“9 And as Jesus passed forth from thence, he saw a man, named Matthew, sitting at the receipt of custom: and he saith unto him, Follow me. And he arose, and followed him. 10 And it came to pass, as Jesus sat at meat in the house, behold, many publicans and sinners came and sat down with him and his disciples. 11 And when the Pharisees saw it, they said unto his disciples, Why eateth your Master with publicans and sinners? 12 But when Jesus heard that, he said unto them, They that be whole need not a physician, but they that are sick. 13 But go ye and learn what that meaneth, I will have mercy, and not sacrifice: for I am not come to call the righteous, but sinners to repentance.” ~ Matthew 9:9-13 (Also in Mark 2:13-17 and Luke 5:27-32)
- No Healing for the Healthy, Salvation is for the Sick
- Sacrifice brings Status, Mercy yields Salvation
In the first part of this study, lessons about the qualifications (view of self, view of others and view of Jesus) needed for the Kingdom of God were considered from Jesus’ healing of the man with the palsy (Matthew 9:2-8). Now, this second part of the study explores what can be learned about ADMISSION into the Kingdom of God from Jesus’ ‘party with the publicans’ (Matthew 9:9-13).
The Gospel tells us that Jesus called a tax collector (publican) named Matthew (a.k.a. Levi) to follow Him, to become one of His disciples. Jesus then went to Matthew’s home to have a meal and while there many of Matthew’s fellow publicans and other sinners join them. When the Pharisees heard about the ‘party with the publicans’ they confronted Jesus’ disciples about His willingness to associate with such outcasts.
Central to their complaint is the notion that God (and, therefore, the people of God) only reaches out to the righteous and never reaches out to the unrighteous. Moreover, the implication of this philosophy is that a person must first make themselves acceptable (righteous) before God will associate with them.
Jesus responded to their criticism by clarifying the process of gaining admission into the Kingdom of God. First, Jesus explains that only those with the ticket of sin-sickness can enter. And, second, that it is mercy, not sacrifice, that opens the door.
Salvation is for the Sick
When Jesus told the Pharisees that only the sick needed a physician, He was challenging the very foundation of their understanding of God. If they were already righteous then they did not need The Messiah; they would have already have had full access to God. However, the need for a Messiah (a messenger and a mediator from God) was uncontestable because the Scriptures declared it repeatedly, e.g.:
For unto us a child is born, unto us a son is given: and the government shall be upon his shoulder: and his name shall be called Wonderful, Counsellor, The mighty God, The everlasting Father, The Prince of Peace. Of the increase of his government and peace there shall be no end, upon the throne of David, and upon his kingdom, to order it, and to establish it with judgment and with justice from henceforth even for ever. ~ Isaiah 9:6-7a
Rejoice greatly, O daughter of Zion; shout, O daughter of Jerusalem: behold, thy King cometh unto thee: he is just, and having salvation. ~ Zechariah 9:9a
In addition, the Pharisees would (or should) have been acutely aware that there had been no message from the LORD (through a genuine prophet) since Malachi: a period of about 400 years. In other words, God hadn’t spoken to them for 400 years, whether they deemed themselves righteous (whole) or not. Despite all their sacrifices, despite their legalism and despite their scholarship, God had ceased to communicate with them as a people. Clearly, the Pharisees, inasmuch as they considered themselves righteous, were living in denial.
Conversely, the publicans were under no such illusion. They were outcasts and reminded of their sinful state daily. Publicans were Jewish tax collectors for the oppressive Roman government. Roman taxes were already burdensome and the publicans (typically) made the burden heavier by cheating: making themselves wealthy off the backs of their fellow Jewish brothers. And there was nothing the Jews could do about it, as the publicans were protected by a detail of Roman soldiers.
For their treachery and thievery, publicans were excommunicated from worship in both the temple and the synagogues and socially ostracized. Publicans could not testify in court. They were not allowed to offer any sacrifice for their sins. It was shameful for a Jew just to look into the eyes of a publican. Consequently, there was no way for a publican to get back into the good graces of Jewish society or with God.
Their lives were without hope of atonement. They were reminded daily of their unworthiness. They knew they were sinful and they were without hope of ever have the stain of sin washed away.
Make no mistake, publicans were not the best of men, they were complicit in their fate: they chose their profession. However, the religious establishment had slammed the door on them and they could not turn back, even if they wanted to. They needed help.
The application for us is twofold. First, we must reject the notion that we can make ourselves acceptable to God. This idea permeates human society: people commonly believe that if they are good enough (as they define goodness), if they do the right things, live a clean life, that there is no way that God can reject them. However, Scripture makes it clear that we don’t come to The Almighty God on our own terms,
Jesus saith unto him, I am the way, the truth, and the life: no man cometh unto the Father, but by me. ~ John 14:6
Neither is there salvation in any other: for there is none other name under heaven given among men, whereby we must be saved. ~ Acts 4:12
And that our best efforts at righteousness are no more that excrement-stained garbage before The One Holy God.
But we are all as an unclean thing, and all our righteousnesses are as filthy rags; and we all do fade as a leaf; and our iniquities, like the wind, have taken us away. And there is none that calleth upon thy name, that stirreth up himself to take hold of thee: for thou hast hid thy face from us, and hast consumed us, because of our iniquities. ~ Isaiah 64:6-7
As it is written, There is none righteous, no, not one. ~ Romans 3:10
No matter how hard we try, we cannot make ourselves acceptable to God.
The second application is that we must adopt the mindset of the publicans. If we can’t make ourselves worthy, then we are in the same boat as the publicans. That is, we too have no self-made path back to God after we have sinned against Him. If the sacrifices of the Pharisees didn’t work, then they were no better than the publicans. Indeed, the publicans had an advantage over the Pharisees: they knew they needed a Saviour!
Jesus challenged the Pharisees and he challenges us to adopt that mindset, to recognize our sinful state and the hopelessness of sacrifices to reunite us to God.
The Pharisees’ mindset led them to look to self for salvation, whereas the publicans’ mindset led them to look to God for salvation. The publicans, therefore, could enter into the kingdom of God because the Love of God gets us into the Kingdom, not the Letter of Law.
Jesus, however gave both the Pharisees and the publicans hope. If you were sin-sick, there was a doctor, a Balm in Gilead, that could heal the sin-sick soul. If we recognize our sin and our need for The Saviour we have all we need to be admitted into the Kingdom of God: Salvation is for the sick. Hallelujah!
If Salvation is a Door, Mercy is the Doorkeeper
After challenging the foundations of Pharisaic philosophy, Jesus, the Good Teacher, gives them a homework assignment to reinforce His lesson and expand the scope of their understanding: he told them to “…go ye and learn what that meaneth, I will have mercy, and not sacrifice: for I am not come to call the righteous, but sinners to repentance.” (Mathew 9:13).
Jesus wanted the Pharisees to learn, to understand that sacrifice would never get them right with God. There was no sacrifice good enough. Indeed, as ‘scholars’ of the Scripture they should have already been aware of this truth:
The LORD is nigh unto them that are of a broken heart; and saveth such as be of a contrite spirit. ~ Psalm 34:18
For thou desirest not sacrifice; else would I give it: thou delightest not in burnt offering. The sacrifices of God are a broken spirit: a broken and a contrite heart, O God, thou wilt not despise. ~ Psalm 51:16-17
For thus saith the high and lofty One that inhabiteth eternity, whose name is Holy; I dwell in the high and holy place, with him also that is of a contrite and humble spirit, to revive the spirit of the humble, and to revive the heart of the contrite ones. ~ Isaiah 57:15
…saith the LORD: but to this man will I look, even to him that is poor and of a contrite spirit, and trembleth at my word. ~ Isaiah 66:2b
Wherewith shall I come before the LORD, and bow myself before the high God? shall I come before him with burnt offerings, with calves of a year old? Will the LORD be pleased with thousands of rams, or with ten thousands of rivers of oil? shall I give my firstborn for my transgression, the fruit of my body for the sin of my soul? He hath shewed thee, O man, what is good; and what doth the LORD require of thee, but to do justly, and to love mercy, and to walk humbly with thy God? ~ Micah 6:6-8
It is mercy, God’s mercy, that makes Salvation available. Mercy opens the door of Salvation to let us into the Kingdom of God.
Sacrifices, in various forms, gave Pharisees great status in Jewish society: they were respected as the most pious of Jews. And they made sure everyone knew just how pious they were (Matthew 6:1-2, 23:1-7, Luke 18:9-12). But sacrifices make no impression with God.
On the other hand, the publicans, those who believed in and feared God, had nowhere else to turn. They couldn’t offer sacrifices, even if they wanted to. Their ONLY hope was that God would have mercy on them.
Likewise, until we get to the point where we recognize that nothing we do will earn us salvation, that human effort is not enough, we will never receive the gift of Salvation; we, like some Pharisees, will never enter into the Kingdom of God. For God will have mercy, only mercy, as His doorkeeper to His Kingdom.