While He was reclining at the table in the house, many tax collectors and sinners came as guests to eat with Jesus and His disciples. When the Pharisees saw this, they asked His disciples, “Why does your Teacher eat with tax collectors and sinners?”
But when He heard this, He said, “Those who are well don’t need a doctor, but the sick do. Go and learn what this means: I desire mercy and not sacrifice. For I didn’t come to call the righteous, but sinners.” (Matthew 9:10-13)
Way back in Matthew 3, John the Baptist tipped us off to the role the Pharisees would play in Jesus’ story. When these religious leaders came to the Jordan where John was baptizing, he greeted them as a “brood of vipers.”
But it isn’t until here, in Matthew 9, that Jesus first clashes with this group whose name has become synonymous with self-righteousness, legalism, and hypocrisy.
They have been around the whole time, likely listening to Jesus’ teachings, watching his miracles, and trying to make up their minds about him.
Now they step forward with their minds at least partly made up: to them, Jesus’ behavior is questionable at best, damning at worst. They want to know what he’s doing and why. They go to his disciples and demand an answer.
The occasion is a dinner party at Matthew’s house. Jesus is guilty of eating with “sinners.” In answer to their question/thinly veiled accusation as to why he is doing this, Jesus tells them to “Go and learn what this means” — and then he quotes from an Old Testament prophet, Hosea, a line which they are surely familiar with:
I will have mercy, and not sacrifice.
It’s a good answer, a real zinger. It’s tempting to stop there, with admiration of Jesus’ quickness and ability to put the self-righteous in their place.
But if the Pharisees, who were devout students of the Bible and experts in the law, needed to “go and learn what this means,” we probably do too.
As usual … there is more to this story than meets the eye.
The Old Testament Roots of the Gospel
Throughout Christian history one of our great temptations has been to divorce Jesus from the Old Testament and read the gospels as though they exist in a vacuum, or worse, as though they exist within some other spiritual tradition or historical situation.
This kind of thinking is as old as Gnosticism and still crops up in all kinds of “spiritual but not religious” contexts.
But it has no warrant. The story of God in the Old Testament provides the DNA of the New: the New Covenant may be a new expression, a new generation, but it follows directly on the old.
Jesus is deeply rooted in the Old Testament, and his words and actions only make sense in light of those roots. Not only his teaching but his entire life arrived in history at a particular point in time, within a particular historical continuum, and because of this they tell a particular story and not some other.
That story is the story of the kingdom of God, and more specifically of Yahweh: the God of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob; the Great I Am of Moses; the jealous God of the law and the prophets.
It’s also the story of a specific people: of a nation chosen and fallen away, of an apostate people cursed by their own covenant — a nation who powerfully image the entire human race. To read Genesis is to know that we are all chosen, all fallen, all cursed.
Jewish History and the Pharasaic Objection
As we’ve noted, the Pharisees first take the stage in Matthew here, in chapter 9, where they raise an outcry when Jesus sits down to eat with a houseful of sinners.
It’s easy to see the Pharisees as self-righteous (which they were) or snobs (which they might have been), but it’s worth asking why they objected to Jesus’ table time with sinners — and asking the question with an open mind, seeking to understand and not just to judge.
Like Jesus, the Pharisees can’t be properly understood without some grasp of their background — where they came from, why they arose, what they were trying to accomplish.
A Brief But Critical History
The Jewish people in the time of Jesus had a long and undeniably tragic history. Their story begins with Abraham, a desert nomad chosen by God and blessed with the promise of a family and a Savior to come from that family.
It continues through Abraham’s sons Isaac and Jacob, as the chosen line is more clearly defined. Then, after Abraham’s descendants have become a nation in Egypt, God dramatically rescues them from slavery through the Exodus, declares himself their King and Savior, and makes a covenant with them.
This covenant is a formal legal document, agreed to by both parties, which places the Israelites under certain ceremonial and moral obligations, promises blessings for loyalty, and imposes sanctions (or curses) for disloyalty — for breaking the covenant.
We commonly refer to this covenant as “the law,” but that’s a tiny bit misleading. It was more than a law: it was a contract, something like a treaty between a ruler and his subjects or the marriage contract between a husband and his wife.
The covenant was detailed and laid out a whole moral fabric for the nation, but above every other command was this one:
Love the LORD your God with all your heart, with all your soul, and with all your strength … Do not have other gods besides Me. (Deuteronomy 6:5, 5:7)
The giving of the covenant is a love story, but one which quickly goes south. Even in Moses’ own time, mere hours after the covenant is ratified, the people have begun to turn away from God and worship idols.
The next thousand years are the story of a nation moving inexorably toward apostasy. Despite spikes of revival, especially in the southern kingdom of Judah, the covenant with God is never fully kept.
Over hundreds of years God sends prophet after prophet warning the people of judgment — the agreed-upon sanctions of the law — but ultimately to no avail. Idolatry persists, the people fall into sickening sin, and judgment falls.
Enter the Pharisees
Judea in Jesus’ day is on the other side of that judgment. Some 490 years earlier, the Jewish people had been exiled from their land into Babylon. Their temple and city were destroyed.
After 70 years, they returned to the land and began to rebuild Jerusalem and the temple, yet in a very real sense they were still in exile. The kingdom had never been restored to them; they were instead ruled by a succession of pagan oppressors. The priesthood was corrupt.
And there was a sense that despite the rebuilt temple, God himself was still absent. He no longer spoke. He no longer seemed to act, as he had done in their history.
The Pharisees arose in this situation, and they had an admirable goal: they wanted to do better than their ancestors had done. Recognizing the rampant corruption and unfaithfulness to God that even now existed among their people, they dedicated themselves to a stringent keeping of the law that would take the covenant seriously.
The math was fairly simple. If unfaithfulness to the covenant had brought so much disaster, lost them the throne, and driven God from their midst, then detailed faithfulness to the covenant — faithfulness to the nth degree, in the tiniest of details, in the most committed and exacting purity — could prove their repentance, restore the throne, and invite God back.
In their jot-and-tittle law-keeping, the Pharisees didn’t just see moralism. They saw the restoration of their entire nation and the fulfillment of their vocation from God.
The “Sinners” Were the Problem
To really understand this story in Matthew 9, we need to understand all of the above. And then we need to understand one more thing: The “sinners” were the problem the Pharisees were trying to fix.
As we saw last week, more than likely the “sinners” were non-observant Jews. They were Jewish people who were not faithful to the covenant, who had sided with Rome, who were profiting from the pagans and corrupting the temple.
They were exactly the kind of people whose rebellion against God had led to all this judgment, exile, and loss in the first place.
So for Jesus to embrace them, to willingly identify with them in the sharing of a meal, to enter their homes and eat their potentially unclean food was a very big deal.
To the Pharisees, it telegraphed that Jesus was not going to be on their side, that he didn’t care about covenant faithfulness, and that he would be one more bad leader taking the people of Israel deeper into apostasy.
“Go and Learn What This Means”
When the Pharisees challenged him, Jesus didn’t overexplain himself.
We should note that he didn’t argue that the “sinners” were somehow justified or righteous; actually, he called them “sick” and used the term “sinner” for them himself. He didn’t pretend their lives were okay.
Instead, he quoted from the Old Testament — from the book of Hosea, wherein a prophet marries a prostitute and enters into the pain of God’s heart over his adulterous people.
In some sense, Jesus implies, what he is doing by eating, fellowshipping, sharing life with these people, is what Hosea did when he married his promiscuous wife. He is willingly joining himself to those whose conduct is reprehensible and brings grief and agony to God’s heart.
And he’s doing it for a reason.
“Go and learn what this means,” Jesus tells the Pharisees — challenging them to go back to the Scriptures, learn that reason, and more than anything, see who Jesus himself actually is.
More on all of that next week.
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This is Part 119 in a series on the Gospel of Matthew, which you can access here. Unless otherwise marked, quotes are from the Holman Christian Standard Bible.
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