And as Jesus reclined at table in the house, behold, many tax collectors and sinners came and were reclining with Jesus and his disciples. And when the Pharisees saw this, they said to his disciples, “Why does your teacher eat 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. Go and learn what this means, ‘I desire mercy, and not sacrifice.’ For I came not to call the righteous, but sinners.” (Matt 9:10–13; ESV).
As part of his most recent Lord’s Day morning sermon Pastor Gordon read this passage. As he did two things struck me. First, after our Lord called Matthew the tax collector he (Matthew) brought Jesus into contact with his friends. In the ordinary providence of God it seems as it there is a brief window of time, after a person first comes to faith, in which new believers remain in contact with their friends, during which the new believer may bring Christ, as it were, to his friends. Usually, as the new believer’s interests and life change, under the influence of his new life and faith, the friendships from the old life tend to fray and break. The irony is that, in this period, the new believer is relatively ill-equipped to talk about Christ, the gospel, and the Christian faith and yet this is when some of his friends may first hear the gospel, come to faith, and enter the church. In this regard John 9 is also instructive. The man born blind was hardly equipped to speak for Christ and nevertheless and quite surprisingly the Lord made him a bold witness to his personal faith in Christ and to the some basic Christian truths.
Second, we probably all need to be struck again by the stark reality that our Lord, the Holy One of Israel (Isa 10:17, 20; 12:6), God the Son incarnate who is “holy, holy, holy” (Isa 6:3), actually reclined at table with human sinners. You may have heard that tax collectors were hated in the 1st century but you may not know why they were so hated. No one is particularly enamored of the IRS (especially when they’re asking about the content of our prayers) but most of us don’t have quite the same animosity toward a largely faceless (except for Lois Lerner) bureaucracy as taxpayers did in the Greco-Roman world. Donald Hagner describes as tax farmers those with whom Jesus reclined.
In the era the Romans collected a variety of indirect taxes and tolls (in contrast to the direct poll and land taxes) from the provinces through members of the local populations, making use of a network of tax-farming in Palestine similar to that which had existed under the Hellenistic rule of the Ptolemies. In this system one usually became a tax collector by bidding against others to guarantee the highest amount of money to the tax-farmers (the true publicani), who were directly responsible to the Roman government. This arrangement obviously provided the opportunity at several levels for considerable personal gain through the unrestricted inflation of taxes and tolls, a portion of which conveniently went into the pockets of the middlemen.1
Tax collectors weren’t just bureaucratic drones doing a job and going home to their families at the end of the day. They were entrepreneurs who profited personally by putting taxpayers in a vice. They were more like the mafia (collecting “protection money”) than bureaucrats. As Hagner notes, they were particularly hated by the Jews because they represented Roman oppression. They became personally wealthy by using government power. They were in regular contact with Gentiles and thus ritually unclean.2
It’s against this background that we must interpret the parable of the tax collector and the pharisee (Luke 18:10–14). The pharisee was outwardly the pillar of righteousness and holiness (sanctification). The tax collector was the symbol of all that was wrong with the world, of oppression, of disobedience to God’s law, of moral corruption. Nevertheless, it was not the pharisee but the tax collector who “got it,” i.e., who understood the grace of Christ toward sinners. The pharisee practically boasted before God:
I thank you that I am not like other men, extortioners, unjust, adulterers, or even like this tax collector (Luke 18:11).
The pharisee was deluded. He thought was sufficiently righteous and sanctified in himself to stand before God. He had no sense of the greatness of his sin and misery (Heidelberg Catechism 3). He had no sense of his need for the Savior. The tax collector, however, knew what he was:
God, be merciful to me, a sinner!
Our Lord Jesus interpreted the parable for us:
I tell you, this man went down to his house justified, rather than the other. For everyone who exalts himself will be humbled, but the one who humbles himself will be exalted.
It was the sinner, not the righteous, who was justified. This is why Paul says that Christ justifies the ungodly:
And to the one who does not work but believes in him who justifies the ungodly, his faith is counted as righteousness (Rom 4:5; ESV)
If your first instinct is to minimize the force of “ungodly” (ἀσεβῆ; as Pelagius did) then you will also want to downplay the force of “imputes” (λογίζομαι) and you will miss the gospel. Those who are already inherently sanctified (e.g., by grace and cooperation with grace) don’t need the perfect, extrinsic, alien righteousness of Christ credited to them through faith because they already have their own, proper, inherent righteousness by which they plan to present themselves to God. Don’t you see how easily and quickly the Good News for sinners of Christ’s righteousness for us is turned into our righteousness in us for him? Just like that we’re Pharisees. Sinners, however, hopeless and helpless apart from God’s free favor, in Christ—who was not ashamed to be counted the friend of sinners—know that their only hope is Christ for me. This is why Luther encouraged us to say over and over, “for me,” because we always want to substitute ourselves for Christ our substitute.
Jesus spent time with sinners. He was actually among them. He had (and has!) actual compassion upon the miserable, i.e., those who are hated and who hate themselves, upon the disgusted and the disgusting. He reclined at table with them. To us this might seem like an unusual custom. Under Greco-Roman influence, however, it had become common practice.3 Jesus inhabited the world that was. He did not merely pass through untouched by the unclean. He was not repulsed by sinners but the pharisees were.
What would you think if you saw your pastor talking on the street to drug addicts and prostitutes? Would you accuse him of impropriety or at least of creating the impression of impropriety? Would he be brought up on charges? Would you also bring up Jesus on charges? I ask because I’m worried that, in light of the ongoing discussion and controversy over sanctification—never mind that proponents of the Federal Vision are now treated as heroic defenders of the faith—that we’re in danger of losing a great gospel truth: our Lord Jesus spent time with those the “righteous” and the outwardly reputable found disgusting. I fear that, in our zeal to balance the scales after the justification controversy (the New Perspective(s) on Paul, Shepherd, the Federal Vision) and in our reaction to those whom some fear to be “antinomian” that we sinners can no longer admit to ourselves or others what we are or minister the law and the gospel to those who know what they are for fear of coming under condemnation and public (e.g., internet) shame for doing so.
Social media (e.g., Twitter, Facebook, blogs) are a covenant of works. On them now we must always present ourselves not as we really are but as what we must seem to others lest the wrath of the “righteous” fall upon us. That is a trap of the Evil One. It doesn’t take long to start believing that we really are what we portray to the rest of the world. At that point we become pharisees, about whom Jesus said:
Woe to you, scribes and Pharisees, hypocrites! For you are like whitewashed tombs, which outwardly appear beautiful, but within are full of dead people’s bones and all uncleanness. So you also outwardly appear righteous to others, but within you are full of hypocrisy and lawlessness (Matt 23:27–28).
Our Lord Jesus spent relatively little time among those who did not believe that they needed a physician, a Savior. He actually spent time talking to, showing grace to, loving, real sinners even though the pharisees hated him for it. Eventually the corruption and death within the white-washed tombs came out. The pharisees arranged Jesus’ murder at the hands of the state but they could not contain “the way, the life, and the truth” in their tomb. The inward hypocrisy of the outwardly righteous does come out, either in this life or at the judgment, which Jesus foreshadowed in Matthew 23. In the meantime, there remain the needy sinners, with whom Jesus ate, who depend on us to stop worrying about what the pharisees think and say.
1. D. A. Hagner, “Tax Collector,” ed. Geoffrey W. Bromiley, The International Standard Bible Encyclopedia, Revised (Wm. B. Eerdmans, 1979–1988), 742.
3. R. K. Harrison, “Table,” ed. Geoffrey W. Bromiley, The International Standard Bible Encyclopedia, Revised (Wm. B. Eerdmans, 1979–1988), 706.