Truly Pharisaical: Interpreting Matthew 9:10-13

28 Jan

Matthew 9:10-13 reads as follows:

And as Jesus reclined at table in the house, behold, many tax collectors and sinners came and were reclining with Jesus and his disciples.  And when the Pharisees saw this, they said to his disciples, “Why does your teacher eat with tax collectors and sinners?”  But when he heard it, he said, “Those who are well have no need of a physician, but those who are sick.  Go and learn what this means, ‘I desire mercy, and not sacrifice.’  For I came not to call the righteous, but sinners.”

So what should we take away from this?

Some would say that this passage is a rebuke of modern day legalistic Christian conservatives, who cry out against a host of sins and refuse to accept them as good and/or right.  Jesus was a friend of the outcasts, the tax collectors, and sinners, and rebuked and rejected the religious men of the day.  It doesn’t matter what one does so much as one is merciful and loving towards all people.

And while it is true that Jesus did embrace outcasts, tax collectors, and sinners, the modern interpretation which takes aim at “legalistic Christian conservatives” is misguided.  Those who accept this interpretation miss the true point of the passage: Jesus came to call sick sinners.  

You see, Jesus’ entire ministry was about calling sick sinners to himself to be forgiven of their sins and made new in Him.  And while it is true that the Pharisees sought to adhere to the law in an effort to earn the favor of God (Covenant of Works), it was not for their law-keeping that Jesus rebukes/rejects them here.  He does so because they did not see themselves as sinners. 

Many overlook the fact that just because Jesus spent time with tax collectors and sinners did not mean that he did not view them as sinners.  In fact, he calls them both sick and sinners in this passage.  And this not only makes them prime candidates for the temporal love and mercy of Jesus, manifested in his reclining with them at table, but also for his eternal love and mercy of the atonement.  Sinners are in need of forgiveness and new life.

Many also overlook the fact that Jesus was a advocate of the Law.  He says in the Sermon on the Mount that he did not come to abolish the Law, but rather to fulfill it. The reason he did not abolish the Law: Because it was a good thing when properly understood.  The Law was to guide the people in holiness, love, and witness to the nations around them.  The people of Israel would live differently than the people in the rest of nations around them.  They would see their need for the grace of God, and rejoice in his forgiveness as pictured in the sacrificial system (a system which pointed ahead to the final sacrificial work of Jesus for man’s sin).  This would flow out in love towards one another, justice for all people, and in an embracing of the foreigner.

True Pharisaism is not a desire to keep the law.  A desire to keep the Law is a good thing when its understood rightly.  It is a guide for life, not a means of salvation.  No one can be saved by the Law, because all have sinned and fall short of its requirements.  And yet, the Pharisees thought they were righteous and deserving of God’s blessing based upon their adherence to the letter of the Law.  But they missed the point: It was supposed to show them their sinfulness and need for Jesus, the Savior and fulfiller of the Law on behalf of man (Covenant of Grace).  Not only this, but in their adherence to the letter of the Law, they failed to do the acts of love and mercy that flow out from true obedience to the Law.

So, to be truly pharisaical is to be blind to one’s sin.  It is a rejection of the fact that we are all sinners, all sick, all in need of the grace of God revealed in Christ Jesus.  Both the conservative and liberal Christian is guilty of this.  The conservative is guilty when his calling out of the sins of others comes at the expense of forgetting his own sinfulness (hypocrisy and lovelessness).  And the liberal is guilty by his vehement denial of the sinfulness of various beliefs, behaviors, and practices (typically done by downplaying the authority of Scripture, bad hermeneutics, or citing cultural change).

But praise God for Christ!  Though we are all guilty of pharisaism–guilty of being sinners–Christ came to save us! He came to save sick, sinful people, unite them to himself and make them truly righteous.  And in this way, we might be enabled to live lives of love and mercy towards others in the power of the Spirit.  Amen.



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