And as Jesus reclined at table in the house, behold, many tax collectors and sinners came and were reclining with Jesus and his disciples. 11And when the Pharisees saw this, they said to his disciples, “Why does your teacher eat with tax collectors and sinners?” 12But when he heard it, he said, “Those who are well have no need of a physician, but those who are sick. 13Go and learn what this means: ‘I desire mercy, and not sacrifice.’ For I came not to call the righteous, but sinners.”
The scene that is set in this passage is one that is conspicuous in light of Jewish practices and expectations. The customary expression “behold” is used to invite the reader to give careful attention to what follows. Jesus is described as “reclining” with “many tax collectors and sinners” (v. 10). This is quite unusual from a Jewish perspective for a respectable rabbi like Jesus. A meal where an honored Jewish guest like Jesus was attending would not be typically filled with company of such disreputable people. Eating with “tax collectors and sinners” (who were considered unclean) was an outrageous occasion from a Pharisee’s perspective. But that is exactly the point that is being made—Jesus is unlike the Pharisees. A Pharisee wouldn’t be caught dead eating with these people, but Jesus is making a statement about the difference in character between him and the Pharisees.
Jesus uses the metaphor of being “sick” as a way to address the tax collectors and sinners (v. 12). The Pharisees were concerned with staying away from those they deemed “sick,” while Jesus demonstrates a deep concern for them. However, his desire to help those who are “sick” is taken as his approval of their lifestyle and condoning of their “sickness.” But this is exactly the opposite of Jesus’ intention. In a sharp rebuke, Jesus tells the Pharisees, “Go and learn” what it means when God said through the prophet Hosea, “I desire mercy, and not sacrifice” (v. 13; cf. Hos 6:6).
The prophet Hosea was seeking to exhort God’s people to show love and kindness. He described the superficial and hypocritical love of God’s people as being like “a morning cloud, like the dew that goes early away” (Hos 6:4). Jesus was telling the Pharisees that they were being like the people of Israel that Hosea was criticizing. Jesus was modeling how to show mercy and compassion for the outcasts of society rather than how the Pharisees who were demonstrating outright rejection and criticism of them.
What does Jesus’ actions indicate and how can we too model this love and compassion for sinners? What this passage indicates is that the self-righteousness of the Pharisees and their blatant disregard for those in need of help is completely contrary to the love of God that Jesus is demonstrating by coming into the “sick” and tending to them and helping them. Those who are lost do not receive help by having a finger pointed at them. Rather, they are cared for when the value of their life is acknowledged. Love doesn’t default to protecting one’s self-image or with being concerned with what other people think. Love reaches out and shows how God desires to draw a person close to him and to restore them and heal.
If we truly grasp why Jesus would be helping the “sick” and risking the judgment and harassment from the Pharisees, maybe we can understand a little better how to form a Christ-like mindset for reaching the world the way that Jesus did…starting with showing “mercy.”