When Jesus Reverses the Meaning of “The Righteous” and “Sinners”

When Jesus Reverses the Meaning of “The Righteous” and “Sinners”

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As Jesus went on from there, he saw a man named Matthew sitting at the tax collector’s booth. “Follow me,” he told him, and Matthew got up and followed him.
While Jesus was having dinner at Matthew’s house, many tax collectors and sinners came and ate with him and his disciples. When the Pharisees saw this, they asked his disciples, “Why does your teacher eat with tax collectors and sinners?”
On hearing this, Jesus said, “It is not the healthy who need a doctor, but the sick. But go and learn what this means: ‘I desire mercy, not sacrifice.’ For I have not come to call the righteous, but sinners.”

(Matthew 9:9–13 NIV)

After Jesus had healed a paralyzed man, he was on the move again and spotted Matthew sitting at a tax collector’s booth. Such a profession, which entailed charging fees on goods that passed between the territories of Herod Antipas and Herod Philip,1 made Matthew an unpopular figure among many first-century Jews. Some of the money he collected in the form of taxes and levies found its way into the coffers of unpopular Roman authorities, who made sure that they got their share of the take, and still other money made it into Matthew’s own bag as a commission on what were already exorbitant fees.

With large sums of money passing through his hands, from all sorts of sources, Matthew hardly seemed to be a suitable prospect to become a disciple of Jesus. As a traveling preacher who was announcing the coming kingdom of God, Jesus often had “no place to lay his head” (Matt. 8:20b). The contrast between these two men in terms of their ­lifestyles, then, could hardly be greater. At the very least, they would likely be incompatible in terms of their desires, values, and basic goals in life. And yet in what was probably the shortest job interview ever conducted in history, Jesus simply called to Matthew, “Follow me,” and the erstwhile tax collector got up and followed Jesus immediately. Since the cost of becoming a disciple of Jesus for Matthew was severe (unlike the disciples James and John, the Zebedee brothers, Matthew would not be able to return to his profession), he likely was already familiar with the teaching, miracles, and character of Jesus well before he ever got up.

Jesus vs. The Pharisees: A Contrast

In their accounts of this same story, both the Gospels of Mark and Luke refer to “Levi son of Alphaeus” (Mark 2:14) and simply “Levi” (Luke 5:27), names that the subsequent tradition has identified as Matthew. This identification is significant because it not only reaffirms that Jesus chose his disciples from among tax collectors, but it also illuminates the contrast between Jesus, on the one hand (and his choice of both a disciple and dinner guests for the evening), and the Pharisees, on the other hand, who expressed strong disapproval on both counts. It’s a connection, a relationship between Jesus and others, that rings true and is very much a part of this larger story.

The dinner at Matthew’s house, made up of Jesus, tax collectors, and sinners, posed a number of problems for the Pharisees. In their minds the table fellowship of a shared meal implied a closeness, an intimacy, that was reserved for those who were deemed worthy enough to sit among a distinguished religious leadership who in some sense had been chosen by God. The numerous human traditions that these leaders had helped to create over the years in fact demanded it. To illustrate, tax collectors and their like were barred from the synagogues as being unfit. They were also not surprisingly excluded from the tables of religious leaders, the rabbis. Indeed, the repeated contact of tax collectors with Gentiles, through the operations of their trade, made them ceremonially unclean and therefore ill-suited to be the dinner guest of any Pharisee. So understood, the gathering at Matthew’s house was motley and disreputable. Pharisees dared not to enter such a house; otherwise, they, too, might become defiled.

Precisely because the Pharisees would not enter such a house, they posed their curious question not directly to Jesus, who was already inside, but to some of his disciples who were evidently still outside, perhaps about to make their way in: “Why does your teacher eat with tax collectors and sinners?” Behind this question was perhaps a loveless form of self-righteousness, shiny on the outside but dark within, a strain of self-love that used the forces of alienation and separation as walls to keep the proper social and religious distance in place in order that—imagine this—God might be rightly honored. In their minds at least, because Jesus had entered this den of contagion, with its tax collectors, thieves, and perhaps even a few prostitutes, he, too, had now become defiled and therefore unholy—at least in their eyes. In short, Jesus had done something that no Pharisee would ever do: he had crossed a line. He was now an outlier.

We need not be either impressed or, worse yet, misled by all of this in-group and out-group ordering, for this same pathetic and mistaken judgment plays out in numerous high schools around the world even today, although in an admittedly different fashion. That is, those who identify with social outcasts, by showing them even the first elements, the rudiments, of basic human decency, are often deemed to be outcasts as well in what some have termed a double degree of separation. Not only are the supposed pariahs of life rejected, but also those who show them any kindness or compassion are rejected as well. This is a very ugly business, and it has nothing to do with the love of God and neighbor, though when this script occasionally plays out in a religious context, ancient or modern, human tradition and social power insist that it does.

Recognizing that the Pharisees had already descended to low levels of darkness, abandoning the prudent counsels of love (and completely unaware of this, however, in their self-constructed righteousness), Jesus, as a good pastor to all, to friend and foe alike, had to act decisively in order to dispel the fog of this illusion. And that’s exactly what he did. His declaration, “It is not the healthy who need a doctor, but the sick,” probably seemed like a splash of cold water in the face of those ill-prepared to receive it. Such a statement, to change the analogy, perhaps came as a shock to those who had already divided up the world into good and evil, healthy and sick, insider and outsider, beloved and outcast. What more was there to learn? Much indeed! For the moral world that the religious leaders had constructed, which placed themselves ever at the center, proved to be a frustrating impossibility for all outsiders. How was this so? In this odd and unforgiving world, sinners such as tax collectors and prostitutes had to become righteous first in order to be accepted. The problem, however, was that such people were continually rejected, cut off from the sweet love and gentle graces of the very community in which righteousness supposedly dwelled. How, then, would they ever become righteous? The social and religious arrangements of the Pharisees, mistaken for a holy tradition, were put in place not for the welcoming of sinners but for the glorification of the Pharisees themselves. And all of this had worked remarkably well—until Jesus came along.

An Appeal to Mercy over Sacrifice

Appealing to a rabbinical sense of learning in the form of rigorous study, Jesus cautioned the Pharisees once more and urged them “to go and learn what this means,” pointing to a truth that they had obviously neglected but that had been recounted by the prophet Hosea earlier: “I desire mercy, not sacrifice.” The parallels between these two ages are strong. The quote was, therefore, perfect. In his own day, during the eight century BC, Hosea had confronted the people of Israel with a warning to repent. Indeed, many in Israel had become satisfied with their own religious rituals though these practitioners, for all their doings, remained displeasing to God. Put another way, the people whom Hosea addressed had mistaken the form of religion and external matters for the power thereof. That is, they may have been careful in the keeping of ritual precepts, but their hearts were far removed from a God of holy love. Hosea understood that. The jolt of a prophetic warning was, therefore, necessary. Jesus hoped the Pharisees would draw the parallel to their own age and get the same message.

“I have not come to call the righteous, but sinners,” was the last thing that Jesus declared in order once again to break the illusion, to dispel the mirage. In a very pastoral way, Jesus took up the self-­understanding of the Pharisees, themselves (that is, that they were supposedly righteous), and he challenged them in order that they might begin to see things in a remarkably new way. As it stood, this statement, this declaration, was indeed puzzling. After all, why wouldn’t Jesus call the righteous? Isn’t that precisely what one sent by God would do? Doesn’t God love the righteous? Doesn’t the Almighty love those who obey the law and keep the traditions? Aren’t they the people of the Most High? What’s going on here?

However, this riddle is not resolved by beginning with the observation, now in the form of a question: “Why didn’t Jesus come to call the righteous?” That’s the wrong place to start. Instead, we must begin with the statement, now, too, in the form of a question: “Why did Jesus come to call sinners?” What does this particular question reveal about both Jesus and his ministry that the other question apparently does not? The answer to this particular question will bear considerable fruit, for it will reveal new things about what it means to be righteous as well as what it means to be a sinner. In other words, Jesus did not come to call those who were righteous in their own eyes, those who were already very much self-satisfied. Who could help such a people? Who could assist those who had repeatedly refused to see their own very real need precisely because of a mistaken understanding of righteousness? Instead, Jesus came to call those who were mindful of their own sin, who were well aware of falling short of the glory of God, and who were, therefore, painfully conscious of their genuine need for redemption. In fact, that call to sinners, with its reconfiguration of some conceptions of righteousness, is an emblem of the gospel itself.

Cultural conceptions of Jesus today present a man who is virtually unrecognizable. He is not known, above all, for whom he loves or how he loves. In contrast to this misconfiguration, the Jesus of the Gospels is far more beautiful, and loves more broadly and deeply, than many have imagined. The humble, suffering love of Jesus is uncanny, radiantly beautiful, and in the end transformative. There is nothing like it across the religious landscape or current ideological offerings.

In this engaging work—Jesus the Stranger: The Man from Galilee and the Light of the World—Ken Collins invites the reader to see Jesus in a new way. One that focuses on his humanity, especially in terms of his suffering, rejection, and ostracism by numerous oppositional characters and groups drawn from the pages of the Gospels. From hometown folk to family members, from religious leaders to those who will ultimately seek his death, what emerges from this new vista is a more humane and approachable Jesus, one who can commiserate with the pain and sorrow of our own lives and one who can offer rich and abundant healing, the healing of holy love. Get it from our store here.

Perfect for:

  • Christian or non-Christian readers
  • College or student groups exploring faith
  • Book clubs or Sunday School classes
  • Lenten groups preparing for Easter

In these pages you’ll:

  • Discover a portrait of Jesus in the biblical Gospels you may have hardly known
  • Become acquainted with the profound opposition and suffering of Jesus and the ways his love conquered it all
  • Be both challenged and encouraged by the holy love of God at work in the person of Jesus