Matthew 9: 11-13 “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.”
The Pharisees proposed a question aimed at deflating our joy and defeating our faith. The problem is not so much in the reminder that we who follow Jesus are lowly sinners. We know we are. There’s no use denying it.
No, the problem with the question is that it plays on a bigger fear we have to fight. “Why should Jesus, the Holy Son of God, want to be so close to me?” Does he really want to? Do I need to be better first? Those questions can only send us down the road of doubt.
Our options seem sorely limited at first. We can pretend to be something we are not, just like the Pharisees. Then we add hypocrisy to all our other sins. We can despair that Jesus really loves us. Maybe his friendship is all a sham. We can conclude that Jesus has misrepresented himself. He’s not the Son of God he claims to be. In any case, we can expect the world to keep attacking our faith by pounding the slogan, “God loves good little boys and girls.” In response, we must follow Jesus closely, and hear him often, to hold on to the truth that God loves all little boys and girls.
That’s where Jesus led with his reply. “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.”
Jesus had not come to Matthew’s house to approve of Matthew’s sins, or the sins of his friends. That should be clear enough. That’s not the life we find when we follow him, either. Those who want an excuse to continue to indulge their favorite sins aren’t going to find it by following Jesus.
The secret to understanding how Jesus could fraternize with Matthew and his friends was found in the words of the prophet Hosea: “I desire mercy, not sacrifice.” Far more than God is interested in seeing people go through the motions of religious ritual, he wants to see his people treat each other with love and mercy. That’s not to say that worship is unimportant. He himself commanded the sacrifices mentioned by the prophet. But worship and sacrifice are not ends in themselves. They are intended to work a change in us. He wants them to fill us with faith and move us to the same mercy on others that he has had on each of us.
That is what Jesus was doing here. He was here for mercy. He was the Good Doctor bringing the spiritual cure for sins. And when you know the pain of your sins, there is nothing you want from him more. I once dislocated my left elbow playing softball. Ordinarily, I don’t relish going to the doctor. They poke and they prod. They sometimes find problems where things seemed to be working. They don’t leave well enough alone.
But when the upper end of my forearm was removed from the elbow joint by about an inch, I couldn’t get to the emergency room fast enough. No matter how I moved my arm, no matter how I positioned my body, there was simply no relief from the pain and discomfort until the doctor saw me and put it all back into place.
Every one of us is thoroughly sick with sin. The pain is unrelenting. But follow Jesus, and this is what you will find: Life with a merciful Doctor who relieves you of your painful guilt by taking your sins away. He hasn’t come to call the righteous. But he does come to declare you righteous through the forgiveness of your sins.