Engaging in some conversations today it would be easy to think that we had entered Wonderland with Alice and were listening to Humpty Dumpty say in a rather scornful tone, ‘When I use a word it means just what I choose it to mean – neither more nor less.’ Alongside that we have the apparently gentle dismissal which says, ‘If it works for you, that’s fine, but don’t expect it of me or of others’, and in complete contrast we have the practice of ‘No-Platforming’ where a person is prevented, or to put it clearly is banned from expressing an opinion or conviction that goes against the current accepted norm. So much for tolerance or being open-minded!
How, as Christians, do we respond to such attitudes? I suggest we ask the question, ‘How did Jesus respond?’ Most of us would be aware that the relationship between Jesus and the Pharisees was not peaceful and amicable. It is obvious that, in the Sermon on the Mount, Jesus was confronting the supplementary teaching of the Scribes and Pharisees and towards the close of his ministry, Jesus launches a series of ‘woes’ against them. At the same time his opponents tried to trap him in his teaching and at various times tried to kill him, appearing successful at the cross.
Without doubt they shared differing opinions and convictions, but throughout his ministry they interacted with each other, so that ‘one of the Pharisees asked him to eat with him, and he went into the Pharisee’s house and took his place at the table’ (Luke 7:36). Even in that setting there was a direct and robust exchange of opinion.
It is not wrong to have different opinions and it is healthy, wherever possible, to express those in a gentle and positive way, so that we might learn from one another. That however is not the final picture of Jesus that I want to leave with you, on the contrary, I want us to see a ‘platform’ where tax collectors, sinners, Pharisees, scribes and Jesus are all interacting and hearing each other’s opinions.
Jesus welcomes sinners
In the opening verses of Luke 15 we read:
Now the tax collectors and sinners were all drawing near to hear him. And the Pharisees and the scribes grumbled, saying, ‘This man receives sinners and eats with them’ (Luke 15:1-2).
It is his enemies who formulate this statement, one of the clearest summaries of the ministry of Jesus. The NIV gives an even warmer translation: ‘This man welcomes sinners and eats with them’ (emphasis mine). Luke is clear that Jesus told the three stories in this chapter in response to this summary statement formulated as a criticism of Jesus.
Similarly, if we are to see the focussed understanding of Jesus to his critics it is found later on in the chapter in the parable of the lost son, ‘But he was angry and refused to go in’ (Luke 15:28). He, the older brother, went on to give his reasons for such a refusal. The point that Jesus wants to make is this: ‘I’m willing to welcome, but you are ‘no-platforming’ everyone who does not conform to your definition of righteousness.’
In the remainder of this article, I want to show a picture of Jesus that I trust will draw all people to him. His critics are right that Jesus does welcome sinners. Even before he was born it was stated that, ‘He will save his people from their sins’ (Matt. 1:21). Jesus himself said, ‘I have not come to call the righteous but sinners to repentance’ (Luke 5:32). Jesus and the Bible are clear that there are sinners in this world, in fact the Bible is even more direct by saying that ‘all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God’ (Rom. 3:23). Yet, the critics of Jesus wanted to teach a double standard, implying that they and their followers were righteous, whereas all others were sinners deserving condemnation and judgement.
Jesus identifies with sinners
Jesus himself was a man tempted in exactly the same way as all of us, but he never fell into sin. In his purity of character it would have been easy for him to avoid sinners, in order to maintain his own righteousness, but he tells us that he ‘came to seek and to save the lost’ (Luke 19:10). Jesus did not come into the world to condemn as he so easily could have, but he came so that through him sinners might be saved. In effect Jesus came on the greatest rescue mission in all history.
These stories in Luke 15 make it clear that God in Christ seeks all who are lost and have gone astray. Jesus ‘no-platforms’ no one, because he identified with sinners. Although he was not guilty of any sin yet he was prepared to take the sins of others. In effect, on the cross Jesus was ‘no-platformed’ by virtually everyone. His disciples fled in fear, the religious leaders thought that they had finally silenced their most accurate critic, and by crucifying ‘The King of the Jews’, Rome thought they had beaten any potential rebellion.
Jesus restores sinners
Our culture is good at no-platforming people and at times that seems right. If they have acted in such a disdainful way it can seem that there can be no place for forgiveness, but if we are to fully understand the way Jesus welcomes sinners then we need to see his earthly activity after his death and resurrection. Jesus again sought sinners, but this time he was seeking his followers, who had appeared so passionate in their support for him, yet let him down and deserted him in his hour of need. Jesus sought them and was willing not only to forgive them, but also to ‘reinstate’ or perhaps reassure them of his unfailing love for them and his unchanging purpose in their lives.
We see this on a corporate level in John 20:21 where Jesus says to his disciples, ‘Peace be with you. As the Father has sent me, even so I am sending you.’ It is also seen on the personal level in the next chapter (John 21:15-17) when Jesus asked Peter, ‘Do you love me?’ Receiving an affirmative reply on each occasion, Jesus then reinforced the commission previously given, ‘Feed my lambs’, ‘Tend my sheep’, ‘Feed my sheep’. Jesus, like the Father in the third story of Luke 15, is ready to fully restore all who come to him in repentance.
Do you welcome sinners?
In this day of so-called ‘tolerance’ and ‘no-platforming’ what sort of Jesus do we as individuals and churches display to a needy world? Like Jesus, we have to ensure that any who do not attain the social demands of our culture or fall short of the glory of God know that when they come to him in humility and contrition that he will welcome them. By the same token, contemporary Pharisees need to know that they will be heard and corrected reflecting the unchanging holiness, grace and mercy declared by the Lord Jesus Christ throughout history.