The Gospels, especially the Synoptics (Matthew, Mark, Luke), distinctly use the term “sinners” as a class of people that were categorically avoided by the Jews. Usually, the term is used along with the term “tax collectors” (Matt.9:10; Mark 2:15; Luke 5:30) as if to indicate both of them as belonging to the same religiously unacceptable group.
Luke introduces the woman with the alabaster box as “a sinner” (Luke 7:37). Why? Was everybody else not a sinner? Did Luke identify her belonging to an objective, separate sinner-class? Of course, Luke knew that there was none righteous. However, he uses the term as used by the Jews without buying into their theology. He meant to say that this was a woman who was identified in the public as one who belonged to the class of sinners, shunned by the religious Jews. He specifically mentions the title “sinner” to show that Christ came for such as these and that these were the ones who were justified because of their brokenness before Christ, rather than the Pharisees and the Scribes who considered themselves too holy to ever be in need of God’s salvation. In a similar vein is the confession of the publican in Jesus’ parable of the Pharisee and the Publican. He prays: “God, be merciful to me a sinner!” (Luke 18:13)
But, what kind of a social class were these sinners? A look at the use of the term in the New Testament gives us some idea:
1. These were a class of people that the Pharisees and the scribes didn’t associate with. They never received them nor ate with them (Luke 15:1,2).
2. To this class also belonged the tax collectors (who collected taxed from fellow Jews for the Romans) and the prostitutes (cp. Matt.5:46; Luke 6:33; Matt.21:31) as well.
3. The Jews considered themselves synonymous with “holy” by nature, while the Gentiles were considered sinners (Gal.2:15).
4. In simple words, sinners were a class of people who openly broke the Mosaic Law which the Pharisees greatly cherished along with a complexity of other traditions (John 9:16).
Of all the episodes in Jesus’ ministry retold by the Gospel writers, there is none perhaps that is so deeply sensitive to this problem of the sinner than Luke’s account in Luke 15. Luke 15 gives us Christ’s view of the sinners, which He presents through three parables of the Lost Sheep, the Lost Coin, and the Lost Son. Luke begins the chapter with these very shocking words: Then all the tax collectors and the sinners drew near to Him to hear Him. (Luk 15:1)
He closes the chapter with these memorable words to the Pharisees and the scribes: “It was right that we should make merry and be glad, for your brother was dead and is alive again, and was lost and is found.” (Luk 15:32)
Next time you think of “sinners” out there, in the clubs, in the theatres, in certain businesses, in certain offices, in certain places, remember what Jesus thought of them. But, also think why “all… the sinners drew near to Him to hear Him.” Also think of why this woman who was a sinner could boldly enter into a Pharisee’s house, anoint the feet of Jesus, and weep at His feet…