Then it happened that as Jesus was reclining at the table in the house, behold, many tax collectors and sinners came and were dining with Jesus and His disciples. When the Pharisees saw this, they said to His disciples, “Why is your Teacher eating with the tax collectors and sinners?” But when Jesus heard this, He said, “It is not those who are healthy who need a physician, but those who are sick. “But go and learn what this means: ‘I desire mercy, and not sacrifice,’ for I did not come to call the righteous, but sinners.” Matt. 9:10-13
Have you ever thought about how the Pharisees of Jesus’ day became the way they were? Do you ever think there was a time when faith in God was more than just a religious code that they set out to perfect? I’ve thought about that this week because I don’t want to ever allow myself to go there. It’s clear that these Pharisees thought it was ridiculous that Jesus spent time with these known sinners, yet spent little time with them, the creme de la creme of the religious world. If Jesus came to your town, would you expect him to stop at the biggest church first or perhaps the church that saw itself as the most spiritual? Who exactly do we think we are?
This attitude is what Jesus was trying to warn these Pharisees about in this passage. The Pharisees had made a science of righteousness, ceremonial and legalistic righteousness, that is. As Jesus told them at another time, you legalistically tithe on even the spices and herbs from your garden, but you neglect justice and loving God. How can this be? So, Jesus tells them to look into something God said through the prophet Hosea, “I desire mercy, not sacrifice.”
I’m certain this was not a pleasant thing for these Pharisees to hear, though it was very needful. These tax collectors and sinners knew that they were in need of the mercy of God. The Pharisees believed themselves to be deserving of the attention of God. Can you see the extreme danger that is found in this attitude? And can you, like me, see the need to continually crucify in ourselves this attitude of self-righteousness?
God’s desire is to grant mercy. Those who recognize their desperate need for God are the ones in whom God will do His work. (By the way, ALL of us fit into this category, but we don’t all recognize it) God isn’t interested in our “sacrifice,” or our religious offerings. God isn’t interested in how well we can perform rites and rituals. God isn’t interested in how well we can keep the rules. I’m certain He desires obedience from His children, but obedience is not the entrance into His Kingdom. Only through God’s mercy can we enter the Kingdom.
Jesus made it even clearer when He said that He did not come to call the righteous, but sinners. So, was He saying that the Pharisees were righteous already? Not at all. He meant that He had not come to call those who were righteous in their own opinion or in the opinion of the public. This is what Jesus was teaching about in Matthew 6 when he encouraged private devotion rather than public and condemned hypocrisy. Instead of coming to call those who already think themselves righteous, Jesus came to call those who think of themselves as sinners. It reminds me of the parable Jesus told in Luke 18 where the man who was justified prayed, “Have mercy on me, the sinner.” This is the contrite and repentant attitude of a person whom Jesus will call to Himself. May God keep us from ever thinking ourselves deserving attention more than needing mercy.
D. Courtney Hill