In this section of Matthew we begin to see a further expansion of Jesus’ work where he begins working not with just healing the sick, but teaching and healing sinners. When Jesus had begun his ministry he was called to account for his actions on many occasions by the scribes, Pharisees and the religious people of the day. They judged Jesus for the way he conducted himself and the things he did. On each occasion Jesus pointed out to them why he did what he did, and at the same time it showed up their hypocrisy, which is in part why they both hated and feared him.
On this occasion we see the call of Matthew who was a tax collector. Tax collectors of the day were a much disliked people for often they extorted and defrauded the people taking more than they should have. And nobody likes to pay taxes…even today. But Jesus did the contrary thing by going with the tax collectors and eating with them and other sinners. He often kept company with these kinds of people who were considered sinners and thus looked down upon by the religious people of the time.
But when questioned about this Jesus made the point saying, “Those who are well have no need of a physician, but those who are sick.” These people were “sick” but not from illness and diseases, but from sin. They were not necessarily physically ill, but were suffering the effects of sin in their lives. Jesus was teaching that they needed to be “healed” of their sin as he had previously healed those who had physical ailments and infirmities. So in his response to the Pharisees he was saying that in order to heal and release the sinners, he needed to be with the sinners. He needed to go to the sinners so that they could hear his words and learn what was needed so they could be released from their sin. As an example, you cannot catch fish if you don’t go to the water, you cannot buy food if you don’t go to a shop or a market, and Jesus could not heal the sinners unless he went to them and they could receive his healing words.
The Pharisees on the other hand had no desire to even associate with the sinners. They felt they were a cut above the sinners and that the sinners were a low-class citizen, unworthy of their attention or presence. Their attitudes showed prejudice and pride, whereas Jesus showed no bias and humility. Yet these same Pharisees who were the keepers of the laws of God and responsible for teaching the law given to Moses, rejected that same law in their actions and attitudes. Thus they were so often called hypocrites by Jesus for in their hypocrisy they denied the very teachings and attention the sinners needed to be lifted up from their sins. They chose rather to condemn than to build up. They used the law as a weapon against the people rather than a tool of education so that the people could learn and understand the wisdom of the laws of God.
Jesus did the opposite to the Pharisees. He came and taught the people words of truth, and gave them an even better way forward than existed in the law. For Jesus did not just teach the people about the law, but taught them about repentance and the ways that would lead to life and God’s kingdom. And as he said, Jesus came to call not the righteous, but to call the sinners. His purpose was not to just come and spend time with those who were already righteous, but to seek out those who had need of righteousness and who were burdened with sin so that he could proclaim release and take away their burdens.
Finally Jesus pointed to the Pharisees the way they needed to go forward saying, “Go and learn what this means, I desire mercy and not sacrifice.” Under the law the Pharisees condemned the people for their sin. There was forgiveness of sin under the law through the process of the sacrificial offerings, but Jesus was saying that this was not what he nor God were seeking. Instead they were seeking mercy and came to give mercy to the people so they could be released from sin. God did not want burnt offerings continually from the people as a means of seeking forgiveness from sin. He wanted the people not to sin. He wanted the people to learn to live lives free from sin and to worship God. He wanted them to live with humility towards each other and in harmony with one another doing what was good and right. He did not want them to think they could do as they pleased and then come and offer their sacrifices and sin offerings as tokens of forgiveness. No, he wanted them to live “right” lives in full observance of all that is good, honourable and pleasing to God and not to please themselves.
Jesus came amongst other things to proclaim and teach the process of mercy. The Pharisees were teaching condemnation and damning the people under the law. But mercy overlooks the faults of others and recognises that as they have faults, so too do we. Mercy does not stand above people, overbearing and condemning, but it encourages and teaches people about what is good and right and true. Mercy is compassionate and loving. Condemnation is judgemental and places barriers between people. Jesus came to take away the barriers of condemnation through giving us his mercy by the grace of God, and it is only in God’s merciful grace that we can stand.