us.
As you read these 2 verses, you should be able to relate with one of 2 sides. Either you realize that you are a sinner who can be (or has been) saved by the grace of God because you have surrendered to Jesus - receiving his gift of salvation, and nothing else, and therefore, have a new identity in Christ as a son or daughter of the King, or you are religiously arrogant and cannot stand it when Jesus does things outside of your level of comfort. If you find yourself in the 2nd category, please know this: you are dearly loved by Jesus. However, realize that you bring him much frustration as did the Pharisees in his day. But he does love you. And he wants to free you from religion so you that you can experience the reality that comes with a relationship with Jesus. Trust me: I am a recovering legalist. I have learned the scandal of grace and the freedom that comes with actually loving and being in a relationship with Jesus.
Let us draw near to Jesus. He has invited us to do so. He welcomes us to do so. May we not lose our relationship with Jesus in the confusion and the emptiness of religion. And may we have a heart like Jesus for those who “just don't make the cut.” May we love them so well that they cannot help but draw near to us, Christ's followers, because they mistook us for Jesus.