A. The gospel and God’s love for sinners
1. The parables of the lost sheep and coin explain what Jesus is doing in eating with tax collectors and sinners; he is seeking the lost. These “sinners” were non-observant Jews. They were cut off from participation in the synagogue and temple—and, thus, from being a part of God’s people. Jesus sought out such people because he wanted to save them from their exile.
2. Jesus did not eat with “sinners” in order to tell them that they weren’t really sinners. This would be the error that stands equal and opposite to the error of Pharisee. The Pharisee said, “Don’t touch the unclean.” This error says, “Don’t tell anyone that they are unclean.” The goal of Jesus ministry was discipleship and transformation. Jesus ate with sinners and got to know them in order to call them to repentance and faith in him, and to bring them back into the community of God’s people.
– St. Matthew is an example of this transformation—from tax collector to saint.
B. The larger point of the story
1. But there is a larger point made by Jesus’ fellowship with non-observant Jews and Gentiles. Jesus redefined and re-configured God’s people. The Pharisees defined God’s people as those who were faithful to observe the Torah through the lens of their tradition. Those who were not observant were outside and to be avoided. As the Word made flesh, Jesus’ very presence redefines God’s people because he replaces the Torah as the focus of faith. To obey the Torah now means literally to follow him. Those who refuse to believe in Jesus and obey him are, by definition, outside.
2. This is both a seismic progression in God’s revelation and a critique by Jesus of the existing lines of segregation. Jesus brought the Old Covenant to a close and inaugurated the New Covenant. This does not mean that the Torah is thrown out; it means that the Torah is understood in a new way in the light of the One who fulfills it. The New Testament is, essentially, the interpretation of the Torah in the light of Christ.
3. This redefinition is also a critique. Jesus revealed that the lines drawn by the religious leadership did not accurately reflect the boundaries of God’s people. The Pharisees highlighted the sins of others, but ignored their own sins. Their religion covered up their inner disorder. In other words, they weren’t obeying the Torah any more than those whom they labeled “sinners.” As 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. (Mat 23:27-28).
The Pharisees drew lines in the wrong places, and they did reach out to those who were outside the lines. This is why Jesus was so critical of them.
C. The application to us
1. The Pharisees are easy targets. When we call someone “Pharisaical” we mean that they focus on rules but ignore more important truths. However, any reading of Jesus’ critique of the Pharisees that does not lead us to the mirror is deception. We are religious people, and his critique of their religion should lead us to examine our own.
2. We run the risk of being Pharisees when we criticize the sins of others while ignoring one’s own sins; for example, when we are very strict about sins of the flesh such as lust and gluttony while being easy on more invisible spiritual sins like greed and envy. If we are guilty of being covetous, what moral authority do we have to condemn others for their sexual immorality?
3. If we are in touch with our own inherent sinfulness, it will cause us to look at the sin of another more sympathetically. If I acknowledge my greed and begin to let God do his work in me to make me more generous, then I will look at the sins of others more sympathetically as well. I will want to reach out to others and bring them into the new community where they can find grace to overcome their sin. Jesus strongly opposed the Pharisees self-righteousness and their habit of condemning others. The antidote to this is to acknowledge our own sins and to desire the salvation of others.
1. Transformation is the key. Ours faith is transformative. God is changing us from sinners into saints. This is what we pray for each week—“that our sinful bodies may be made clean by his body and our souls washed through his most precious blood.” And, “that we may do all such good works as thou hast prepared for us to walk in.” Our beautiful and transcendent liturgy and music are merely the means to the end of transformation into the image of Christ. If you are here only because you love traditional things and like to distinguish yourself from those who don’t, you are here for the wrong reason.
2. Transformation is a process that takes time. God gives us his grace in many ways. Our vocation is to persevere in the process of grace. We are all sinners. There is not a group of righteous people who are separated from a group of sinners. The thing that makes us holy is that we have begun to follow Jesus. He has given us the gift of the Holy Spirit, and the Spirit is at work in us. As persevere in the life of prayer in the community of the church, God’s grace begins to change us.
3. This is our witness. What we say to others is this: We have experienced God’s power to change our lives, and we want to invite you to experience God’s power to change your life. Jesus said, “There is joy in the presence of the angels of God over one sinner who repents.” Repentance begins with us, and then expands out from us as seek to share this joy with others.