By Harris Franklin Rall
We have seen that Jesus left Capernaum after that first memorable Sabbath, refusing to settle down as a healer and wonder-worker. Apparently he carried out his plan and made a preaching trip through the Galilean villages. All we know definitely, however, is what Mark tells us, that "he entered again into Capernaum after some days.'' The rumor of his return was enough to bring the crowds together, filling not only the house, but the street in front. They were full of eager interest. What new signs would he do? Whom would he heal? But Jesus had a deeper concern than even his sympathy for the sick. It was the sin of men that burdened him, the loss of God out of their lives. In a striking way there began here his ministry to the sinful, a ministry that drew no crowds like his healings, but stirred the bitter opposition of the religious leaders.
Jesus and the Sinners
The Paralytic Forgiven. —The story of the paralytic is one of those dramatic incidents which delighted us as children. This man was poor in health, but rich in having four good friends. These had no sooner heard of Jesus' return than they determined that they would bring the sick man to him. The crowded street did not balk them. The Jewish house was covered with a flat roof, reached by an outer stairway and a common place of resort for the family. Thither they betook themselves, and uncovered enough of the roof to let their friend down into the room. It was just such faith and determination that Jesus was looking for, and he responded to it at once. He had been preaching about the coming Kingdom, and that repentance and faith by which men were to prepare for it. What he read in the face of the man before him we do not know, but he must have found an answer to his message. And so he offered this man not health first of all, but a greater gift: "Son, thy sins are forgiven."
His words must have been a surprise to his hearers. To certain scribes that were present they were more than this: they were blasphemy. Who could forgive sins except God? Jesus does not stop to explain his religion of mercy. He answers by a deed which shows that God is with him; he has given the greater gift of forgiveness, now he bestows the lesser and bids the man rise and walk.
The Ministry of Forgiveness. —So Jesus begins, according to Mark, his ministry of forgiveness. If the ministry to the sick occupied a great place in Jesus' life, this was even greater, and, indeed, was the very heart of his ministry and message. The sinners came flocking to him as they had to John, but from him they gained a message of hope and inspiration such as John could not give. Some of Jesus' most beautiful words are freighted with this theme, such as the parables of the lost coin, the lost sheep, and the lost son. No need of men moved Jesus so deeply as this. No part of his ministry is so characteristic as this. It was his association with these "sinners" that showed how deep was the gulf that separated Jesus from the accepted leaders of the people, and it was this, more than anything else, that brought down upon him the enmity of these scribes and Pharisees.
Who Were the "Sinners"
The Pharisaic Idea of Religion. —In order to understand this ministry of Jesus and his conflict with the Pharisees, we must realize what the men of his day meant by "sinners." We may put the difference between their use and ours in a sentence; for us the word has a moral meaning, for them its meaning was mainly formal or ritual. It is one's idea of religion that determines one's idea of sin. For us religion is something spiritual and ethical, a right relation to God and a right life flowing from this. The Pharisees too laid the stress upon righteousness, but righteousness with them was mainly something formal and ceremonial. Religion was an endless set of rules, whose chief concern was not what was just and loving between man and man, but ceremonial purity. Holiness was not so much being true and humble before God; it meant, rather, keeping "^clean" according to these rules. It was largely a matter of separation, something formal and negative. There were endless things to be avoided, various kinds of food, vessels, places, objects, and men; and there were endless forms to be gone through.
The "Sinners." —To keep all these rules was a tremendous task, and for many people impossible, so that it came about that great masses of the people were "sinners'* in the eyes of these leaders. They had not the leisure to study the laws and keep the rules, or else they did not have the means. For the average poor man in his daily work, especially in Galilee where there were so many Gentiles, had to come into contact with men and things that were not clean. Such people formed the bulk of the "sinners" who meet us in the Gospels. They were called "the people of the land," a phrase which had come to mean nothing but contempt with the scribes. We catch the sneer in the words reported in John 7. 49: "This multitude that knoweth not the law are accursed." Though they did not keep the law, these people shared that general idea of religion which condemned them. They felt themselves accursed, without hope, though often bitter in their hatred of the scribes. To associate with such people, especially at table, meant to drop to their level of defilement.
The Publicans. —There were, of course, sinners of another type that came to Jesus, of whom the harlots and the publicans are especially mentioned. The publicans were not necessarily immoral men in the common sense, but as a class they seem to have deserved the ill repute in which they were held not simply in Palestine, but throughout the empire. It shows how they were estimated that their names should be so often bracketed with the harlots, even by Jesus himself, or with the Gentiles. There was special reason for their execration in Palestine, at least so far as they were Jews, for here they seemed like traitors who had sold themselves for a reward to the hated enemy and were helping Rome to oppress their own people. Such men were wholly without the pale. They were shunned like a pestilence and were not even allowed to enter the synagogue.
The Meaning of This Ministry
Levi and His Friends. —Now we can understand the meaning of the incident which Mark reports as following upon the healing of the paralytic. Capernaum was an important center for the collection of taxes. Here was taken the toll upon all goods brought into Herod's territory from that of his brother Philip, and from the rich Decapolis across the lake. One of these Jewish renegades by the name of Levi had charge of the Capernaum customs house, which was down by the lakeside. It may have been that he had heard Jesus speak elsewhere. In any case Jesus knew his man, and when he passed by the customs house and summoned him, Levi left his business at once and followed him. And so the fifth member of Jesus' inner circle was a despised publican. Apparently, like Simon, he received a new name, and was known thereafter as Matthew. What followed aroused the scribes still more. Levi seems to have become a missionary at once, bearing the news of his own discipleship and of his new Master, and so other publicans and sinners began to follow Jesus. Jesus not only preached to these men, but welcomed them personally, and finally, upon invitation of Levi, he became the guest of honor at a supper where all these friends were present. He could have done nothing that would have shocked more the religious leaders or have violated more flagrantly the religious standards. At no place were the rules of purity so strict as in matters of eating. The publicans, of course, paid no attention to these rules, and he who sat with them defiled himself and made himself like them. The action of Jesus was a definite break with the acknowledged religious leaders and accepted standards.
The Motive of Sympathy. —If we ask for the meaning of this conduct of Jesus, we shall find two answers. In the first place, it was because Jesus loved men and counted it his mission to serve them. That was what he had come for, to save just such men and lead them to the true life. If the sick and suffering moved him, then these much more. The greatest evil was not the loss of sight and hearing, but the loss of God and the slavery to sin. He saw these poor folks bound by sin, blind to the real treasures of life, the prey of fear, anxious about food and drink. They were the burdened and heavy-laden. And no one cared for them; they were as sheep having no shepherd. And so we have the pity of Jesus over against the harsh condemnation of the scribe.
Jesus' Idea of God. —But there is another reason to be given for this difference between Jesus and the scribes. It was not simply a difference in spirit, but in the whole conception of God and of religion. For the scribes God was primarily a lawgiver and judge, giving men rules and then condemning or rewarding. Before such a God these sinners stood condemned and hopeless. For Jesus, God was the Father, not blind to the sin of his children, but pitying them and yearning over them, and seeking to bring every wayward child back into fellowship with himself. When they accused him, he simply showed them that he was acting according to the spirit of his Father (Luke 15). No matter how foolish and sinful, every lost child is precious to God. He goes out to look for them and all heaven rejoices when one is brought back (Luke 15. 3-10). No matter what they have done, God waits with forgiveness when his sons turn back (Luke 15. 11-32). God is holy, but that does not mean that he withdraws himself from sinners, but that he draws them to him in love and mercy. Holiness is not separation, but love.
Of Religion. —With such a thought of God, Jesus' idea of religion was naturally different from that of the Pharisees and scribes. It is what we think of God that decides our idea of religion, that is, our idea of what will please God. The holiness that Jesus believed in was a holiness like that of his Father, a holiness of love and mercy. Such a holiness, instead of separating Jesus from men, drove him to them. Nothing seemed to him more according to his Father's will than to go to such sinners and help them. And so he made answer to their criticisms: God wants mercy, not sacrifices, as the prophet said long ago. It is the sick that need a physician, not the well. I am come to save sinners, not to serve the saints (Mark 2. 17).
Two Surprises. —Two great surprises came to Jesus in his ministry. One was the attitude of the leaders. From the worldly Sadducean party he had not expected much; but these leaders, the scribes and Pharisees, he had been taught to respect from his youth. Now he found them blind leaders of the blind, not only unwilling to enter the Kingdom, but opposing his work and trying to keep others out. The other surprise was that of the sinners. They turned to him just as they had to John. How he rejoices over them! The humility, the penitence, the eager earnestness which he missed with the Pharisees, he found in them. It was these publicans and harlots and despised common people that were pressing into the Kingdom. That was one of the wonders of God's wisdom and mercy: he was hiding these things from the wise and understanding and revealing them unto these babes (Matt. 11. 25).
The Two Sons. —Two parables in particular express the experience of Jesus with these two classes. The first is that of the two sons (Matt. 21. 28-32). The Pharisees were the pillars of orthodoxy and the exemplars of piety, recognized as such by all. With their much religious profession, they were like the son who said, "I go, sir," but went not. When Jesus came with God's great call they were disobedient. The publicans and harlots had not been doing God's will; they were like the second son who had said, "I will not." But in the end they repented and went. Thus it was they who really met the test of obedience, and not the Pharisees.
The Messianic Feast. —The same lesson comes in the parable of the Messianic feast (Luke 14. 15-24). The picture of a feast was one of the common means used by the Jews to set forth the glories of the Messianic age, for which everyone was longing. One day while they were at table, one of those people who can use pious phrases easily and without meaning called out to Jesus, "Blessed is he that shall eat bread in the kingdom of God." Yes, said Jesus, that will be a great blessing, and you all believe yourselves eager for it. But the fact is that you are refusing this blessing to-day and those whom you despise are making ready to receive it. It is like the story of the great supper which a man once gave. You would have expected everyone to be most eager to come. Instead, those who were invited found excuses for staying away, and in the end the beggars of the street were brought in to eat the feast.
Directions for Study
Briefly review the events in Jesus' life since lie answered the summons of John's preaching and went to the Jordan.
Read carefully the Scripture passages for this chapter: Mark 2. 1-17; Luke 15. 1, 2; Matthew 21. 28-32; Luke 14. 15-24.
Has our study thus far shown us some underlying principle determining Jesus' life? Could we call that principle obedience and trust in relation to his Father, and love and service in relation to men? Note how this principle of service would mean first preaching (telling the good news), next healing, and finally forgiving.
With pencil and paper write from memory as long a list as you can of the sinners whom Jesus helped, from the paralytic at Capernaum to the thief on the cross.
Give a definition of sin. What does forgiveness mean?
The third Gospel is peculiarly the Gospel of mercy, the Gospel of the poor and the sinful. Make a list of the passages peculiar to Luke which express sympathy with the poor, which condemn or warn the rich, which record deeds of mercy and healing, which deal with sinners and their forgiveness.