WHERE THE NEED IS GREATEST
Jesus was sitting at a meal in Levi’s house, and many tax-collectors and sinners were sitting with Jesus and his disciples, for there were many of them, and they sought his company. When the experts in the law, who belonged to the school of the Pharisees, saw that he was eating in the company of sinners and tax-gatherers, they began to say to his disciples, “It is with tax-collectors and sinners that he is eating and drinking.” Jesus heard them. “It is not those who are in good health who need a doctor,” he said, “but those who are ill. I did not come to bring an invitation to people who think that they have no faults but to those who know that they are sinners.”
Once again Jesus is flinging down the gauntlet of defiance.
When Matthew had yielded himself to Jesus, he invited him to his house. Naturally, having discovered Jesus for himself, he wished his friends to share his great discovery–and his friends were like himself. It could not be any other way. Matthew had chosen a job which cut him off from the society of all respectable and orthodox people, and he had to find his friends among outcasts like himself. Jesus gladly accepted that invitation; and these outcasts of society sought his company.
Nothing could better show the difference between Jesus and the Scribes and Pharisees and orthodox good people of the day. They were not the kind of people whose company a sinner would have sought. He would have been looked at with bleak condemnation and arrogant superiority. He would have been frozen out of such company even before he had entered it.
A clear distinction was drawn between those who kept the law and those whom they called the people of the land. The people of the land were the common mob who did not observe all the rules and the regulations of conventional Pharisaic piety. By the orthodox it was forbidden to have anything to do with these people. The strict law-keeper must have no fellowship with them at all. He must not talk with them nor go on a journey with them; as far as possible, he must not even do business with them; to marry a daughter to one of them was as bad as giving her over to a wild beast; above all, he must not accept hospitality from or give hospitality to such a person. By going to Matthew’s house and sitting at his table and companying with his friends Jesus was defying the orthodox conventions of his day.
We need not for a moment suppose that all these people were sinners in the moral sense of the term. The word sinner (hamartolos, GSN0268) had a double significance. It did mean a man who broke the moral law; but it also meant a man who did not observe the scribal law. The man who committed adultery and the man who ate pork were both sinners; the man who was guilty of theft and murder and the man who did not wash his hands the required number of times and in the required way before he ate were both sinners. These guests of Matthew no doubt included many who had broken the moral law and played fast and loose with life; but no doubt they also included many whose only sin was that they did not observe the scribal rules and regulations.
When Jesus was taxed with this shocking conduct his answer was quite simple. “A doctor,” he said “goes where he is needed. People in good health do not need him; sick people do; I am doing just the same; I am going to those who are sick in soul and who need me most.”
Mk. 2:17 is a highly concentrated verse. It sounds at first hearing as if Jesus had no use for good people. But the point of it is that the one person for whom Jesus can do nothing is the person who thinks himself so good that he does not need anything done for him; and the one person for whom Jesus can do everything is the person who is a sinner and knows it and who longs in his heart for a cure. To have no sense of need is to have erected a barrier between us and Jesus; to have a sense of need is to possess the passport to his presence.
The attitude of the orthodox Jews to the sinner was really compounded of two things.
(i) It was compounded of contempt. “The ignorant man,” said the Rabbis, “can never be pious.” Heraclitus, the Greek philosopher, was an arrogant aristocrat. One called Scythinus undertook to put his discourses into verse so that ordinary unlettered folk might read and understand them. The reaction of Heraclitus was put into an epigram. “Heraclitus am I. Why do ye drag me up and down, ye illiterate? It was not for you I toiled, but for such as understand me. One man in my sight is a match for thirty thousand, but the countless hosts do not make a single one.” For the mob he had nothing but contempt. The Scribes and Pharisees despised the common man; Jesus loved him. The Scribes and Pharisees stood on their little eminence of formal piety and looked down on the sinner; Jesus came and sat beside him, and by sitting beside him lifted him up.
(ii) It was compounded of fear. The orthodox were afraid of the contagion of the sinner; they were afraid that they might be infected with sin. They were like a doctor who would refuse to attend a case of infectious illness lest he himself contracted it. Jesus was the one who forgot himself in a great desire to save others. C. T. Studd, great missionary of Christ, had four lines of doggerel that he loved to quote:
“Some want to live within the sound Of Church or Chapel bell; I want to run a rescue shop Within a yard of hell.”
The man with contempt and fear in his heart can never be a fisher of men.
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