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 ESV)
The opening words of Charles Dickens' A Christmas Carol (1843) include this description of the main character: "Scrooge! A squeezing, wrenching, grasping, scraping, clutching, covetous old sinner!" In doing some research on this word I have realized that people in Western Culture today don't often describe anyone this way. Oh, we have classes, to be sure. In our less-generous moments we pigeonhole people as easily as we would letters:
"Trailer Trash", "Redneck"
These words seem to transcend designations of race, creed, or sexual orientation (these used to be on the list but aren't anymore in "polite" society). Words like this are all-encompassing. They describe the whole being of the person, and there is no hope that someone so labeled will ever change position in society. A smoker, for instance, can become a non-smoker. Someone who is fat can become thin. The poor can gain wealth. Even a jock can become a couch potato over time. I'm currently working to reverse that one.
There's an old anecdote that places Sir Winston Churchill and Lady Astor (the first woman elected a Member of Parliament) in an elevator somewhere. Lady Astor turns to Sir Winston and says, "Sir Winston, you're drunk!" Churchill replies, "Lady Astor, you're ugly. In the morning I shall be sober."
When the Pharisees spoke of someone as "a sinner" what they meant is someone whom they had classified as beyond redemption. It wasn't so much that you could point to a specific sin that person had committed. They had somehow almost been born "Trailer Trash," and that wasn't going to change. A Pharisee could transgress the law at some point. If they did, there were prescribed penances, prayers, and remedies that would bring them back into favor with God and man. But in the way the Pharisees used the term here, the adjective cannot be shaken and fully describes the poor wretch in question.
In the Anglican liturgy of the Mass, the prayer of confession most of us learned says (in part), "We have sinned against you in thought, word, and deed, by what we have done and by what we have left undone. We have not loved you with our whole heart. We have not loved our neighbor as ourself." It is a wonderful wording, and if you want to quickly run through and catalog your sins du jour it will help you be sure you've confessed them, ala 1 John 1:9. That way you can dash off the list on your mental communion registry, put the imaginary list in the collection plate along with your tithes and offerings, receive the goods you have just paid for, and walk away ready to face a new week because your life has been put back in balance: the number of sins confessed + fee paid + wafer received = justification for the week.
But what if I actually saw my sin not as a series of nouns to be dealt with but as an adjective that described me in the core of my being? What if the Pharisees were right, and this word actually sums me up better than any other? What if the adjective is one that no amount of ritual can even begin to hope to change? You see, Jesus never disputes the classification the Pharisees have given. The people they are referring to are what they are being called. It isn't just bigotry or haughtiness.
Toward the end of A Christmas Carol, Scrooge comes to the end of himself as he falls on his knees in front of an open grave in the presence of the Ghost of Christmas Yet to Come and cries, "Why show me this, if I am past all hope? Assure me that I yet may change these shadows you have shown me, by an altered life!'' He has begun to know that he is utterly and wholly without redemption: a sinner.
The parables of the Lost Sheep and the Lost Coin that follow in Luke 15 describe our utter helplessness. A coin or a sheep has absolutely no ability or desire in itself to find the one who lost it:
So he told them this parable: “What man of you, having a hundred sheep, if he has lost one of them, does not leave the ninety-nine in the open country, and go after the one that is lost, until he finds it? And when he has found it, he lays it on his shoulders, rejoicing. And when he comes home, he calls together his friends and his neighbors, saying to them, ‘Rejoice with me, for I have found my sheep that was lost.’ Just so, I tell you, there will be more joy in heaven over one sinner who repents than over ninety-nine righteous persons who need no repentance.
“Or what woman, having ten silver coins, if she loses one coin, does not light a lamp and sweep the house and seek diligently until she finds it? And when she has found it, she calls together her friends and neighbors, saying, ‘Rejoice with me, for I have found the coin that I had lost.’ Just so, I tell you, there is joy before the angels of God over one sinner who repents.”
(Luke 15:3-10 ESV)
But the wonder, the glory of the statement in Luke 15:1 is that ALL of it is true. Not only are these people exactly what the Pharisees describe them to be; Jesus is exactly as they describe him also. This man actually does "receive sinners and eats with them."
After nearly forty years of knowing Christ I am just beginning to really get that I am what the Pharisees call me. All these years I have been eating with Jesus, and I never got it. He knew what I was and he went and found me. And without changing anything about me, for I am still the same sinner I was before, he sat me at his table and for forty years has offered me the choicest banquet, complete with bread and wine. And at times when my sins (noun) made me unable or unwilling to eat, he took the spoon in his own hand and fed me.
While it is still six weeks off, you will experience what I have and what Scrooge did, "I will live in the Past, the Present, and the Future!'' Scrooge repeated, as he scrambled out of bed. "The Spirits of all Three shall strive within me. Oh Jacob Marley! Heaven, and the Christmas Time be praised for this! I say it on my knees, old Jacob; on my knees!''
It isn't just a fine old parable we can haul out once a year. Dickens had hit upon a deep understanding of the grace of God in the gospel:
Long my imprisoned spirit lay, fast bound in sin and nature’s night;
Thine eye diffused a quickening ray—I woke, the dungeon flamed with light;
My chains fell off, my heart was free, I rose, went forth, and followed Thee.
Amazing Love! How can it be that thou, my God, shouldst die for me?
-- Charles Wesley (1738)