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?