Today’s Author: Carol Swanson

‘Now all the tax collectors and sinners were coming near to listen to him. And the Pharisees and the scribes were grumbling and saying, “This fellow welcomes sinners and eats with them.”’ Luke 15:1-2

In yesterday’s devotion, I shared from the Gather magazine bible study by Mark Allan Powell who suggested that Jesus “‘acted parables’ by staging pretend banquets with tax-collectors and sinners.” And that the religious leaders hated this. Powell then goes on to share new insights about who these people were. He writes:

Tax Collectors and Sinners

‘We have learned a lot in recent years about who these tax-collectors and sinners usually were. Typically, tax-collectors were not rich people like Zacchaeus in Luke 19:1-10 (he is called a chief or boss of tax-collectors). Those who actually did the grunt work of collecting the money were men who could not get better work—no one would ever be a tax-collector if they could get another job. There is strong indication that many of these men may have been marginalized due to intellectual disabilities or physical deformities such as Downs syndrome, hunchbacks, club feet, cleft palates. We know this, sad to say, from numerous Roman documents that make a burlesque of the tax collectors, speaking of them insultingly. But those chosen for this role were usually big and trained in ways that made them pretty good at persuading people to hand over their money.

‘Now we come to “sinners” who in this context, are not just “people who sin.” Wouldn’t that be everyone? In the world of Jesus, “sinners” was commonly used as a euphemism for prostitutes—and all prostitutes were sex-slaves. We have only learned some of this in the last decade, and it can be hard to hear. In those days, Jewish peasants often got into debt, and the only way out was to sell one of their children into slavery. Most men would sell the girls first, and the girls were almost always used as prostitutes for the Roman soldiers. From the information we have (and it is plentiful), these young women were teenagers, varying in age from 14 to 18. We find no mention of any who were older than this. Why? They did not live. They slept in the streets. They were poorly fed. Disease was rampant. Further, no ex-prostitutes are ever mentioned in the Bible. Mary Magdalene, contrary to Hollywood depictions, was never a prostitute—if she had been, she would have been a teenager, and she would have remained a prostitute throughout her (short) life, even after meeting Jesus. Sex slaves could not just leave their profession to follow a religious leader. 

‘Scholars generally agree that the phrase “tax-collectors and sinners” was understood as a reference to the people society deemed most pitiable, in a sense. At the same time, it may have been difficult to pity those forced into roles of robbing you, physically assaulting you, tempting your spouse to spend grocery money on adultery, or infecting your sons with venereal diseases. In Jesus’s day as in our own, many in the larger society saw individuals who’d not been dealt a good or fair hand in life as easy to pity and easy to despise. So, Jesus, the famous prophet who everyone was talking about, would come to town with his disciples and they would set up a banquet in the public square. Jesus and his disciples would sit there, intermingled with misfit enforcers and adolescent sex-slaves. And he would say, “Look, this is what the kingdom of God is like! If you want to know what it’s like for God to be in charge, imagine a banquet with these people as the honored guests!”’ (Gather Magazine, Volume 35 Issue 1 January-February 2022, “The kingdom of God: Mysteries of the kingdom,” by Mark Allan Powell, p 32-33.)

Photo by Matt Collamer on Unsplash

Who are the pitied and despised in our society today? Are they not also loved by God? Jesus says, “Truly I tell you, just as you did it to one of the least of these who are members of my family, you did it to me.” (Matt 25:40)  What is God calling us to do for the vulnerable in our society?

Gracious and loving Father, you are always nudging us to widen the circle of acceptance, always challenging us to actively welcome all into your kingdom, as sisters and brothers in your family. Please open our hearts and minds to your vision for this world. Amen.