Matthew 9:9-12: Jesus Eats with Sinners

In Matthew 9:9-12, we read the following:

“As Jesus was walking along, he saw a man called Matthew sitting at the tax booth; and he said to him, ‘Follow me.’ And he got up and followed him. And as he sat at dinner in the house, many tax collectors and sinners came and were sitting with him and his disciples. When the Pharisees saw this, they said to his disciples, ‘Why does your teacher eat with tax collectors and sinners?’ But when he heard this, he said, ‘Those who are well have no need of a physician, but those who are sick. Go and learn what this means, ‘I desire mercy, not sacrifice.’ For I have come to call not the righteous but sinners'” (NRSV).

I have two thoughts on this passage:

1. You probably know people who do the right thing all of the time. Or at least that’s the image of them that you may have. Kind of makes you sick, doesn’t it? But, overall, it’s good when people do the right thing. The problem arises when they start looking down on those who are not as good. I like what Jake said in response to my post, “Quote on Witnessing,” when he argued that Christians should be inclusive towards homosexuals and others outside of the mainstream:

“It’s a shame that fundamentalism has been comfortable ostracising communities; including gays, the mentally ill, or those who struggle to find identity and relationships. My impression is that Jesus’ love was almost exclusively directed at the marginalized. But maybe I’m wrong for reading Jesus as such a kind and caring person.”

Not everyone has his act together, myself included. Granted, there are many people who lead ordered lives. Either they’re the types who have been good from birth, or they have learned to do the right thing over time. Now, their lives are in order, and everything is smooth. But, unfortunately, not all of them are overly charitable to those who aren’t at their level of righteousness. And that was the problem that Jesus was addressing. Jesus did not dispute the Pharisees’ claim that they were righteous. He just said that the Pharisees should cut less spiritual people some slack. For Jesus, the Pharisees should not have an attitude of “We’re more righteous than the rest of the world,” for they should want even publicans and sinners to find spiritual healing.

And, unfortunately, there are a lot of Christians who look down on others who are not at their level. I once headed a Christian group, and I was talking with other leaders about organizing a Christian prayer meeting (which wasn’t my idea, but I was along for the ride). One of the people mentioned a certain young lady who might be interested in attending, and someone else responded, “Her? Are you sure she’s even a Christian? She always dresses so provocatively, like she’s going out!” Of course, the young lady who said that dressed modestly, was a good student, probably grew up in church, and most likely did the right (churchy) thing on a regular basis. But her righteousness led her to look down on someone else.

Personally, I like going to Alcoholics Anonymous, where people don’t always have their lives together, but they’re trying to reach a better point. That reminds me of an InterVarsity conference I once attended, in which we had to split up into small groups (which I hated). One of the young ladies said that she likes hanging around people who are spiritually searching more than she does with other Christians. And I can see her point. There is an authenticity, a genuineness, and a purity in those who are spiritually searching, things that are sometimes lacking in people who take certain doctrines for granted, or assume that they have all the answers.

That dovetails into my next point.

2. Jesus said that he came to call sinners to repentance. But the Pharisees already believed that sinners should repent, so Jesus wasn’t teaching anything earth-shakingly original there. The problem was that the Pharisees’ exclusiveness was hindering sinners from finding God. Scholars disagree about why the Pharisees ate together as a clique. Jacob Neusner says that they wanted to create a table fellowship of ritual purity, one in which they could experience God. E.P. Sanders contends that the Pharisees did not look down on non-Pharisees but ate together because like generally eats with like. Just visit a college cafeteria! Asians usually eat with Asians, whites with whites, and African-Americans with African-Americans. So, in the first century C.E., Pharisees ate with Pharisees.

Whoever is correct about the Pharisees’ motivation, the Pharisees’ cliquish behavior was leaving out whole groups of people. It wasn’t that the Pharisees lacked missionary aspirations, for Jesus acknowledged that they “cross sea and land to make a single convert” (Matthew 23:15). But they didn’t interact with certain people, at least not at the intimate level of eating a meal together (I’m sure that the Pharisees and publicans interacted on tax day!). They viewed publicans and sinners as the “other,” not as human beings with spiritual needs. And so the Pharisees’ cliquish behavior stood in the way of their belief that sinners should repent. Because they did not eat with those who were different from them, they didn’t give others an opportunity to repent. Sinners didn’t have a chance to see something better than the lives they were leading.

And Christians can be cliquish. Part of the reason is that like associates with like. And part of it may be certain statements of Paul:

I Corinthians 5:9-13: “I wrote to you in my letter not to associate with sexually immoral persons–not at all meaning the immoral of this world, or the greedy and robbers, or idolaters, since you would then need to go out of the world. But now I am writing to you not to associate with anyone who bears the name of brother or sister who is sexually immoral or greedy, or is an idolater, reviler, drunkard, or robber. Do not even eat with such a one. For what have I to do with judging those outside? Is it not those who are inside that you are to judge?
God will judge those outside. ‘Drive out the wicked person from among you.'”

I Corinthians 15:33: “Do not be deceived: ‘Bad company ruins good morals.'”

II Corinthians 6:14: “Do not be mismatched with unbelievers. For what partnership is there between righteousness and lawlessness? Or what fellowship is there between light and darkness?”

These are hard passages, yet they are understandable. We can easily become like the people we’re with. For example, a person who is trying to quit drugs would be wise to stop associating with his old party friends. I shouldn’t hang too much around people who view women solely as sex objects, since that attitude can rub off on me.

A Christian acquaintance at college said that Christians should judge Christians according to Paul’s standards (i.e., don’t eat with them if they’re too sinful), yet they should hang out with non-believers to attract them to the Gospel. The question I have is, “How do we know who’s a believer?” When I was in college, most of the homosexuals I knew claimed to believe in Jesus Christ. A lot of Americans do! We are, after all, a nominally Christian nation. Should evangelicals of my college not have eaten with homosexuals, a marginalized group that desperately needs love?

Perhaps Paul was saying that the church has certain standards that it should enforce. The standards may not apply to searchers or visitors at the church, but they should relate to those seeking baptism or membership. And, even then, the best approach to those who transgress is not to kick them out immediately:

“My friends, if anyone is detected in a transgression, you who have received the Spirit should restore such a one in a spirit of gentleness. Take care that you yourselves are not tempted” (Galatians 6:1).

No one is perfect, but we as Christians should be committed to a spiritual journey. Paul may be saying that, for the sake of its integrity, the Christian community should maintain specific lines that cannot be crossed.

These are hard issues. When do we hang around with sinners? When do we avoid them? And, in answering these questions, shouldn’t we remember that we ourselves are sinners, meaning that we have no right to look down on anyone?

About jamesbradfordpate

My name is James Pate. This blog is about my journey. I read books. I watch movies and TV shows. I go to church. I try to find meaning. And, when I can’t do that, I just talk about stuff that I find interesting. I have degrees in fields of religious studies. I have an M.Phil. in the History of Biblical Interpretation from Hebrew Union College in Cincinnati, Ohio. I also have an M.A. in Hebrew Bible from Jewish Theological Seminary, an M.Div. from Harvard Divinity School, and a B.A. from DePauw University.
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6 Responses to Matthew 9:9-12: Jesus Eats with Sinners

  1. Anonymous says:

    One facet, I think, is how one approaches scripture. The approach that it was all penned by God, and that inspiration focuses on the act of writing scripture can have its dangers. It forces one to take an uncompramising view on each and every verse (but for all intents and purposes Paul is the only one taken seriously by conservatives!).

    The Holy Scriptures are made up of several disparate, contradictory voices. Some, like Paul and the Persian Period priestly class were way over-the-top and needs to be interpreted with a filter.

    This over the top language is often corrected in scripture. One need only think of the false prophecies of Ezekiel and Malachi’s feelings towards divorce (response to forced divorces under Nehemiah). In the same spirit, broad thematic approaches that account for human reason is a better approach.

    Thus: Paul condemned gays, woman, and people less zealous than himself–but he doesn’t paint best picture of the God I worship. Nor does Qohelet.

    At the very least, there’s tension, and if forced to choose, I choose the gospels accounts of Jesus. And I think people need to choose if they are honest.


    PS. Thanks for quoting me.


  2. James Pate says:

    Hi Jake,

    No problem–it’s a good quote. I guess my approach at the moment is that I try to use all of the Scriptural writings for my theology. I have problems with picking one or another because that puts me in charge. And I know what people will say to me: “You already pick and choose. Even fundamentalists pick and choose, whether they realize it or not.” True, but I think we should try not to pick and choose.

    As far as my preferences go, there are things about Paul that I like better than Matthew. Paul has grace. The Sermon on the Mount, however, seems to attach a lot of conditions (law) to salvation, and I have problems with that.

    One other point: I’ve read the interpretation of Malachi that he was opposed to Nehemiah’s forced divorces. I have problems with that view, though, because Malachi criticizes marriages to foreign women and advocates those that produce godly offspring. He strikes me as someone who would support Nehemiah’s policy. I agree more with the view that Malachi was criticizing those who left their Israelite wives to marry foreign women. But that’s just my opinion, and I’m open to correction.



  3. Anonymous says:

    Is it possible that Paul preaching was more “church specific” and the Corinthians had more of a problem of those types he condemns?
    Right off, he says they have ‘contentions’ among them. Then in 2 Cor. 7 he apparantly has somewhat scolded them hoping they would repent. Wheras in Galatians, the main problem seems to be false teachers and those pesky Judaisers. (until ch. 5 when he gets into the works of the flesh vs. fruits of the spirit)And also, the verse you quoted where he just basically says “be careful” and not “stay away”.
    Even though all the letters seem to have similar thoughts running through them, they also seem to have individuality.
    Then Jesus seems to be all about mercy and doesn’t seem concerned at all about who he was around, but then couldn’t he see their intent of the heart also? He obviously wasn’t condoning sin. “Go and sin no more”.
    So is Paul wrong and super conservative? I’m not sure, since I am conservative as well. But he preaches well about Grace. Grace is what should make us want to help people no matter what their station in life. But, I think one has to look at their own gifts and talents. Not everyone can be a prison minister, or minister in the depths of Africa, or to the gay community.
    I can understand how some can either envy or be put off by those who seem to have it all together in the area of missions. But, the one you are witnessing to with your actions, is anyone or everyone with whom you come into contact. In my opinion, God didn’t call us to become great, but to show His greatness.
    Aunt C.


  4. James Pate says:

    A lot of good thoughts there, Aunt C.

    You’re right that different churches had different situations. One thing that your comments got me thinking about, though, was that Jesus himself talked about church discipline in Matthew 18. So, come to think of it, on a certain level, what Paul describes may not be different from what Jesus advocated.

    I also agree that Jesus didn’t condone sin. I’m not sure what exactly he said to publicans and sinners when he ate with them. Maybe he just brought who he was, and that included talking about the kingdom. I doubt he was in their face–“You dirty publicans and sinners need to repent”–though I’m sure repentance was a part of his message in some way. When he talked with the woman at the well in John 4, he wasn’t in her face, but he still brought her to himself and the right way to live.


  5. Anonymous says:


    Now about the false prophecies in Ezekiel?

    I’m sure you can anticipate where I’m going with this question, so feel free to give it a shot.



  6. James Pate says:

    Hey Jake,

    Yeah, I’ve been struggling with those the past year, as I’ve read the prophets for my daily quiet time. Here are three thoughts. They’re not earth-shakingly original, but they’re thoughts.

    1. Maybe the prophecies came to pass, on some level. Josephus talks about the Babylonian invasion of Phoenicia and Egypt. I wrote a post touching on this a long time ago, entitled “Should Josephus Be Used in Biblical Studies?” Feel free to check it out and tell me what you think.

    2. God can change his mind in response to people. God promised to destroy Nineveh but didn’t do it, for example. John Hobbins at Ancient Hebrew Poetry wrote a few posts on this, which you can find on the left side of the page. Tyre surrendered to Babylon, so Babylon perhaps saw no need to continue the siege. Egypt stopped assisting Israel and opposing Babylon, so God may have revoked his decree against her.

    I know the response to this: “Well, if you bring God changing his mind into the equation, then you can explain away the unfulfillment of any prophecy.”

    3. For some reason, Ezekiel had no problem including prophecies that did not come to pass, and the Jews had no problem preserving them. In a sense, Ezekiel even admits that what he previously fulfilled did not come to pass when he says that Babylon will get Egypt as compensation for not totally taking Tyre. But didn’t Ezekiel predict that Babylon would take Tyre? What happened? So there’s something I’m missing here. For some reason, Ezekiel didn’t have the same problem you or I may have with unfulfilled prophecy. And that’s puzzling, since the Bible often has the Deuteronomic view that you can tell a true prophet by whether or not his prophecies come to pass.


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