"Dishonest tax collectors and other notorious sinners often came to listen to Jesus' sermons; but this caused complaints from the Jewish religious leaders and the experts on Jewish law because he was associating with such despicable people -- even eating with them!" (Luke 15:1 2, The Living Bible).
Today, the church is called "the body of Christ." What that means is the church today should be carrying on the work Christ began when he was on this Earth.
Now, if I am reading Luke 15:1 correctly, it seems to me that there was something about Jesus that drew people to Him that the religious leaders of the day preferred to drive away from themselves. These Jewish religious leaders were quite concerned about making sure they looked pure and clean, and in that regard, they made sure that "tax collectors and other notorious sinners" were kept at a respectable distance.
But here is this new rabbi, Jesus, attracting them and even (gasp) fellowshipping with them. In the culture of the day, when you ate together, you were really bonding with certain people.
Even though the church is called the body of Christ, it strikes me that often times we act more like the Jewish religious leaders than we do like Jesus. Oh, sure despicable people can come into our churches, if they are willing to clean up and straighten up before they do it.
In a previous church I was in, I had a man who claimed to be an evangelist. For you who may not know what an evangelist is, that is a person who shares good news with others.
This man was always telling me about how he had gotten such positive responses from people he was sharing God's good news with, but whenever I asked him if he invited them to church, his response was, "Well, I encouraged them to go to another church."
That always confused me, until one day he came into my office carrying a list, front and back, of people he wanted me to kick out of "his church." I was dumbfounded, until he explained, "My church is no place for people who are new Christians or non-Christians. I don't want these people corrupting my children with their behavior. When they get it right (that is, clean up and straighten up to my standards), then they can come and be a part of my church."
As shocking as that was to me back then, I have to hand it to the guy for at least being honest about his feelings. There are many in the church today who share that same view but who would never be willing to express it.
Instead, they make those they find despicable and beneath them feel uncomfortable in the church and, unlike the Holy Son of God who had this knack somehow of attracting unholy people to himself, they make sure that unholy people do not become interested in our little fellowships, saying "My goodness, pastor, what kind of message would that send our community?"
It is no wonder that in our community, 84 percent are not in church on any given Sunday. I am pretty certain that it is not that these people are uninterested in what we have to say; it is because we have made them feel unwelcomed in our assemblies.
It is also why, when a person like this does gather up the nerve to try to get involved or re-involved in a church, they enter our doors looking for reasons not to come back -- bet you didn't know that one, did you?
We at Gateway are in the process of trying to get this right; we want to be attractive like Jesus, not repulsive like the religious leaders of His day.
Not unpredictably there are those who are embracing this ideal and, unfortunately, there are those opposing it. It's uncomfortable to be around people who are "not like us." Here's what I know -- they will never become "like us" if we persist in keeping them from walking the journey with us.
In the case of the dishonest tax collector Matthew, Jesus did not say, "Matthew change your ways and believe, then come and follow me." Instead, to the chagrin of those who were already following, he invited Matthew to follow before Matthew even believed anything. How different from the practice of those who claim to be Christ's visible body on earth today.
Let's call people into relationship with Jesus and change is sure to follow. Let's stop calling for change before they can have relationship with Jesus.
Dr. John Pearrell is pastor of Gateway Community Church in Covington. For more information, visit the Gateway website at www.gatewaycommunity.org.