Theological Insights from a Modern Perspective

Sinners

The next lesson happens as Jesus meets Levi (Matthew), and invites hims to become one of the Twelve. This is a lesson not only for the Pharisees, but for us as well; all too often we fall into the same trap as they did.

The Calling of Levi (Matthew)
Matthew 9:9-13 Mark 1:12-13 Luke 4:1-13
He went out again beside the sea; and all the crowd gathered about him, and he taught them. After this he went out,
As Jesus passed on from there, he saw a man called Matthew sitting at the tax office; and he said to him, “Follow me.” And he rose and followed him. And as he passed on, he saw Levi the son of Alphaeus sitting at the tax office, and he said to him, “Follow me.” And he rose and followed him. and saw a tax collector, named Levi, sitting at the tax office; and he said to him, “Follow me.” And he left everything, and rose and followed him.
And as he sat at table in the house, behold, many tax collectors and sinners came and sat down with Jesus and his disciples. And as he sat at table in his house, many tax collectors and sinners were sitting with Jesus and his disciples; for there were many who followed him. And Levi made him a great feast in his house; and there was a large company of tax collectors and others sitting at table with them.
And when the Pharisees saw this, they said to his disciples, “Why does your teacher eat with tax collectors and sinners?” And the scribes of the Pharisees, when they saw that he was eating with sinners and tax collectors, said to his disciples, “Why does he eat with tax collectors and sinners?” And the Pharisees and their scribes murmured against his disciples, saying, “Why do you eat and drink with tax collectors and sinners?”
But when he heard it, he said, “Those who are well have no need of a physician, but those who are sick. And when Jesus heard it, he said to them, “Those who are well have no need of a physician, but those who are sick; And Jesus answered them, “Those who are well have no need of a physician, but those who are sick;
Go and learn what this means, ‘I desire mercy, and not sacrifice.’
For I came not to call the righteous, but sinners.” I came not to call the righteous, but sinners.” I have not come to call the righteous, but sinners to repentance.”

 

Hypocrisy. Simple, unvarnished, hypocrisy. Jesus would accuse the Pharisees of this on more than one occasion, usually in no uncertain terms, but here it is hidden in the message Jesus delivers not only to the Pharisees, but to us as well.

The Pharisees didn’t approve of John the Baptist because he led a simple life of poverty and abstinence, the opposite of their showy, wealthy lifestyle. They felt he was directing the call for repentance at them…and he was.

Then, along comes Jesus, finally someone they could understand. He wore regular clothes, ate real food, spent the Sabbath in the Synagogue. Now he’s going towards that tax collector (vile, hateful, sinner), he’s going to let him have what-for. What? Did you hear what he said? Must have misunderstood. Did he just ask Levi to follow him? Like a disciple? Where’s he going? Oh, okay, he’s going into Levi’s house with those other tax collectors. He’s going to put them all to shame at the same time!

Much to their dismay he doesn’t do that. Instead he sits down with them, eats with them, even drinks wine with them. What’s more, they’re listening to what he has to say, and liking what they hear. What about the Pharisees? Well, now they’re upset that Jesus is talking with them like they were regular people. Afraid to confront Jesus directly they approach his disciples and ask them why their teacher is partying with sinners. Jesus overhears them and addresses them using a simple, clear, allegory, that of a physician and a patient. Of course a healthy person doesn’t need a physician, so too a righteous person doesn’t need saved. The sick seek out a doctor, the sinner seeks redemption. Only with Jesus this is turned topsy-turvy, Jesus doesn’t wait for the sinner to come to him, he goes looking for the sinners, and once found he reaches out to them on their own level, “I have not come to call the righteous, but sinners to repentance.”

The Pharisees, with their haughty attitude, don’t understand that they are sinners as well, not the righteous that do not need saving. They condemn John for being antisocial, they condemn Jesus for socializing, they do not see the hypocrisy in their actions. They, themselves, stand apart from the people, seeing themselves as above the riffraff, rather than reaching out to those who need their help.

But, as I said earlier, this message is for us as well. How many times do we, as Christians, put ourselves above those we see as sinners? When you see someone you judge as a sinner do you look down on them? Talk about them among your fellow Christians? Do you try to avoid them so that you are not tainted by their sinning? Do you offer lip service and platitudes, rather than reaching out to them on their level and just talking?

An example, and I’m sure to ruffle some feathers here, is abortion. I strongly believe that one of the greatest events to happen was the legalization of abortion. Why? Because it took the procedure from the back allies (where it was easy to ignore) and brought it out into public view. The sin of terminating a life because it was inconvenient could no longer be hidden. But, how have we, as Christians, handled it? Poorly, I’d say. Rather than reaching out to offer comfort and consolation, rather than talking to the person before / after the procedure, rather than offering alternatives, we protest in front of centers, scream profanities at people entering the facilities, bomb and burn centers, threaten workers and physicians. All the while saying how good and righteous we are, doing God’s work. Hypocrisy. Is this what Jesus did / would do? Where in the Gospels did Jesus ever attack the sinner? Where did he try to strike them down? Remember the woman caught in adultery? He dealt gently, lovingly, with her; he did not pick up a rock and stone her. After the crowds left, when they were alone, he did not chastise her. He showed her love and compassion, simply telling her that she was safe, and that she should no longer commit this sin.

This is the lesson Jesus was trying to teach the Pharisees that day, and us today. Do not condemn the sinner, neither avoid them nor point them out as sinners. Deep down they already know that what they are doing is wrong, but they may have a reason for it, they may see no way out. Perhaps, like the tax collectors, they just see hatred directed at them and feel they have no hope, no way out, no one who cares. Do as Jesus did, sit down with them, talk with them; offer them hope, not derision; love, not chastisement; reach out to them on their level, not with a “better than thou” attitude; sincerity, not hypocrisy.

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