Matthew 9:10-13 (NIV): “While Jesus was having dinner at Matthew’s house, many tax collectors and sinners came and ate with him and his disciples. When the Pharisees saw this, they asked his disciples, ‘Why does your teacher eat with tax collectors and sinners?’
On hearing this, Jesus said, ‘It is not the healthy who need a doctor, but the sick. But go and learn what this means: ‘I desire mercy, not sacrifice.’ For I have not come to call the righteous, but sinners, to repentance.’”
1) Don’t leave Christ’s dinner table
The first message I want to address that we can receive from this passage is one pertaining to humility. To all believers, and particularly those who have been walking with Christ for a long time: let us not forget whose table we are sitting at. The first sentence in this passage addresses the scene, and it involves Jesus eating with a bunch of sinners. The following question posed by the Pharisees asking why Jesus is eating with sinners is hilariously ironic. As believers in Christ, we were all chosen by God. I won’t dive into the enigma that is the relationship between our free will and God’s sovereignty in this blog, but I will address the reality that God reached His hand out to us first, and not the other way around. Jesus came to our door and knocked--we never left the building.
So it is in this reaching out of God’s hand that we consider this first sentence of the passage from Matthew. Since we know that we did not initiate the grace that has been given to us and that God is the first-mover per se, we know then that everyone at the table with Jesus (minus Jesus) is indeed a sinner. Therefore, considering the disciples are sitting at the table as well, they too are sinners (according to Jesus’s analogy). Along with this, the Pharisees who are criticizing Jesus are sinners as well, but Christ calls them “righteous” in a manner that’s turning the word upside-down and in opposition with the kingdom of God, to convey His point. That is the irony. Nonetheless, we can glean wisdom from this imagery of the table at which the tax collectors and the sinners are sitting, because it is by sitting at the table that they could then potentially, and truly, become righteous--in the true sense of the word.
Those who were sitting at the table with Jesus were conveying a message, simply by being present at the dinner with Christ: they are sinners. There is an honesty and openness to this message, and it is also one of humility. Though not all the people present with Christ at the dinner would remain at the table--in the figurative sense (at least, Judas)--we can see that those who followed Christ never truly left. Jesus says “For I have not come to call the righteous, but sinners, to repentance.” Therefore, if we ever think we are righteous and no longer a sinner of our own ability and power, then we are no different than the Pharisees. If Christ calls the sinners to repentance, and repentance means we receive the grace of God, why would we ever not want to receive that grace?
Does this mean we sin so that grace abounds? No, Paul answered this in Romans 6. But we also know that God opposes the proud but gives grace to the humble, so what profit is there in claiming to be righteous of our own accord? There is none, because when we start looking at the progress God has made within our inner being and fostering pride through what is not innately our doing, we begin walking a path not based in God’s truth. We should never want to leave Christ’s table.
Of course, God is Jehovah M’kkadesh, the One who sanctifies us and makes us holy, but it is not in our action of not sinning that He sanctifies us. For us to strive towards perfection of our own will leads only to exhaustion and failure; this is why in the Book of Hebrews it is written: “for the law made nothing perfect; on the other hand, there is the bringing in of a better hope, through which we draw near to God.” (Hebrews 7:19 NKJV). This “better hope” is indeed Jesus Christ, and it’s only by accepting His sacrifice and being led by the Holy Spirit that we will walk as God calls us to walk. And do we think that accepting Christ’s sacrifice is a one-time deal? Or maybe something we will do 100 times? 1000 times? If we limit God’s holiness to our own perception of what His holiness is, we will eventually come to a point where we leave Christ’s dinner table and become like the Pharisees. In this way, we must always maintain that we are sinners in need of the grace of God (which we always will be in this mortal life), and thus remain at the table with Jesus.
Let us take a look at a parable Jesus gives us to provide light to this truth. In Luke 18:10-14, Christ says:
“Two men went up to the temple to pray, one a Pharisee and the other a tax collector. The Pharisee stood up and prayed about himself: `God, I thank you that I am not like other men--robbers, evildoers, adulterers--or even like this tax collector. I fast twice a week and give a tenth of all I get.' But the tax collector stood at a distance. He would not even look up to heaven, but beat his breast and said, `God, have mercy on me, a sinner.' I tell you that this man, rather than the other, went home justified before God. For everyone who exalts himself will be humbled, and he who humbles himself will be exalted.”
No one is so pure as to have nothing to seek Christ’s help in. If that were the case, then that’d mean we all were capable of becoming Jesus--but, clearly, the gospel is entirely predicated on us receiving Christ’s sacrifice. If God brings us closer to Him through our submission and repentance, why would He ever want us to become so righteous to the point where we don’t need Him? And that is the whole point, righteousness is simply Christ’s blood flowing within us more than our own. Thus, remain at the dinner table with Jesus.
2) The Pharisees don’t ask Jesus their question
An interesting point to note within the passage from Matthew is that the Pharisees do not ask Jesus their question, but instead, ask the disciples. We see in verse 11: “And when the Pharisees saw it, they said to His disciples, “Why does your Teacher eat with tax collectors and sinners?” (Matthew 9:11 NKJV). The Pharisees, who claim to know God and represent Him, do not ask the Teacher about their question--despite the question itself being centered on Jesus--and instead ask the disciples, who--as we have discerned--are they, themselves, sinners. So, the Pharisees ask the sinners a question that is centered upon God, yet neglect to ask Jesus who is sitting at the same table--God Himself. Instead of taking their concern to Christ, the Good Teacher--which would mean they would be dealing in truth--the Pharisees took their question to the people sitting with Jesus. Why would the Pharisees not simply just ask Jesus their question? Why do many people ask all kinds of questions regarding God but never ask Him? Or, if they do ask God, why do people harden their hearts when they receive an answer they do not want?
Christ is not hiding Himself and trying to make it difficult for us to find Him. The Book of Psalms explains God’s character clearly: “The LORD is righteous in all His ways and loving toward all He has made. The LORD is near to all who call on Him, to all who call on Him in truth. He fulfills the desires of those who fear Him; He hears their cry and saves them. The LORD watches over all who love Him, but all the wicked He will destroy.” (Psalm 145:17-20 NIV). Are we calling on God for our answer, seeking truth? Or are we asking other people our questions pertaining to God, seeking justification?
By the Pharisees' actions, we can see that they were not seeking truth, but rather a reason to criticize Jesus for eating with sinners. They were looking at Jesus in judgment. And we know that Christ says, “Do not judge, or you will be judged. For with the same judgment you pronounce, you will be judged; and with the measure you use, it will be measured to you.” (Matthew 7:1-2 NKJV). Are we using righteous judgment by seeking guidance by the Holy Spirit and God’s love, or are we pronouncing judgment according to our own eyes and not asking Jesus? Let us be wise concerning this, for just as we have been given much grace, we know then that much will be required of us (Luke 12:48).
3) Jesus is the One who answers the Pharisees’ question
The last point I will address from the passage from Matthew 9 is that it is Jesus who answers the Pharisees’ question, not the disciples. This provides us with a perfect picture as to how we should address persecution (in this context, the Pharisees’ verbal attempt to dishonor Christ): let Jesus speak. Because the sinners were at the table with Jesus, they did not answer; Jesus heard the question the Pharisees’ posed: “On hearing this, Jesus said, ‘It is not the healthy who need a doctor, but the sick. But go and learn what this means: ‘I desire mercy, not sacrifice.’ For I have not come to call the righteous, but sinners, to repentance.’” When we remain humble and maintain our fear of the Lord, it keeps us at the table with Christ. And when we eat at His table, He will give the answers that the present moments in life require. In this instance, it was Christ’s rebuke against the Pharisees’ for their unrighteous judgement and lack of mercy.
Although we do not have Jesus to personally answer questions for us today, or respond to the constant occurrences of life, we do have the Holy Spirit. It is in trusting the Holy Spirit--the very power that rose Christ from the dead--that we have our answers all the same. The Word tells us, “‘Repent,’ Peter said to them, ‘and be baptized, each of you, in the name of Jesus the Messiah for the forgiveness of your sins, and you will receive the gift of the Holy Spirit’” (Acts 2:38 HCSB). When we believe in Jesus, God makes His home within our heart, this is why it is written, “Do you not know that your bodies are temples of the Holy Spirit, who is in you, whom you have received from God? You are not your own” (1 Corinthians 6:19 NIV). As followers of Christ, we are houses for the Lord; temples of the Living God. Although the context that Paul is writing in is addressing sexual immorality, the principle is still the same for this blog: the Holy Spirit dwells within us. And if the Spirit is in us, then we have to let God do the answering and not ourselves.
When we stay at the table with Christ and seek after Him--in whatever scenario we find ourselves--we submit to His leadership. And once we are submitted to Christ’s leadership, we give God the reign to answer as He sees fit. In the moment found in Matthew, it consisted of Jesus speaking an immeasurably powerful and wise word that reverberates to this day (and forevermore). That is what will happen when we allow Jesus to do His Jesus things: He will glorify Himself. And by glorifying Himself, Christ raises up those who are with Him--simply look at the disciples who remained at the table with Jesus: they changed the world. What will Christ say and do when we allow Him to speak and act through us, by the power of the Holy Spirit? Who knows what kind of miracles and blessings we will witness when we allow the God of all creation to lead us and teach us.