Scripture: As Jesus passed on from there, he saw a man called Matthew sitting at the tax booth, and he said to him, “Follow me.” And he rose and followed him. And as Jesus reclined at table in the house, behold, many tax collectors and sinners came and were reclining with Jesus and his disciples. And when the Pharisees saw this, they said to his disciples, “Why does your teacher eat with tax collectors and sinners?” But when he heard it, he said, “Those who are well have no need of a physician, but those who are sick. Go and learn what this means: I desire mercy, and not sacrifice.’ For I came not to call the righteous, but sinners.” Matthew 9:9-13 ESV
Observation: Having compiled a series of stories that reveal Jesus as the Messianic healer, Matthew now turns our attention to the invitation for any of us, regardless of our vocation or reputation, to follow Christ. So he humbly cites his calling as an example.
Like the four fishermen (Peter, Andrew, James, and John), Matthew unhesitantly responds and is so chuffed with the invite that he hosts a dinner party of like-minded friends with Jesus as the honored guest. But when the Pharisees spy on the celebration, they pull Jesus’ disciples aside and question their teacher’s judgment. Presumptuously, they judge Jesus in violation of their interpretation of the law regarding ceremonial cleanliness, for they deemed tax collectors (even Jewish) unclean since they conducted business with Gentiles and worked on the Sabbath.
But when Jesus overhears their conversation, he responds graciously (likely for the sake of Matthew’s guests) and declares that his mission is to call sinners—not those (who presume to be) righteous. Additionally, he challenges the Pharisees to consider what their God means by “I desire mercy, and not sacrifice,” quoting the first half of Hosea 6:6.
Takeaway: Given the Pharisees’ familiarity with the law and the prophets, these learned religious leaders would know the rest of the prophecy of Hosea 6:6, “the knowledge of God rather than burnt offerings” (ESV), and its context. Hosea spoke these words against an apostate Israel. Hence, the Pharisees would not miss Jesus’ innuendo and would likely take offense (marking another strike against this supposed rogue teacher and rabble-rouser). But what does Jesus mean by the “righteous”? Implicitly, Jews would apply this word to obedience to God’s laws. But it entails more; the Lord applies this term to their earliest patriarch, Abraham, regarding his faith (Genesis 15:6).
Indeed, Jesus later confronts the Pharisees for misconstruing and superficially obeying God’s laws while their hearts are far from him (lacking faith). In particular, in chapter 15, Jesus calls the Pharisees hypocrites for manipulating the law regarding permitting dedicated gifts that violate honoring parents. Hence, he quotes Isaiah 29:13, “This people honors me with their lips, but their heart is far from me; in vain do they worship me, teaching as doctrines the commandments of men” (Matthew 15:8-9 ESV).
So what is our takeaway? On the cautionary side, we need to remain teachable and not become set in our interpretation and application of Scripture. Whether we lean toward license (revising God’s Word to support our affinities or appease cultural trends) or toward legalism (applying the Scripture in dogmatic ways that show a lack of understanding of God’s grace and mercy), we place ourselves above Scripture rather than under it. When we do, we rely on ourselves rather than the leading of the Holy Spirit (an act of faithlessness).
On the affirming side, Jesus calls all who know they need a Savior, who are aware of their sinful hearts and earnestly yearn to become righteous before God. And the good news is that he has become our righteousness. Through his life, death, and resurrection, he has paid the penalty for our sins and has covered us with his blood so that the Father no longer sees us as “unclean” sinners. Our part? Like Abraham, believe: appropriate the gift of faith in our loving and merciful Father and Son and continue to walk by faith, relying on the Holy Spirit to guide us in obedience to their commands. And Christ will come and sup with us.
Prayer: Father God, time and again, you show us your loving mercy and grace, foremost in the life, death, and resurrection of your Son. And you continue to do so through the sanctifying work of your Holy Spirit. So would you please help us submit to your Holy Spirit, walking by faith in obedience to you and your Son? Amen.
Rev. Gordon Green, M.Div., M.A. Counseling