Most people would agree that who you socialize with is important and says something about you. For instance, parents want their children to hang out with other kids who will have a good influence on them. But although we understand the potential pitfalls of being negatively influenced by others, as Christians we’re also taught to connect with others so we can make a positive impact on them by our words and actions.
During His ministry Jesus modeled the practice of interacting with others, primarily by eating with them. And because He regularly spent time with those who were not considered respectable by the Jewish religious establishment, He was criticized and questioned by the religious leaders. There were several groups of religious leaders, but those who criticized Jesus most often were the Pharisees.
The specific criticism and questioning of Jesus discussed in this chapter began with the calling of Matthew, a tax-collector, to be a follower of Jesus. In reading the account it is obvious that as a tax collector, Matthew (called Levi by Luke) would not be considered a good candidate to follow Jesus.
Tax collectors were looked down on and hated for a variety of reasons. They were considered traitors because they worked for the Romans who occupied the land. In addition, they were known to be dishonest and greedy, taking as much money as they could for themselves beyond what tax was required. A window into the system is opened in John the Baptist’s reply to tax collectors in response to their question about what they should do; he says, “Don’t collect any more than you are required to” (Luke 3:13). Because of these first two factors, tax collectors did not pay much attention to the religious rules many of the Jewish people followed. We’ll say more about it later, but the pairing of “tax collectors and sinners” shows how despised they were.
For Jesus to call a man like Matthew to follow Him was totally out of the ordinary and a snub to conventional ideas of respectability. The fishermen He had called earlier (Peter, Andrew, James, and John) were not high on the social scale, but they were not as suspect and low-down as a tax collector.
Perhaps equally significant as the fact that Jesus called Matthew is that Matthew answered the call. We shouldn’t think of this as the first time Matthew had encountered Jesus. He undoubtedly knew who Jesus was and had heard Him teach before. When Jesus called he was ready. Luke tells us that Matthew “got up, left everything and followed him” (5:28). Matthew gave up a lot because tax collectors were in the upper class, but it was even more than that. One New Testament scholar notes, “We should not miss the quiet heroism involved in this. If following Jesus had not worked out for the fishermen, they could have returned to their trade without difficulty. But when Matthew walked out of his job he was through.”
After Matthew responded to Jesus’ call he hosted a dinner party for his friends, Jesus, and Jesus’ disciples. Luke’s Gospel reports, “Levi held a great banquet for Jesus at his house, and a large crowd of tax collectors and others were eating with them” (5:29). Matthew’s friends were tax collectors and sinners just like he was! Matthew’s Gospel phrases it, “many tax collectors and sinners came and ate with him [Jesus] and his disciples” (9:10).
When Jesus ate with Matthew and his friends, it prompted the Pharisees to question Jesus about hanging out with the wrong kind of people. Matthew 9:11 tells us, “When the Pharisees saw this, they asked his disciples, ‘Why does your teacher eat with tax collectors and sinners?'” Luke 5:30 says they “complained to his disciples” asking the same question. Note the Pharisees did not ask Jesus Himself, but His disciples. It makes me think the Pharisees were somewhat cowardly–a lot of critics are. To their credit, however, on other occasions the Pharisees did question Jesus directly.
However, note that the Pharisees’ question to Jesus’ disciples really wasn’t a question, but a judgement on Him. They didn’t want to know why Jesus ate with those kind of people, they wanted His disciples to know they thought it was wrong. Associating with those kind of people was bad enough, but it was altogether something else for Jesus to eat with them. Far more than today, eating with someone in the ancient world suggested tolerance and acceptance. We’ll say more about it in chapter five, but for the Pharisees eating with such people would result in ritual defilement.
“Sinners” in the gospel accounts refer to common people who for a variety of reasons did not or could not follow the elaborate religious rituals the Pharisees followed. The Pharisees scorned those who did not follow their rules and wouldn’t have anything to do with them. In the eyes of the religious leaders of Jesus’ day they were disreputable people and undesirables; what we might call “the wrong kind of people.” The Pharisees were upset that Jesus would associate with people like Matthew and his friends. They viewed it as discrediting Him as a rabbi and making Him out to be a phony. In their view, really righteous people wouldn’t do such a thing.
Matthew 9:12 notes, “On hearing this, Jesus said” and Luke 5:31 says “Jesus answered them.” And what an answer it was! He said, “It is not the healthy who need a doctor, but the sick. I have not come to call the righteous, but sinners.” Luke 5:32 adds that Jesus told them He came to call sinners “to repentance.” And Matthew 9:13 adds a challenge from Jesus citing Hosea 6:6, “But go and learn what this means: ‘I desire mercy, not sacrifice.’” This Old Testament challenge was about going beyond ceremonial obedience.
Please realize that Jesus did not deny the charge–He was eating with tax collectors and sinners. As I heard a preacher say in a Bible study many years ago, “But when you think about it, who else was there to eat with? If He ate with the Pharisees He would still be eating with sinners!” Nor did Jesus apologize; no apology was necessary. In His response Jesus used physical illness as a metaphor for spiritual need. What would be our response to a health care system where doctors would only see people who were healthy? It would be a strange system, wouldn’t it? But that is the analogy Jesus used to describe the Pharisees’ outlook on Him. They did not understand the purpose of Jesus’ coming: apparently they thought the Messiah would condemn the sinful and praise the righteous. But that is not why Jesus came. One of the reasons Jesus was so popular with sinners was that, in the words of Arron Chambers, “the judged found the Judge to be surprisingly nonjudgmental.”
In eating with these “sinners” Jesus was not approving of their sin. By His response He indicated the people He was eating with were “sick”–they were indeed “sinners.” Remember Luke’s account reports Jesus saying, “I have not come to call the righteous, but sinners to repentance” (5:32). Matthew’s account doesn’t have the same words, but they are implied and understood. From the beginning of both John the Baptist’s and Jesus’ preaching there was a call to repentance, and the point of calling sinners is not that they should remain the same, but that they may find true righteousness through faith in Jesus. Jesus accepted and welcomed sinners as they were, but He also challenged, encouraged, and empowered them to change.
Even though Jesus’ metaphor confirmed those He ate with were sinners, I do not think He was suggesting the Pharisees were righteous people who were not sick. Do you? I think rather Jesus was emphasizing that they were unaware of their condition. The Pharisees thought they had it all together and were better than everyone else. But they were not as healthy as they thought or as righteous as they appeared. And Jesus certainly was not approving of their blind self-righteousness that resulted in the harsh judgment of others.
Don’t forget the part of Jesus’ response recorded only in Matthew where He told the Pharisees, “Go and learn what this means: ‘I desire mercy, not sacrifice.’” “Go and learn” was a phrase used by teachers to send students back to the Bible to study a passage further. Imagine how taken aback the Pharisees must have been to have Jesus imply they were like first year seminary students. The point of God’s Word through the prophet Hosea is that you cannot rely on ritual only and ignore God’s internal moral desire. The Pharisees were preoccupied with external ritual purity.
What does Jesus’ response to this questioning mean to us? For one thing, we are not to be like the Pharisees. In general we are not to focus on the external to the neglect of the internal heart attitude God wants. Specifically, we are not to stay away from or shun the very people Jesus came to heal and save. If just being around sinners was the way sin was transmitted, or it degraded one’s relationship with God, Jesus would have been one of the worst sinners of all and not very pleasing to God. The Pharisees could only see the failures of sinners, but Jesus saw their need and wanted to help them. We might ask ourselves if we have isolated ourselves from the people Jesus has called us to reach out to. Are we afraid of those who don’t believe as we do, or who hold a political opinion different from ours, or who don’t carry out their faith as we do? If we are, we have missed the point of Jesus’ coming.
We are not to be like the Pharisees; we are to be like Jesus. He did not look down on and separate Himself from those who weren’t religious. Just as Jesus came to call sinners, He sends Christians today to witness for Him. He gives us the same commission He gave His closest followers after His resurrection: “As the Father has sent me, I am sending you” (John 20:21). In terms of His teaching in the Sermon on the Mount Jesus calls us to be both salt and light (Mathew 5:13-16). And we can only do what He has asked us to do by being in contact with those we are commissioned to influence. We have to be in the world so we can connect and build bridges of friendship with those who need a “doctor.” We cannot look down on those who need the Lord and come across as though we have it all together and are better than they are. The reason people like Matthew and his friends were attracted to Jesus is because of the way He saw them and treated them. He saw their potential.
You and I are sinners called by Jesus to follow Him. He can only help us if we acknowledge our need and admit we are sick and need a doctor. And admitting our need is not something that happens only at the beginning of the Christian life. Nor is repenting of our sin something that happens only at the beginning of our walk with Jesus. Since we will never reach perfection, we will always need Jesus and need to regularly repent of our sins.
Of all the designations given to Jesus, none is more attractive than the label His enemies gave Him—that He was “a friend of tax collectors and sinners” (Matthew 11:19 and Luke 7:14). Aren’t you glad Jesus is a friend of sinners? Aren’t you glad He is your friend? Jesus is still calling people to follow Him today—unlikely candidates like Matthew and sinners like you and me. And people are still responding to follow Him. We call them Christians.
(This post is adapted from Chapter Three, How Can You Welcome those Kind of People?, of my book Questioning Jesus: Considering His Responses.)
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