Not the Righteous But Sinners


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Matthew 9:9-13

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v.9       Matthew is referred to as Levi in the Gospels of Mark and Luke.  Several others among the 12 had two names, you remember; Peter was also called Cephas.  The tax office at Capernaum would be concerned with the collection of tolls on goods that were entering that district either from across the lake or across the Jordan.  Those territories were outside the dominion ruled by Herod Antipas and so were another country.  Matthew was probably, therefore, more like what we would call a customs agent nowadays, not an IRS agent.  Both forms of tax collection were notorious for the extortion that was the inevitable by-product of a system in which a tax collector’s personal income was determined by the amount of tax he collected.  He was not called a “tax-farmer” for nothing! Tax collectors were viewed, therefore, as greedy and parasitic.  Jews despised such men all the more because of the ritual uncleanness that they could not help but contract, given their association will all kinds of people, and because the work itself was regarded as inherently unpatriotic as the taxes they raised supported a government imposed upon them by outsiders.

Luke tells us that Matthew “left everything,” indicating that Matthew’s following of Jesus was not momentary or temporary but was the exchange of his former way of life for an entirely new one.  Tax collectors were often wealthy men so this action on Matthew’s part may well have represented a great material sacrifice (as it did for Zacchaeus, another tax collector who followed Jesus). Fishermen, such as Peter and John, could simply go back to their fishing; but a tax collector who left his job would be leaving it for good.

v.10     This is, of course, Matthew’s own report of his coming to be a follower of Christ.  It is wonderfully modest.  Though the NIV says “at Matthew’s house,” – the other Gospel writers confirm that the banquet was indeed at Matthew’s own home – Matthew does not in fact identify the owner of the house.  The NIV has added a “Matthew” where Matthew had none.  Even in introducing his name in v. 9, the sentence reads as if the name “Matthew” is an afterthought:  “he came across a man sitting at the tax office, Matthew.” [Morris, 219]

v.11     Luke tells us that the new disciple made a “great feast.”  It was a celebration of his becoming a follower of Jesus.  Such gatherings would involve close fellowship with people who did not keep the scribal rules of purity.   Tax collectors were inevitably mixing with Gentiles and that, taken together with the social ostracism they faced from the religious parties made them careless about the niceties of ceremonial uncleanness.  Matthew’s associates would probably also have included other people whom the Pharisees would have regarded as immoral.  In any case, such a banquet would certainly involve the breaking of the very elaborate scribal regulations concerning food.  Obviously the Pharisees thought that Jesus was clearly in the wrong for doing what he did.  They would never have attended such a dinner.

Their question was a thinly veiled accusation.  Surely a faithful religious teacher would not associate with such people in such a setting.

v.13     The quotation is from Hosea 6:6 and is part of a warning against a religion that is all external form and not the expression of love.  This is the constant criticism of the Pharisees in Jesus’ teaching:  they were devoted to the precise observance of regulations – many of which, of course, they had themselves added to the law of God – but neglected the more fundamental, central, and important matter:  faith in God working through love for God and man.  God desires mercy and here are folk who need mercy; but the Pharisees were indifferent to them, even censorious.

The Lord’s reply completely overturns the Pharisees’ outlook.  In their view it is the righteous who should be called, only the righteous, and they thought themselves righteous.  But Jesus calls “sinners.” He calls the unrighteous.  Here the Lord says what no Pharisee ever said or thought to say: that one’s qualification for salvation was not his righteousness but his sinfulness!

We said last Lord’s Day morning, in commenting on the previous paragraph in the 9th chapter of Matthew that the Jewish religious leadership was ill-prepared to understand Jesus and his mission because they had themselves such a superficial view of the forgiveness of sins.  They did not imagine that sin was so difficult to remove that it would require the incarnation of God the Son and his death on the cross.  They did not see their sin as so desperate that they could not manage it. They thought that forgiveness was achieved in the relatively pedestrian way of religious performance and good works, all of which lay easily within the reach of anyone who was really interested.  That same self-righteousness, that same self-confidence is on display in another way in the paragraph before us this morning.  Here it is displayed not by their disclosing their views on forgiveness per se but in their attitudes toward other people, their dismissive contempt of others as being much less righteous than themselves.

The Pharisees were muttering, as they often did, at the Lord’s practice of associating with people they themselves would not associate with precisely because they considered them unworthy or undesirable.  They thought of them as “sinners.”  Now, to be fair, the Pharisees knew that they themselves sinned from time to time.  They had a profoundly superficial view of sin (as most people do!) – they thought themselves so little sinners that they could say with a straight face, as one man did to Jesus, that they had kept all the commandments of God from their youth (even the rabbis spoke in all seriousness about people who had kept the law of God from A to Z!) – but they did not deny that they had sinned.  But these people – tax collectors and the like – deserved to be called “sinners” because their sins were notorious.  The Pharisees’ sins were minor in comparison.

For example, Jesus welcomed and paid personal attention to the sexually immoral.  In Luke 7 we read the beautiful account of the sinful woman who wet the Lord’s feet with her tears at the home of the Pharisee.  The Pharisee called that woman a “sinner” as the Pharisees called Matthew a “sinner” here in Matthew 9.  Though it does not say explicitly that her sin was sexual in nature, it is the almost universally accepted impression of the narrative.  When Luke describes her as a woman “who had lived a sinful life” we are to understand that she was either a prostitute, which is more likely, or an adulteress.  Interestingly, in Matthew 21:31, where Jesus is responding to the same kind of attitude he is addressing here in chapter 9, he says, “I tell you the truth, the tax collectors and the prostitutes are entering the kingdom of God ahead of you.”  Here in Matthew 9 he welcomes and keeps company with a tax-collector and his friends, the friends being spiritual riff-raff like the tax-collector himself no doubt, at least in the eyes of the Pharisees.

The Pharisees thought it a crime that a religious teacher, a rabbi, should so freely associate with such people and even break bread with them.  They wouldn’t!  But Jesus not only regards the Pharisees’ attitude as wrong, as mistaken, but says here in so many words that it is fatal.  The issue of Pharisaic self-righteousness crops up over and over again in the Gospels and in the teaching of Jesus Christ.  The prominence of this theme, the reason Jesus addressed it as often and as directly as he did, is because of its immense importance.  There is something crucial in this mistake, something deadly.

That is the point he makes in that last summary statement in v. 13:  “For I have not come to call the righteous, but sinners.”    It is another way of saying, a more direct way of saying what the Lord said earlier in v. 12:  “It is not the healthy who need a doctor, but the sick.”  What he means, in fact, is that there is nothing he can do for the Pharisees.  They are beyond help.  That may not seem to you to be his meaning, but it is.

It is of vast importance that we understand him here.  We could take him to mean – no doubt some of the Pharisees took his remarks in just this way – that the Pharisees did not need him, did not need what he had to give, but these “sinners” did.  That still would not have made them sympathetic to Jesus’ action, but, in fact, that is not his meaning.  It is perfectly clear in the Gospels as a whole, where we find this language in a number of places and in a number of forms, that is not his meaning.  He is not saying that some are righteous enough and don’t need his salvation.

The Lord is speaking ironically, as he often did.  He was not saying that the Pharisees were righteous; he was saying that they thought that they were righteous.  And because they thought themselves righteous they were deaf to his call to believe in him.  He wasn’t saying that the Pharisees were healthy and had no need of a doctor – we know he did not mean that from all of the other things he says about the Pharisees’ spiritual condition.  He was saying that because the Pharisees believed themselves healthy they had no interest in the doctor.  How many of you take the time and spend the money to see a doctor when you aren’t sick?

They thought themselves righteous and, indeed, they were righteous, but only in that superficial way that inoculates a man or woman against the real thing.  Jesus calls them “righteous” ironically.  As Jesus has already told us in this Gospel, “unless your righteousness surpasses that of the Pharisees you will certainly not enter the kingdom of heaven.”  They were righteous in their own eyes, not his!

In a similar way, later in the Gospel, in the Lord’s parable of the lost sheep, the Lord did not mean that the 99 sheep that are not lost are those men and women who are already saved and the one sheep that is lost represents the man or woman who is not yet saved and needs to be saved.  The 99 are not those who are saved but those who think themselves saved when they are not!  They are those who think themselves so righteous they do not need Christ or his righteousness to be right with God.  That is everywhere his diagnosis of the spiritual problem of the church of his day.  It is their self-satisfaction, their self-confidence that renders them deaf to the gospel.  They who have no sense of being sick are not likely to call for a doctor.  Those who think themselves righteous before God are not likely to move heaven and earth to find the way of salvation.

But the outcast, the undesirable is less likely to think so well of himself.  He is more likely to understand his need to be righteous before God and less likely to think that his life is acceptable to God.  Jesus said that rich people are less likely to enter heaven because in their worldly comfort and prosperity they are less likely to see and feel their spiritual need.  Wealth and comfort anesthetize them to their spiritual poverty.  Well, in the same way, people who are rich in religion – they are scrupulous about their religious obligations and are accepted by others as devout people – are in the same danger.  They can easily become self-satisfied.  They can be utterly unaware of their spiritual poverty.  Meeting the standards set for religious life by men, they can remain utterly unaware of what they look like to God.

Now, being an outcast, being numbered among the undesirables does not mean that one will necessarily be a true judge of his spiritual condition or susceptible to understand how much he needs a savior.  You remember on one occasion that of the ten lepers who had cried out to Jesus and whom Jesus healed only one of them came back to thank him and to acknowledge him.  But it remains true that people who are outcasts are less likely to be self-satisfied and self-satisfaction is the mortal enemy of faith in Christ.  True faith is born in the conviction that one is in desperate need of salvation but the Pharisees had no such conviction.  They might have thought that other people were in desperate need of what only God could give, but they didn’t think that way about themselves.

And, says Jesus, nothing is a surer indicator of self-satisfaction, of self-righteousness than that penchant to indulge a feeling of superiority to other people.

As C.S. Lewis once described this condition:

“To avoid a man’s society because he is poor or ugly or
stupid may be bad; but to avoid it because he is wicked – with
the all but inevitable implication that you are less wicked (at
least in some respect) – is dangerous and wicked.”  [Present
            Concerns, 56]

Well that was the danger and the wickedness into which the Pharisees had plunged themselves and it was precisely for this reason that they never welcomed Jesus, never acknowledged him as the Savior of the world, never put their faith in him, and never found the eternal life he had come to bring to men.

Now it is far too easy for us to think that we are beyond the Pharisees mistake.  After all, we have the NT before us and the Gospels and have heard countless times the Lord’s warnings against self-righteousness and spiritual self-confidence.  But the fact is, self-righteousness is so natural, so subtle, so easy for us to indulge, that we inevitably will indulge it unless a very powerful principle is brought in to check it.  And that principle is the conviction of sin.  That is what the Pharisees lacked.  They did not see themselves as desperate sinners, sunk in guilt and utterly slaves to sin’s power.  The proof of that was that they thought of others as “sinners” but not themselves; they thought that morally and spiritually they did not belong to the same class as a tax-collector and a prostitute.  That was the index of their fatal peril.

And millions upon millions of members of the Christian church have lacked the very same conviction and, as a result, have indulged the Pharisees’ very same self-righteousness, and, consequently, though they profess to be Christians, are no more looking to Christ for their salvation than did the Pharisees who, so far from thinking him the Savior of the world, thought him to be positively harmful to the spiritual interests of everyone.  Imagine that!  Church members so blind that they thought Jesus Christ, the Son of God, a false teacher and a sinful man.  That is how fundamental conviction of sin is.  Without it a man cannot see the noonday sun!  And, as I said, there have been many, many more supposedly Christian people in the ages since who have been so blind for that very reason than there ever were Jews in that condition in Jesus’ day.

Last week we heard Peter Kreeft say that 9 out of every 10 Roman Catholic students he has interviewed through the years are utterly indifferent to the salvation that Jesus Christ offers through faith in him for the very same reason that the Pharisees were:  they are so self-satisfied, so confident of their own goodness that they cannot see that they have any need for what Jesus alone can give them.  But, if we were to conduct the same survey in the Presbyterian church, or the Methodist, or Episcopalian, or Baptist, or the Lutheran, would the results be much different?  To be sure, there are churches far more faithful to the gospel than others.  But every thoughtful observer of Christendom is well aware how many who call themselves Christians are not animated by any conviction that their sins have utterly estranged them from God and only Christ can bring them back to him.

I have told some of you before of William Haslam, the 19th century Anglican minister and gospel preacher who was famous in that time as the parson converted by his own sermon.   He had been a minister for some years when on October 19, 1851 he was in his own pulpit explaining to a full church (a congregation that included some saved people who knew very well that their minister was an unsaved man) that the Pharisees had been condemned because they had failed to believe that Christ had come to save them from their sins.  As he preached he realized for the first time that he did not really believe it either.  As he continued with his sermon he saw the truth more and more clearly: himself as a sinner and Christ as the savior.  He says in his autobiography,

“I do not remember all I said, but I felt a wonderful light and joy coming into my soul…. Whether it was something in my words, or my manner, or my look, I know not; but all of a sudden a local preacher, who happened to be in the congregation, stood up, and putting up his arms, shouted out in Cornish manner, ‘the parson’s converted!  The parson’s converted! Hallelujah!’ and in another moment his voice was lost in the shouts and praises of three or four hundred of the congregation.”  [Philip Evans, “The Parson Converted by his Own Sermon,” The Evangelical Library Bulletin 77 (Autumn 1986) 2-3]

What is important to notice in the personal history of William Haslam is that his coming to Christ, his responding to Christ’s call, occurred at the moment he realized that he thought like a Pharisee; that he had the same view of himself as they had of themselves.  It was that recognition, that realization that made him a Christian.  He had thought like a Pharisee for years as a Christian minister and had never realized that this was what he was doing.  And there are millions upon millions today in the church and millions upon millions more outside the church who think the same way and have not the slightest idea of how fatal a mistake that is.  It is a spiritual realization, not an intellectual one.  Even very clever people who know the Bible well – professors of biblical studies in prestigious universities — can be utterly unaware – even as they study the Pharisees in the Gospels – that they are Pharisees themselves

And what do they need to know that they do not?  Just this.  That they are sinners.  Profoundly, comprehensively, sinful.  That their sin goes down to the bottom of what they are and who they are.  That they drink iniquity like water and breathe it like air.  That they having nothing over the tax-collector and the prostitute – in fact, the fact that they know enough not to cheat on their taxes – if in fact they don’t cheat on their taxes – or to be a prostitute, makes all their other sin even worse.  They know the difference between right and wrong and do the wrong anyway.  And how they do the wrong!  Consider our thoughts, the things we think that no one else knows.  Why, as Pascal reminds us, if only men could read our thoughts we wouldn’t have four friends left in the world!  It terrifies us to think that others might see into our hearts and know what we think.  Rutherford was a godly man but he was honest enough to say that if anyone in Scotland could see his inner-side, not a person in the kingdom would care about him any longer. But, of course, God sees our inner-side all the time; he reads our thoughts, all of them.  He judges our inner life as our true selves; what we are inside is who we really are.  He knows the envy, the impurity, the self-absorption, the pettiness, the dishonesty.  And that is all hidden.  There is enough that is not hidden to damn us a thousand times over.  What of our words.  I still remember with shame so many words that I spoke that I never should have spoken and, what is worse, so many words that I should have spoken and never did.  I have this great power to bless and help with words of love, sympathy, understanding, and truth, and have so often and so inexcusably failed to use that power.  And what of my deeds.  God has given me breath, so Jesus said, to love him and to love others.  How little I have lived for God or others.  How little have I done that, my life’s work; how much, how furiously have I done the opposite:  love myself with a passion that, so much of the time, excludes all others.  I have known that about myself for many years now.  And most of you know that sad and shameful truth about yourselves as well.  Indeed, you would say and rightly that I haven’t spoken half the truth about me or you.  We have the capacity to be so much better than we are; we are such dismal failures at the life God gave us to live! But perhaps there are some of you who have never faced this gloomy fact about yourself:  that in thought, word, and deed – your omissions and your commissions –  you are always and eagerly doing what is wrong, what displeases God, and what diminishes other people.

For once in your life, admit your guilt before God without evasion, without excuses, without blaming your circumstances or parents or anyone else. You sin because you are sinful. Humble yourself before the holy God now and accept his dismal assessment of yourself as searchingly true and stingingly accurate. And plead with him to have mercy upon you, a sinner. Make the prayer in Christ’s name.  The Pharisees would not and did not and they never inherited the kingdom of God.  Salvation was right in front of them, eternal life was theirs for the asking, but they wouldn’t ask because they wouldn’t admit they needed a Savior or such a salvation as Jesus came to bring.  How unspeakably sad!

And, for the rest of us, we who are Christians.  Let us never allow that sense of things to slip from our minds and hearts.  You know that two men who have had a great influence on me are Alexander Whyte and C.S. Lewis.  Well you can imagine my delight when I learned that Lewis read Whyte.

“I’ve been reading Alexander Whyte…. He was a Presbyterian divine of the last century, whom I’d never heard of.  Very well worth reading…. But I mention him at the moment for a different reason.  He brought me violently face to face with a characteristic of Puritanism which I had almost forgotten.  For him, one essential symptom of the regenerate life is a permanent and permanently horrified, perception of one’s natural and (it seems) unalterable corruption.  The true Christian’s nostril is to be continually attentive to the inner cesspool.”

“I won’t listen to those who describe that vision as merely pathological.  I have seen the ‘slimy things that crawled with legs’ in my own dungeon.”  [Letters to Malcolm, 97-98]

Lewis goes on to wonder, as many have, if thinking too much about our own sinfulness would be healthy.  If it wouldn’t lead to moroseness and depression.  But the alternative to honest realism about our sinfulness is not a cheerful, healthy unconcern.  It is a mind like a Pharisee.  And the fruit of honest realism about one’s sin is not depression, but a clearer and clearer sight of Christ our Savior and a greater and greater sense of the glory of his salvation and the freedom and deliverance from our sins that we already have and will someday perfectly have through him.

To be sure, Matthew “lost a comfortable job, but he found a destiny.  He lost a good income, but he found honour.  He lost a comfortable security, but he found an adventure the like of which he had never dreamed.”  [Barclay in Morris, 219]  And he found those wonderful things where the Pharisees would never look for them, in the blackness of his own heart.