As always what is at issue is not “religion,” but Jesus himself and how we respond to him. Jesus’ problem with the Pharisees was not that they were religious. The issue was, they did not think they needed him. They were satisfied with themselves as they were. They weren’t willing to admit their need for grace, nor were they willing to humbly follow Jesus Christ. You can be a self-righteous Pharisee, and think you don’t need Jesus. You can be an obvious sinner, and still think you don’t need Jesus. Either way, it’s the same thing, and it’s a tragic thing.
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Matthew #31 Chapter 9:9-17
As Jesus went on from there, He saw a man named Matthew sitting at the tax office, and He said to him, “Follow Me! ” So he got up and followed Him.
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.”
Then John’s disciples came to Him, saying, “Why do we and the Pharisees fast often, but Your disciples do not fast? ”
Jesus said to them, “Can the wedding guests be sad while the groom is with them? The time will come when the groom will be taken away from them, and then they will fast. No one patches an old garment with unshrunk cloth, because the patch pulls away from the garment and makes the tear worse. And no one puts new wine into old wineskins. Otherwise, the skins burst, the wine spills out, and the skins are ruined. But they put new wine into fresh wineskins, and both are preserved.” (Matt 9:9-17, HCSB)
Matthew records that Jesus came to him when he was a tax collector. In this incident, Mark and Luke call the same individual “Levi.” However, later on, when the twelve special apostles of Jesus are named, Luke and Mark use the name “Matthew” and mention no one named Levi. The obvious solution to this puzzle is that just as the apostle Peter once was called Simon, and Paul was once Saul, before he was changed by Jesus, Matthew was known as Levi. Matthew himself, feels the change is so profound that he does not even refer to his old name in the telling. He is fully convinced that he is not the old person, Levi, but rather the new person, saved and changed by Jesus Christ. He isn’t who he used to be. He is done with his former way of life.
What was his former way of life? Well, Matthew/Levi was a tax collector. The Romans controlled Judea and Galilee and the whole region, and they required taxes from it to run their empire. They used underlings who were not Jewish to help them – these underlings were the Idumean people, the most famous of whom was Herod the Great. The Idumeans owed the Romans the taxes for the region, and they also collected their own taxes to run the provinces and also to enrich themselves. The Idumeans, in turn, left the dirty work of actually collecting the taxes to traitorous, unscrupulous Jews, who willingly cooperated with these foreign oppressors because they could get rich doing so. Matthew was one such person.
Basically, the way it worked was this. Matthew was given an amount that he needed to collect to satisfy his Idumean masters (who in turn, also had to satisfy the Romans). But Matthew could collect any amount he wanted. In other words, suppose his masters needed a thousand dollars from each family. Matthew could charge a family $1500, give the Idumeans the $1000 and pocket the $500 for himself, and go on to the next family and do the same thing. So he was a traitor, because he worked to support the foreign oppressors, and he was a parasite, even a thief, because using his position, he took whatever he thought he could get from his fellow countrymen. If anyone objected to what he was collecting in taxes, he simply whistled for the soldiers, and the person who refused to pay was beaten and imprisoned, and the tax was forcibly taken anyway.
Not to belabor the point, but Matthew was not “good people.” He was a quisling and a snake. People looked at him the way you and I might view a pimp, or an organized-crime boss. He might have money, but it was the kind of money no good citizen would touch. Respectable folks did not hang around with people like Matthew.
We have to understand this, because it was shocking – scandalous, even, that Jesus, a godly Jewish Rabbi, would invite Matthew into his core group. It was even more shocking that right afterwards, Jesus went to Matthew’s house for dinner, and Matthew invited such friends as he had – none of which were good people, because good people wouldn’t hang around with Matthew. So use your imagination to recreate the picture. Jesus is at the house of a local organized crime boss. Next to him on one side is a drug dealer. Two places away is a pimp. Across the table from Jesus is a guy who makes his living breaking the legs of people who don’t cooperate, and he’s in the middle of a discussion with a hit man. The meal is being served by hookers.
If this makes you uncomfortable, then you are getting a sense of why the Pharisees reacted the way they did. They ask him why he’s hanging out with such people. It’s not an unreasonable question. Jesus says, basically, “I’m here for sick, not the healthy.”
It’s easy to mis-apply the words of Jesus here, so pay attention. What Jesus basically means by his words is, he is seeking people who need him, and who know it. Some people mistakenly claim that Jesus prefers blatant sinners to religious people. But Jesus’ problem was not with the fact that the Pharisees were religious. The issue was, they did not think they needed him. They were satisfied with themselves as they were. They weren’t willing to admit their need for grace, nor were they willing to humbly follow Jesus Christ.
Applying this to today, a “Pharisee” may or may not be religious, but the defining characteristic is that such a person does not truly, in his honest heart, admit that he needs forgiveness, grace or Jesus. So today, like back then, you find some “Pharisee-types” in churches. These people are concerned with the form of religion, but their hearts are not humbly surrendered to Jesus. They have never truly acknowledged that they need him.
Surprisingly, you can also find many “Pharisees” who never go to church, and who sin blatantly. They are Pharisees not because they are religious (they aren’t) but because they don’t think they need Jesus, or they aren’t willing to follow him. They may admit (even somewhat cheerfully) that they are sinners. But obviously, they don’t take it seriously, and they refuse to humbly receive the grace that Jesus offers them and to follow him.
You can be a self-righteous Pharisee, and think you don’t need Jesus. You can be an obvious sinner, and think you don’t need Jesus. Either way, it’s the same thing, and it’s a bad thing. As always what is at issue is not “religion,” but Jesus himself and how we respond to him.
There is no doubt that in the church we still have some people who look down upon those who are caught in overt sin. Jesus’ words should speak to us. He came precisely for everyone who knows they need him and want him. We have no right to reject, or look down upon, anyone who wants Jesus and is willing to take him on Jesus’ own terms. He says, “I’m here for those who know they need me, who want me, who know the desperation of their situation without me.” Matthew was precisely one such person and that is why Jesus called him. We can assume that Jesus was hoping to find other people like him at the dinner party in Matthew’s house. By all accounts he did.
Jesus was not affirming the sin of the sinners. But he was also not affirming the self-righteousness or prudishness of the Pharisees. As Christians, it is good for us to follow in the footsteps of Jesus and welcome sinners who want him. We shouldn’t exclude anyone, no matter what they have done, no matter how bad they are. Jesus makes it very clear: his mission is to call sinners to repentance and faith in Him. Our mission should be the same.
It is also true that not every sinner wants Jesus. And I think it is a mistake to affirm people who are not interested in repentance or in following Jesus. We are not doing them a favor if we give them the impression that a sinful lifestyle is okay. Part of the proof of this is that Matthew’s own lifestyle changed radically. Matthew left his position as a tax collector. He gave up cooperating with the foreign authorities and he gave up vast wealth to follow Jesus. The same is true of other sinners whom Jesus encountered. For instance, Mary Magdalene, who gave up prostitution and followed Jesus, Zacchaeus, another tax collector, followed Matthew’s path, and even the thief repented as he was crucified next to Jesus.
The Pharisees were not the only people who failed to understand the mission of Jesus. The followers of John the Baptist were also puzzled. They approached the disciples and asked them why they and Jesus did not engage in fasting. What this has in common with the problem of Pharisees is that Jesus is not conforming to their expectations. The Pharisees expected Jesus to stay away from sinners. The followers of John expected Jesus to fast. Jesus did neither one.
Jesus’ reply to the followers of John is yet one more instance where he claims to be divine. His response is essentially, “Why would anyone fast when I’m here with them? The whole reason for fasting is to get close to me, and here I am!” Jesus clearly saw himself as the “bridegroom.” This picture is drawn from Jewish weddings, but basically what it means is that Jesus sees himself as the one everyone has been waiting for. Once more, this is not great moral teaching – unless it is true. Once more we are confronted with this choice: Jesus is either a megalomaniac, or God come in the flesh.
Matthew closes out this section with a comment from Jesus about patches and wineskins. Unfortunately, these days, many of us have never even patched a piece of clothing, let alone seen a wineskin or used one. We need to understand the cultural reference before we can realize what Jesus is talking about.
This was long before the invention of polyester or nylon so imagine a piece of cotton clothing. Cotton shrinks appreciably when it is washed and dried. So if you sewed a brand-new cotton patch onto a piece of clothing that had already been washed and dried, the first time you washed it after the repair, the new patch would shrink more than the fabric around it, and simply tear the shirt again.
The picture with the wineskins is similar. In those days most wine was not put into bottles like we do today. Instead, the wine was put into containers made from animal skins – basically, leather. However, the wine was not fully fermented when it was placed into the skin container. As the wine continued to ferment inside the leather container it bubbled and released gases, putting pressure on the sides of the container. If it was a fresh new wineskin, it would stretch with the expanding gases within it and continue to hold the wine securely. However, if you put new wine, not completely fermented, into an old leather skin that was already stretched out, when the gases expanded, the leather would have no more flexibility left, and it would burst.
It amounts to this: both the Pharisees and the followers of John wanted Jesus to conform to their own expectations. But Jesus was telling them “something new is happening here. You can’t contain it within the old forms of the Jewish religion. You can’t make it fit your own personal expectations.” It took a long time for both sides to realize, but this is the beginning of the split between Christianity and Judaism. Jesus was saying, “this is not the religion you have known. Something new is happening now. It will take a new approach to get the good wine I’m offering.”
So what does all this mean for us today? Have you thought of yourself as a sinner? Do you feel that you don’t deserve grace love and forgiveness? The wonderful news is that Jesus came precisely for you. His whole mission was to find people who are not perfect people, not “good” people, but rather, people who know that they need him and are willing to receive him. So receive him. There is nothing that you have done, or could have done, that puts you beyond his grace and forgiveness. He says that he came for people just like you and me.
As you receive Him, he calls you also to follow him by obeying Him, to the best of your ability. As you continue to trust Jesus, the Holy Spirit will make you more and more able follow him in obedience.
Next, I think it is important for us who have begun to follow Jesus to recognize that Jesus’ mission is to sinners. We don’t get to decide who deserves his grace. The fact is, he offers his grace to everyone: even tax collectors and prostitutes and hit-men. I believe he wants us right there beside him offering his grace to everyone. On the flipside of course, just because someone is a sinner does not mean that she automatically wants the grace that God offers to her in Jesus Christ. And it is not helpful for us to pretend that it is better to be an honest, yet unrepentant, sinner than a dishonest religious person; the truth is it is better to be neither, and instead to be a repentant Jesus follower. Even so, we Christians should not dismiss anybody out of hand. Jesus came for those who are sick, those who are sinners.
Another thing is that, like the Pharisees and John’s followers, I think we all tend to want Jesus to conform to our own personal expectations. But he has a way of bursting our paradigms like old wineskins. Are we willing for Jesus to be himself even if that turns out to be different from how we expect him to be? I think one of the biggest reasons that people reject God is because he often does not behave the way we want him to. He doesn’t always heal those we think he should heal. He doesn’t always answer prayers that we think are reasonable and even righteous. Jesus is calling us to forsake our own paradigms and accept him as he is; to follow him in trust, even when we don’t understand.
What is the Holy Spirit saying to you today?
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