1.12 Synoptics -- Jesus Eats at Matthew's House
Mat 9:9-13, Mk 2:14-17, Lk 5:27-32, Lk 15:1-2. Here again, we see Jesus going out of his way to offend the religious authorities. Tax-collectors were considered collaborators with the Romans, doubly sinful for their political and financial dealings. But Jesus not only ate at Matthew's house, but picked him as one of his twelve disciples. If the priests were amused by fisherman apostles, they were scandalized by the addition of a tax-collector and a Zealot (Simon). In reply to the criticism of the Pharisees, 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" (Mat 9:12-13).
Only Matthew includes the phrase, "I desire mercy...."
There is no mention of Gentiles in this teaching, but we notice a crucial change of tone. So much of previous Jewish and later Christian teaching focused on protecting the elect, strengthening the in-group, re-enforcing the standards. Towards non-members it was overwhelmingly negative -- keep the walls high, keep the compromisers out.
Jesus reversed the rejection. Towards the sinners he was predominantly positive, yet without soft-pedaling his teaching. Towards the righteous he was consistently hostile, not because they were righteous, but because they were deceived. The sinners knew they were sinners, and were surprised that Jesus associated with them. They listened and responded to his message. The righteous did not realize that they were self-righteous, and that they needed forgiveness as much as the sinners. They expected Jesus to admire them for their virtue. They resisted his message because it conflicted with their sense of superiority.
It would have been simple enough for a Pharisee to have been included at Matthew's table. All he need have said in response to Jesus was, "I too am sick, I too need a doctor." Those simple words and he would have received the mercy that was offered to the tax-collectors. But he could not say it, it would have destroyed the world of his own delusion, the pretense that he had fulfilled all the requirements to be right with God. In fact, this confession would likely have shattered contemporary Jewish institutional religion, which was founded on the supposition that all its busyness brought atonement with God. The whole point of offering the sacrifices, observing the Sabbath, following the dietary laws, keeping apart from sinners and Gentiles, tithing and fasting, was to achieve the approval of the Almighty. And here was this upstart Rabbi saying that even after all that effort, one still needed mercy.
All of this had a lot of bearing later on the Gentiles. Judaism itself was of limited appeal to them because of the barriers erected against their full participation: Law, birth, circumcision, food, language. And if you finally managed to jump all those hurdles, the best you could hope for was to be considered a "righteous Gentile" -- in other words, still an outsider. The whole attitude of Judaism was contemptuous of others' race and culture. Christianity had some trouble breaking free from this tradition and actively welcoming Gentile converts. But at its heart, the Gospel of Jesus has a generous and inviting quality towards all men: it will sit at table with the least deserving. Whereas Judaism strove to make men worthy of God's blessing, Christianity offered mercy to those who could never hope to measure up.