In the book, The Ragamuffin Gospel, Brennan Manning tells the story of a man who had sinned greatly. His church excommunicated him, and he was forbidden to ever come into the church again. He repented. He wanted healing, so he went to the Lord, as the story goes, and said, “Lord, they won’t let me in because I am a sinner.” To which the Lord replied, “What are you complaining about, they won’t let me in either.”
The point of the modern parable was a good one: Poor sinners never fare well in churches that refuse to admit that we are all sinners and in desperate need of a salvation that is out of this world.
The Jewish Rabbinical religion of the first century offered little to ragamuffins. A religion that requires tithes to support a leadership who spend time counting how many angels could fit on the head of a pin is not an attractive message to people laden with guilt, searching for meaning and purpose in life, and trying to come to terms with the holiness of God in light of their own humanity.
Then again, religion based on what we can do to get right with God, what regulations and rules we must keep to earn God’s favor, never do. Such religion is still popular. You can gather a pretty big church if you just go around telling them they must do this and do that.
I heard of an evangelist that was speaking at a church in Minneapolis where several hundred people had gathered to hear the message. The evangelist preached that night on the Gospel of God’s free gift of eternal life in Jesus Christ. As the service ended, he heard the pastor of that church turn to his associate and say: “Humph, that airhead didn’t say one thing about what we have to do to earn our salvation!” 1
Yes, Rabbinical religion is alive and well in the 21st century . . . and sadly in many of our churches. Now that kind of religion may be good for Pharisees and self-righteous types, but it is no good for people in need. When we think about missions today, we should be thinking about reaching out with the Gospel to those in need.
The Gospel of Dr. Luke the physician smashes the idols of legalism and self-righteous religion into a million pieces. One of the ways Luke does it is by exposing us to needy characters. These needy people show us the heart of Jesus. As He welcomes them and ministers to them, we come to see the Gospel of grace incarnationally — doctrine with skin. One theologian wrote of Luke’s Gospel:
Luke, then, is preeminently the gospel of Christ’s humanity and His surpassing love and tenderness as the Son of Man.
Most of us know that things are better caught than taught. Jesus knew this was so. The Holy Spirit shows us this is so. For as the Lord unveils the story of one such needy person, Zacchaeus, and the response of Jesus to him, we come to see just what it is that Christianity is all about and what it is clearly not.