WHERE THE NEED IS GREATEST
He was sitting at table in the house, and, look you, many tax-gatherers and sinners came and sat at table with Jesus and his disciples. When the Pharisees saw this, they said to his disciples, “Why does your teacher eat with tax-gatherers and sinners?” He heard this. “Those who are well,” he said, “do not need a doctor, but those who are ill. Go and learn what the saying means: `It is mercy I wish, and not sacrifice.’ For I did not come to invite the righteous, but sinners.”
Jesus not only call Matthew to be his man and his follower; he actually sat at table with men and women like Matthew, with tax-gatherers and sinners.
A very interesting question arises here–where was this meal Jesus ate with tax-gatherers and sinners? It is only Luke who definitely says that the meal was in the house of Matthew or Levi (compare Matt. 9:10-13; Mk.2:14-17; Lk.5:27-32). As far as the narrative in Matthew and Mark goes, it could well have been in Jesus’ house, or in the house where Jesus was staying. If the meal was in Jesus’ house, Jesus’ saying becomes even more pointed. Jesus said, “I came not to call the righteous, but sinners.”
The word that is used for to call is the Greek word kalein (GSN2564), which is in fact the technical Greek word for inviting a guest to a house or to a meal. In the Parable of the Great Feast (Matt. 22:1-10; Lk.14:15-24) we well remember how the invited guests refused their invitation, and how the poor, and the lame, and the halt, and the blind were gathered together from the highways and the byways and the hedgerows to sit at the table of the King. It may well be that Jesus is saying, “When you make a feast you invite the coldly orthodox and the piously self-righteous; when I make a feast I invite those who are most conscious of their sin and those whose need of God is greatest.”
However that may be, whether this meal was in the house of Matthew or in the house where Jesus was staying, it was to the orthodox Scribes and Pharisees a most shocking proceeding. Broadly speaking, in Palestine people were divided into two sections. There were the orthodox who rigidly kept the Law in every petty detail; and there were those who did not keep its petty regulations. The second were classed as the people of the land; and it was forbidden to the orthodox to go on a journey with them, to do any business with them, to give anything to them or to receive anything from them, to entertain them as guests or to be guests in their houses. By companying with people like this Jesus was doing something which the pious people of his day would never have done.
Jesus’ defence was perfectly simple; he merely said that he went where the need was greatest. He would be a poor doctor who visited only houses where people enjoyed good health; the doctor’s place is where people are ill; it is his glory and his task to go to those who need him.
Diogenes was one of the great teachers of ancient Greece. He was a man who loved virtue, and a man with a caustic tongue. He was never tired of comparing the decadence of Athens, where he spent most of his time, with the strong simplicities of Sparta. One day someone said to him, “If you think so much of Sparta and so little of Athens, why don’t you leave Athens and go and stay in Sparta?” His answer was, “Whatever I may wish to do, I must stay where men need me most.” It was sinners who needed Jesus, and amongst sinners he would move.
When Jesus said, “I came not to call the righteous, but sinners,” we must understand what he was saying. He was not saying that there were some people who were so good that they had no need of anything which he could give; still less was he saying that he was not interested in people who were good. This is a highly compressed saying. Jesus was saying, “I did not come to invite people who are so self-satisfied that they are convinced they do not need anyone’s help; I came to invite people who are very conscious of their sin and desperately aware of their need for a saviour.” He was saying, “It is only those who know how much they need me who can accept my invitation.’
Those Scribes and Pharisees had a view of religion which is by no means dead.
(i) They were more concerned with the preservation of their own holiness than with the helping of another’s sin. They were like doctors who refused to visit the sick lest they should be injured by some infection. They shrank away in fastidious disgust from the sinner; they did not want anything to do with people like that. Essentially their religion was selfish; they were much more concerned to save their own souls than to save the souls of others. And they had forgotten that that was the surest way to lose their own souls.
(ii) They were more concerned with criticism than with encouragement. They were far more concerned to point out the faults of other people than to help them conquer these faults. When a doctor sees some particularly loathsome disease, which would turn the stomach of anyone else to look at, he is not filled with disgust; he is filled with the desire to help. Our first instinct should never be to condemn the sinner; our first instinct should be to help him.
(iii) They practiced a goodness which issued in condemnation rather than in forgiveness and in sympathy. They would rather leave a man in the gutter than give him a hand to get out of it. They were like doctors who were very much concerned to diagnose disease, but not in the least concerned to help cure it.
(iv) They practiced a religion which consisted in outward orthodoxy rather than in practical help. Jesus loved that saying from Hos.6:6 which said that God desired mercy and not sacrifice, for he quoted it more than once (compare Matt. 12:7). A man may diligently go through all the motions of orthodox piety, but if his hand is never stretched our to help the man in need, he is not a religious man.
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