Christianity is a doing religion. We are not saved in order to become statues in a museum; rather, we are saved to become active doers of God’s will in this world (ref. James 1:22). It should be no wonder then, that our Lord so often commanded His followers to “Go!” and do something.
So far we have considered four of our Lord’s “Go!” statements, “Go be reconciled,” “Go in peace,” “Go and tell” and “Go and surrender.” In today’s lesson we will explore the application of Jesus’ command, “Go and Learn” from the call of Matthew in Matthew 9:9-13.
Our passage begins with Jesus leaving His town of Capernaum and walking along the Sea of Galilee teaching the large crowds that flocked to Him. It is there, “He saw a man called Matthew sitting at the tax booth, and He said to him, ‘Follow me.” And he rose and followed Him” (v. 9).
Regarded by his fellow Jews as a traitor for collaborating with the occupying force, Matthew was a social outcast. Moreover, because of his constant contact with Gentiles, he was considered ceremonially unclean by the religious elite. Additionally, many tax collectors had a reputation of being unscrupulous, often lumped together with “sinners” in general. Thus, as we will see, Jesus’ call of Matthew was unorthodox indeed and a snub at conventional ideas of religious respectability. However, Matthew’s call, and the subsequent feasting with sinners, illustrates for us the hope Christ offers to the outcast of society; a hope that we should share with others.
Following his call, Matthew gave a large banquet at his house (cf. Luke 5:29). Overjoyed by the Messiah’s invitation, his immediate response was to invite others to meet Jesus. Word about the impromptu banquet must have spread quickly since “many tax collectors and sinners” came and recline at table “with Jesus and His disciples” (v. 10).
“Sinners” was a pejorative term used by the holier-than-thou-religious-elites to describe the irreligious, those thought guilty of flagrant moral offenses or those lax in observing rabbinic traditions. Nevertheless, because Jesus welcomed them, they flocked to Him to hear and receive the gospel (ref. Matthew 11:19; 21:31-32; Luke 15:1; 19:2-10).
On the other hand, the Pharisees avoided such people and believed any self-respecting Jew, especially a respected teacher, should do the same; believing that eating with such people was tantamount to endorsing their sins (cf. Luke 15:2; 1 Corinthians 5:11).
While present at the dinner, but not a part of it, the Pharisees smugly questioned the disciples, “Why does your teacher eat with tax collectors and sinners?” (v. 11). The phrase, “your teacher” drips with sarcasm. You can almost hear them say to the disciples, “What sort of teacher behaves like this. You know fellas, birds of a feather flock together and you don’t want to be known as a friend to sinners do you?”
Overhearing the exchange, our Lord responded in the form of a well known proverb of the time, “Those who are well have no need of a physician, but those who are sick” (v. 12). Jesus used wellness / physician / illness as a metaphor for spiritual needs. The point then is obvious; any effective “physician” must be expected to be among the “sick.” The Pharisees thought they were “well,” spiritually speaking; therefore they had no need for Jesus. However, the outcasts were not spiritually well but “sick.” Thus, Jesus, as the great physician, got close to His patients in order to heal them, not as they implied, participate in, or condone, their sins.
Continuing His explanation Jesus said, “Go and learn what this means, ‘I desire mercy, and not sacrifice.’ For I came not to call the righteous, but sinners” (v. 13). “Go and learn…” was commonly used as a rebuke for those who did not know something they should have known. The passage cited by our Lord is Hosea 6:6 which challenged the people’s reliance on correct form of worship (sacrifice) while ignoring the moral function of the Law (mercy). This was a common message in the Old Testament: 1 Samuel 15:22; Psalm 50:7-14; Isaiah 1:10-17; Jeremiah 7:4-11; Amos 5:21-24 and others.
The Pharisees, as experts on the Law, should have known and understood the correct application of this prophetic passage. However, as a group, they were painstakingly preoccupied with outward forms of Law keeping – to the neglect of its moral precepts of mercy and justice (cf. Matthew 12:1-8; 23:23). In doing so, the Pharisees had become harsh, judgmental and self-righteously scornful of others (cf. Luke 18:9-14).
Because of their reliance on ritual Law-keeping as a measuring stick of their “righteousness” the Pharisees had no need for the Savior. And why should they, since in their minds they were pulling themselves up by their own sandal straps, so to speak. However, Jesus came to call “sinners” to repentance, “sinners” like the very people He was eating with.
Our Lord shared a table with the “tax collectors and sinners” not because they were worthy, but rather, because they recognized their unworthiness and came to Him for healing. He met them where they were in order to lead them from their sins to true righteousness in Him. The Pharisees might have been willing to allow sinners to die in their sins, but not our Lord. His association with them was an act of “mercy” that truly fulfilled the Law and rebuked the Pharisees’ ritualism.
At the end of the passage, I envision Jesus turning from the high-horse Pharisees back to His table mates and saying, “Now where did I leave off?”
In each generation there are those who fill the role of the “Pharisees,” religionists who are long on sacrifice but short on mercy. Such Pharisaism is as abhorrent now as when Christ first encountered it.
On the other side of that coin, there are also socioreligious outcasts that fit the category of the “tax collectors and sinners.” Perhaps in our own time and place these are the homeless, addicts and alcoholics, along with gays and lesbians, minorities, thugs, white trash rednecks, and/or anyone different than you.
The challenge for us today is “Go and learn” that our Father is not satisfied with mere orthodoxy of religious form, but rather with hearts that are transformed by the function of faith; reflecting God’s love and mercy to all of humanity (cf. Matthew 15:8; 1 Corinthians 13:3).
We dare not join with sinners in their sinning. But if we desire to be pleasing to our God, we must mercifully go to them, sharing the glorious hope of the good news of the Lord. If we are to enjoy salvation ourselves, then we must desire fellowship with the Savior, along with the sinners. (Lest we forget we too are sinners saved by God’s grace.)
As always, I’m more than happy to help you in your quest to know more about Christ. Please email me at firstname.lastname@example.org, I’ll be happy to come alongside you on your spiritual journey.