Ancient tradition tells us that Luke, the author of the third Gospel, was a physician. In fact, Luke does use medical terms in describing various healings and cures by Jesus. But another reason that gives credence to that tradition is that Luke seems to express a deep understanding of humanity and the human condition. His stories touch the very heart of human experience, and the incident Luke relates in Chapter 13 is a good example. This chapter has been called by some scholars “a Gospel within a Gospel” and is made up of three beautiful parables: the good shepherd, the woman who loses her valuable coin and, the most famous story, the prodigal son.
But this chapter opens with a statement in verse 1 that has to touch the heart of any person who knows the experience of sin. No exceptions here! “Tax collectors and sinners were all drawing near to Jesus.” In another part of Luke’s Gospel, he describes the people practically crawling over each other to get close to Jesus. What a powerful image that is!
As I read this scene, I sat back (and invite you to do the same) and tried to imagine the “look” on Jesus’ face that attracted these sinners and tax collectors. Have you ever seen a person’s face light up when he meets a friend or a loved one after spotting that person from a distance? What happens? The eyes open up in a kind of pleasant surprise. That person gives his full attention to that beloved friend or loved one. I let my imagination go and I discovered that I could picture Jesus with that wonderful expression.
It was just as easy to see the expressions on the faces of the sinners and tax collectors. They were drawn to Jesus. That’s a beautiful word—“drawn.” We know the feeling we get when a new mother brings in her baby for people to see. Talk about being drawn! We can’t stay away. Jesus was drawn as much to the sinners and tax collectors as they were to him. It had to be such a friendly and welcoming gathering. In other words, Jesus and the sinners were friends. Jesus was someone who touched their lives in such a different way from the manner in which they had been treated by others.
The religious leaders had an expression for the sinners and tax collectors. These people were called “people of the land.” It sounds rather innocuous, but it was just the opposite. It meant that they did not dwell in the “land of God.” They were foreigners to God and unwelcomed. These were people you did not associate with or trust—outsiders religiously and socially.
You’ll notice what effect this had on the Pharisees as they watched this scene, probably with glee. Why? Because Jesus was proving one again he was not in the class of true religious people. After all, Jesus touched them in greeting; worse, he even ate with them. Imagine sticking his hands into the same bowl (which is the way people ate in those days). He touched their sinful hands in the food bowl—it couldn’t be avoided. And, on top of it all, he called them friends.
The Pharisees and scribes were fit to be tied. They complained heartily. They were the examples for people to follow, not Jesus.
Luke catches the humanity of all these people, and even of Jesus’ own appearance. That look on his face—what a wonderful sight that must have been. No wonder they were drawn to Jesus. He loved them! They were his brothers and sisters. Touching them did not make Jesus ritually unclean. Actually, it was healing for those who felt Jesus’ touch.
The Gospels are filled with great, marvelous and mysterious teachings. Jesus’ long and dramatic Last Supper is just one example. But the Gospels, especially Luke’s, shows us so much of the humanness of Jesus. It is a shame for us to miss that. But even in our lives, when we receive the Eucharist, for all it’s wonderful mystery, it is still the same (though glorified) Jesus who smiles and who is thrilled to welcome sinners into his presence.
Imagine the face of Jesus as he gave the widow of Naim her son back after he had just brought him back to life. When we receive the Sacrament of Reconciliation, imagine the face of Jesus looking into your eyes and heart and welcoming you with open arms. It is really him. We need never be afraid.