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The “healthy” and the “sick”. What did Jesus really mean?

This entry is part 2 of 2 in the series TNT - Blowing up misconceptions from The Bible

You’ve probably heard the quote below.  
But do you know what it really means?
Do you know the implications behind that simple statement.

“It is not the healthy who need a doctor, but the sick. I have not come to call the righteous, but sinners.”

As it says at the top, this is the second entry in the TNT series. The first talks about what led me to do this – a desire to make the complex and difficult parts of the Bible easier to understand – without having to learn all the “churchy” words or look up ancient historical information.  

Although this is the second entry, this is actually the first example where we are going through the process, so I’ll try to explain why I’m doing the things included in here.

Context

First of all, Context is important.  That means we have to understand the scenario in which the words were said.  Things like – who said them, who was being spoken too, what was the culture of the time, what did the various people involved think of each other?  Things like that.

Translations and Versions of The Bible

One other important thing to know when we read the Bible – there are many different translations – and I don’t just mean English versus French versus Spanish, Etc.  Over the years, many different groups have done their own “translations” from the original Hebrew (The Old Testament) and Greek (New Testament), into the various languages we normally think of when talking about translating something.  For instance, just one of the software packages I use has 33 different versions (translations) of the Bible in English.  So when we talk about a translation, it’s not just the language (English), but the time period, the beliefs of the people doing the translating, and other things that we’re talking about.

The most common translation in the world today is supposedly the NIV (New International Version).  Even there, however, there are two different ones in use – one from 1984 and one from 2011.  So even the one translation – NIV – has two different “versions”.  And, as you can imagine – the two different years use different words from each other in some verses.  All of this makes it difficult to talk about which translation / version is being used.

What is the most common Bible Translation?

One more complication – this time related to what does the “most common” translation really mean?   The numbers I have here are for the U.S., not the world as a whole – but it shows the problems with this type of study.

According to booksellers – the number one translation is the NIV.  Given the study was done in 2014, it covers only the 1984 NIV Bible.

And yet – multiple studies show the most commonly used translation isn’t the NIV, but the KJV – the King James Version.

Here are a few extracts from a 2014 article in Christianity Today.

First, here’s the title of the article –

The Most Popular and Fastest Growing Bible Translation Isn’t What You Think It Is

The article begins –

When Americans reach for their Bibles, more than half of them pick up a King James Version (KJV), according to a new study advised by respected historian Mark Noll.

The 55 percent who read the KJV easily outnumber the 19 percent who read the New International Version (NIV). And the percentages drop into the single digits for competitors such as the New Revised Standard Version, New America Bible, and the Living Bible.

and continues –

The numbers are surprising, given the strong sales of NIV translations in bookstores. The NIV has topped the CBA’s bestselling Bible translation list for decades, and continued to sell robustly in 2013.

It certainly surprised me.  Most of the people I know use the NIV.  Although I am not Chinese, having come from a church that was primarily Chinese – and taught Bible Study classes there – I used the NIV, as they did.  All the Chinese people I know today also use the NIV.  The software packages I use also tend to be more NIV focused.

and has this interesting finding –

“Although the bookstores are now crowded with alternative versions, and although several different translations are now widely used in church services and for preaching, the large presence of the KJV testifies to the extraordinary power of this one classic English text,” Noll commented in the IUPUI report. “It also raises most interesting questions about the role of religious and linguistic tradition in the makeup of contemporary American culture.”

I’ll continue to use the NIV as my primary version – partly because of my software, and partly because the NIV is the one most commonly language translated into Chinese.  It was that small Chinese church that brought me back to God, so I’ll probably (hopefully) always feel some sort of desire to give back to the Chinese speaking people.

 

Let’s get started with Context

Here is the entire passage – series of verses – from which the quote at the top is taken.

This passage is from the 1984 NIV Bible.

The Calling of Levi

Mk 2:13 Once again Jesus went out beside the lake. A large crowd came to him, and he began to teach them. 14 As he walked along, he saw Levi son of Alphaeus sitting at the tax collector’s booth. “Follow me,”Jesus told him, and Levi got up and followed him.
Mk 2:15 While Jesus was having dinner at Levi’s house, many Tax Collectors and “sinners” were eating with him and his disciples, for there were many who followed him. 16 When the teachers of the law who were Pharisees saw him eating with the “sinners” and tax collectors, they asked his disciples: “Why does he eat with tax collectors and ‘sinners’?”
Mk 2:17 On hearing this, Jesus said to them, “It is not the healthy who need a doctor, but the sick. I have not come to call the righteous, but sinners.”

The Calling of Levi

The first thing we see is the “title” – The calling of Levi.  This title is not part of The Bible.  In this case, it’s a section title added to the 1984 NIV translation.  If you’re wondering why the title only mentions Levi, you’re not alone.  The 2011 NIV uses the title Jesus Calls Levi and Eats With Sinners. 
On the other hand, if you’re one of the KJV readers, your title is – well – there isn’t one.  At least not in the The Holy Bible: King James Version. (2009). (Electronic Edition of the 1900 Authorized Version.). Bellingham, WA: Logos Research Systems, Inc. version that I’m looking at right now.
But – if you read the NKJV – the New KJV – your title is Call of Matthew  – if you’re using The New King James Version. (1982). Nashville: Thomas Nelson – as I am.

As you can see – these titles are at best something of a guide to what follows, although not always all that helpful.  That is – if they even exist.

While we’re here though – 

what is “calling”?

“Calling” is one of those “churchy” words.  It’s used, with an assumption that everyone knows what it means.  Or maybe, that everyone will figure out what it means.  Or – maybe – it’s one of those words that is so polarizing that no one wants to really touch what it means – to them.  Or could mean.  Or might mean.

Essentially, a brief non-controversial (although admittedly partial) definition would be that in some fashion, God is asking someone to do something.  I’ll try to make that more clear for this one example of The calling of Levi.

At this point, if you would like more info on “calling” from the church point of view, please see The problem of God “calling”.

Who is involved in this “calling”?

In this passage, it’s Jesus “calling” Levi.
In other words – Jesus us asking Levi to do something.
In this case, Jesus is asking Levi to leave the tax collector’s booth and go with Him.

Why is this part even here?

If you happen to be using the 2011 NIV, with the section title of Jesus Calls Levi and Eats With Sinners, it’s maybe a bit more obvious that if you have no title or just The calling of Levi.

The first verses identify one specific person that Jesus asked to follow Him – Levi.  What we learn in another place is that Levi also had his name changed to Matthew.  This is the same Matthew who wrote the first Gospel.

Then we read –

Mk 2:15 While Jesus was having dinner at Levi’s house, many tax collectors and “sinners” were eating with him and his disciples, for there were many who followed him.

– where we see they were at this new “follower’s” house – along with other tax collectors and “sinners”, and still others – identified as disciples.  We also see that many people wee following Jesus around – literally.  It’s not like there was cable news, the internet, or any other mass media.  If you wanted to see / hear Jesus – you found out however you could where Jesus was – then you followed him around.

The disciples were Jesus’ inner circle – of which Levi / Matthew would become one,
The “sinners” – well, they were sinners.
So why the special mention for tax collectors?  Part of that was to make sure we knew Levi / Matthew was a tax collector.  But the other is that tax collectors were incredibly despised people in that time.  Believe it or not – even more so than the current IRS.

Here’s some cultural background on tax collectors in Jesus’ time on earth –

TAX COLLECTOR Someone responsible for collecting taxes and tolls on behalf of the Roman government.

Yes – even though Levi – and others – were Jewish, they were collecting taxes for the hated Roman government.

Role of Tax Collectors
Tax collectors, also known as publicans (publicanus), charged tolls and taxes on behalf of the Roman government. These private government subcontractors would tax travelers who were carrying merchandise between properties or delivering goods along certain well-defined roads. Rome preferred to hire locals who were familiar with a region’s inhabitants, land, and roads. Some tax agents were responsible for such large territories that they functioned as subcontractors, hiring their own employees to collect the taxes. Zacchaeus seems to fit this category, as he is described as a “chief” tax collector (Luke 19:2–10).
Tax collectors earned a profit by demanding a higher tax from the people than they had prepaid to the Roman government. This system led to widespread greed and corruption. The tax-collecting profession was saturated with unscrupulous people who overtaxed others to maximize their personal gain. According to Adams, “The toll-collectors were in a profession that was open to dishonesty and oppression of their neighbor” (Adams, The Sinner in Luke). Since the Jews considered themselves victims of Roman oppression, Jewish tax collectors who overtaxed their fellow countrymen were especially despised. Jews viewed such favor for Rome as betrayal and equal to treason against God. Rabbinic sources consistently align Jewish tax collectors with robbers.

These Jewish tax collectors weren’t actually paid by the Roman government.  Their income was derived from charging more than the amount they would have to turn over to the Romans.  Even though it was a case of Jewish people taxing Jewish people – it was still for the Romans.  And it was not at all uncommon for these Jewish tax collectors to demand much more than what would have been required – all for their own personal gain.  Think about that and how it matches up with the Jewish Laws.  Then, consider – things haven’t really changed all that much, have they?  We have more ways to do it now – and they’re probably even “legal” – but getting money in questionable ways for personal gain – it’s been around for a long time.

Tax Collectors in the New Testament
The only references to tax collectors in Scripture are the 20 references in the Synoptic Gospels. The Gospels tend to connect tax collectors with sinners (Matt 9:10; Mark 2:15–16; Luke 15:1–2). According to Neale, “For Luke, toll collectors serve as archetypal ‘sinners’ beyond the pale of salvation” (None But the Sinners, 113–15).
Jewish religious leaders particularly despised tax collectors (Matt 9:11; 11:19; Luke 5:30; 7:34), regarding them as ceremonially unclean and excluding them from religious activities. John the Baptist baptizes many tax collectors, but he does not instruct them to change occupations. Instead, he urges them to “collect no more than you have been ordered to” (Luke 3:12–13; 7:29).

John not advising the Jewish tax collectors to change occupations is interesting – see the paragraph below for more).  However, he does tell them that in the process, they should follow Jewish law and not take advantage of their fellow Jews.

Jesus’ Relationship with Tax Collectors
Jesus interacts with tax collectors throughout Scripture, but He also speaks disparagingly about them, at times affiliating them with prostitutes (Matt 21:31–32) and Gentiles (Matt 18:17). Jesus agrees that paying taxes is moral (Mark 12:17), but He disapproves of the corruption common among tax collectors. They are among the lost whom He came to find (Luke 19:10) and the sick whom He came to heal (Matthew 9:10–12).
Mark 2:15–16 reports “many tax collectors and sinners” among Jesus’ followers. One of Jesus’ 12 disciples, Matthew (also known as Levi) was formerly a tax collector (Matt 9:9; Mark 2:14; Luke 5:27). In Matthew 21:31–32, Jesus declares that certain prostitutes and tax collectors would enter the kingdom ahead of the religious leaders because they had believed John’s message of repentance. Jesus’ parable of the Pharisee and Tax Collector in Luke 18:10–14 teaches that self-righteousness is displeasing to God when displayed by anyone (even a Pharisee), whereas repentance is pleasing to God when displayed by anyone (even a tax collector).
Jesus’ association with tax collectors proves unpopular, especially among the Jewish religious leaders, who regarded fellowship with sinners as guilt by association and equal to moral compromise. Jesus’ table fellowship with tax collectors is presented as being especially scandalous (Matt 9:11; Mark 2:16; Luke 5:30; 15:1–2), in part because the meal was thought to be purchased using proceeds gained from unethical taxation. When accused of being a friend of unrepentant tax collectors and sinners, however, Jesus denies it along with the accusation that He is a glutton and a drunk (Matt 11:18–19; Luke 7:34).  1)Miller, J. E. (2016). Tax Collector. In J. D. Barry, D. Bomar, D. R. Brown, R. Klippenstein, D. Mangum, C. Sinclair Wolcott, … W. Widder (Eds.), The Lexham Bible Dictionary. Bellingham, WA: Lexham Press.

And this completes the picture of the Jewish tax collectors at that time.

What do we have?

Let’s start with the question asked about Jesus and His choice of dining companions.

When the teachers of the law who were Pharisees saw him eating with the “sinners” and tax collectors, they asked his disciples: “Why does he eat with tax collectors and ‘sinners’?”

We see the Pharisees – Jewish leaders – considered sinners as people who were unacceptable to be eating with.  But beyond that, tax collectors – since they were singled out – were considered to be even worse.

And we have Levi being “called”.  Levi – aka Matthew.  By the way, if you’re looking for the spot where Levi gets his new name – it’s only noticeable by looking at the same encounter in two different Gospels.  Above, we looked at Luke – the doctor – who was very precise.  At the time of this “calling”, the tax collector’s name was Levi.  However, when reading Matthew’s own Gospel, we see that Matthew was, in fact, this same Levi –

Mt 9:9 As Jesus went on from there, he saw a man named Matthew sitting at the tax collector’s booth. “Follow me,” he told him, and Matthew got up and followed him.
Mt 9:10 While Jesus was having dinner at Matthew’s house, many tax collectors and “sinners” came and ate with him and his disciples. 11 When the Pharisees saw this, they asked his disciples, “Why does your teacher eat with tax collectors and ‘sinners’?”
Mt 9:12 On hearing this, Jesus said, “It is not the healthy who need a doctor, but the sick. 13 But go and learn what this means: ‘I desire mercy, not sacrifice.’ For I have not come to call the righteous, but sinners.”

So Matthew – identifying himself as one of the worst of the sinners in Jewish eyes – follows Jesus and ends up writing this Gospel.

Maybe not quite so obviously, but we also have the Pharisees giving themselves a degree of separation from both the sinners and Jesus.  Yes – both of them.  They don’t feel it’s proper to eat with tax collectors and other sinners.  They, therefore think it’s not proper for Jesus to be eating with them – since He is a Jew, and people even called Him Rabbi (or master / teacher).  Finally, they were making it quite clear that they, as Pharisees, would never do this.

Now, the setup of the scenario is complete.  The Pharisees think they have Jesus’ followers trapped.  Their teacher, Jesus, is eating with sinners.  Tax collectors even.  It’s disgraceful!  The Pharisees are above such a thing.  And they ask Jesus followers – how can your teacher do these things?

What happens next is like a preview of something Jesus tells His followers before sending them out to spread the word –

Mt 10:17 “Be on your guard against men; they will hand you over to the local councils and flog you in their synagogues. 18 On my account you will be brought before governors and kings as witnesses to them and to the Gentiles. 19 But when they arrest you, do not worry about what to say or how to say it. At that time you will be given what to say, 20 for it will not be you speaking, but the Spirit of your Father speaking through you.

Although the question about eating with sinners was clearly directed at Jesus’ followers, since Jesus was right there – He answered the question Himself.  They didn’t need to come up with the words to answer.  And that’s exactly what Jesus is going to tell His disciples when He sends them out on their own.  Even though He won’t be physically with them, they should not worry – because they will not be left alone.  The Holy Spirit – the third member of the Trinity – will give them the words.  The end result will be the same as what we see in the questioning of the Pharisees – where Jesus answers the question put to His followers.

So we pick up something additional here – Jesus is, and will be – trustworthy.  He will not leave His people.

What does it all mean?

Then come the closing – where Jesus shuts down the discussion.

It is not the healthy who need a doctor, but the sick.

Possibly the Pharisees could have taken this statement and concluded that Jesus was saying something like – even though it’s improper to eat with people such as these, they are the ones I have come for.  Therefore, it’s a necessary action to dine with them.  And the Pharisees can tell themselves that they can continue to only eat with “good” people – not sinners.

But go and learn what this means: ‘I desire mercy, not sacrifice.’ from Matthew’s Gospel

Ouch!  You may have no idea just how bad this was – what a slap in the face it was to the Pharisees.

It’s a line from Hosea, in the Old Testament –

Hos 6:6 For I desire mercy, not sacrifice,

is how the verse starts.

Before giving you the rest of it, here’s a bit of background about the book of Hosea,  In order to make it more readable, I’m going to remove verse references and just leave the summary –

Hosea

This book describes God’s relationship to Israel in terms of the prophet’s own unfortunate marriage. Hosea’s first marriage to a prostitute  symbolizes Israel’s and Judah’s apostasy, while the faithfulness of Hosea to his wife symbolizes God’s faithfulness to Israel. The Lord’s love for Israel is characterized as “loyal love”—a steadfast love for his own chosen people. God is determined to remain faithful to the covenant regardless of Israel’s unfaithfulness. He shows this loyal love to thousands of generations who obey and love him. In spite of all that happens to Israel, this love cannot be quenched.

By quoting that line from Hosea, which the Pharisees would have certainly recognized – Jesus just called the Pharisees prostitutes.  Just think of what that would mean to these self-righteous leaders who considered themselves too good to eat with tax collectors and other sinners.  Now, they are being called something worse than the average sinner as well.

Here is just a bit of information to give you an idea of how prostitutes were considered in Old Testament times –

prostitutes in general were considered an underclass. Priests could not marry prostitutes (Lev. 21:7), Israelites should not make their daughters prostitutes (19:29), and a priest’s daughter who became a prostitute should be burned (21:9). The payment a prostitute received was considered analogous to the price of a dog; neither could be used to fulfill vows (Deut. 23:18).  Frymer-Kensky, T. S., & Powell, M. A. (2011). prostitute. In M. A. Powell (Ed.), The HarperCollins Bible Dictionary (Revised and Updated) (Third Edition, p. 838). New York: HarperCollins.

Yes – quite a comeback – and big time slap in the face – from Jesus to the Pharisees.

But Israel has sinned and will be cast away from God’s presence. This prophecy against them is based squarely on the stipulations of the Mosaic law, that the Lord is a jealous God and Israel is to have no other gods before him. But Israel has been looking to other nations for help (Egypt and Assyria) rather than to the Lord; thus, they will go into exile in Assyria. This is seen as a return to the bondage of Egypt. In this coming judgment on the northern kingdom, Judah will be delivered from Israel’s fate. In the future, however, God will have compassion on Israel and regather them from among the nations and, with Judah, they will again dwell in the land. The exodus of God’s people from Egypt as recounted in the Pentateuch becomes a picture of Israel’s future salvation. That is, Israel’s punishment is not permanent rejection, for the Lord will again bring his people back into the Promised Land and care for them as at the beginning. 

However, it wouldn’t have stopped there.  Notice the part about prophecy against them is based squarely on the stipulations of the Mosaic law.  That’s yet another direct blow, since these Pharisees were –

a group of particularly observant and influential Jews, mainly in Judea, from the second century BCE to the first century CE. The meaning of the name itself is obscure. It may mean “separate ones” in Hebrew, referring to their observance of ritual purity laws in ways that separated them from others, or it could mean “interpreters,” referring to their penchant for studying and teaching biblical law.  Saldarini, A. J., & Powell, M. A. (2011). Pharisees. In M. A. Powell (Ed.), The HarperCollins Bible Dictionary (Revised and Updated) (Third Edition, p. 790). New York: HarperCollins.

Hosea’s second marriage to a prostitute, with the intent of curing her of her prostitution, symbolizes God’s use of the exile to cure Israel of apostasy. The mention of David is derived from God’s promise to David—the Messiah is to be a king of the house of David, and when he comes he will rule like David. Thus Hosea, who lived long after the time of David, can still look forward to a time when Israel “will return and seek the LORD their God and David their king”.

The past sins of Israel and Judah provide the context for viewing their present sin and for showing God’s loyal love for Israel. The past is a parable. God has long endured his disobedient people, but his love for them remains. God will not forsake them forever.

Finally, some hope – although look how it comes.  Through another marriage to a prostitute and an exile – to cure all the things they have been doing wrong.  So, yes – hope.  But are they willing to pay the price of “admission” – pun entirely intended.  They have to “admit” what they had become in order to be “admitted” back to a relationship with God.

In keeping with the parabolic nature of this book, the author closes by calling for careful and discerning reading. A wise reader will gain much understanding from this book; a rebellious reader will stumble.  Sailhamerl The Books of The Bible

First – for those of us who were math majors, the word “parabolic” here does not mean in the shape of a parabola.  That is the first thing I thought of – but, as math majors would be aware – it makes no sense.  A parabola is a geometric shape – not a book or a story.

No – it means of or relating to a parable – which is a favorite teaching tool of Jesus.  It’s probably not coincidence – Jesus using a book that is meant to be a parabolic way of teaching the Jews of their abandonment of God – in order to show the Pharisees that they have done exactly the same thing.

Had Jesus stopped there, the Pharisees would have been plenty upset.  But He didn’t.  Jesus went one step further.

For I have not come to call the righteous, but sinners.

What Jesus did here was to remove that one sliver of hope given to the people in Hosea.  

Jesus just told the Pharisees that He did come to save the sinners – those who admit (remember the price of admission from Hosea?) they need Hi.
However, Jesus also told the Pharisees, who were not willing to admit they needed Him – that He didn’t come for them.  The Messiah that they were looking forward to was telling them – I’m not here for you!

Let’s look one more time at the last line from the Hosea summary –

A wise reader will gain much understanding from this book; a rebellious reader will stumble.

The wise reader will gain much understanding – if they want to.
The rebellious reader will stumble.

Unfortunately, most readers – both then and now – will stumble.
Because they aren’t willing to pay the price for “admission”.
And it’s not really all that high – except for losing pride and saving face.
Oh.  I guess for too many – that is pretty high.

Too bad – because the reward is so much greater.

So – what about the original word – “calling”?

If you even remember, we started this off with The Calling of Levi.

As we talked about – Jesus told Levi to follow Him.
And he did.
Somewhere, although we don’t know exactly when, Levi became know as Matthew.
Matthew – obviously became a disciple and ended up writing the Gospel bearing his name.

Levi was called.
Levi was a tax collector – and learned that he was one of the “sick”.
Through Jesus – he was saved.  
And, yes – called.

Ultimately, called to do this –

The Great Commission

Mt 28:16 Then the eleven disciples went to Galilee, to the mountain where Jesus had told them to go. 17 When they saw him, they worshiped him; but some doubted. 18 Then Jesus came to them and said, “All authority in heaven and on earth has been given to me. 19 Therefore go and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, 20 and teaching them to obey everything I have commanded you. And surely I am with you always, to the very end of the age.”

t’s all about reaching out to those who are “sick”.
Not necessarily to everyone who needs saving through Jesus – because we all do.

But first – we must recognize that we actually need saving.

We need to know we are “sick” – the way it’s used above.
because those who think they are healthy won’t listen.  And therefore cannot be made well.

Interesting, isn’t it?
Only the “wise” will know they are sick.

References   [ + ]

1. Miller, J. E. (2016). Tax Collector. In J. D. Barry, D. Bomar, D. R. Brown, R. Klippenstein, D. Mangum, C. Sinclair Wolcott, … W. Widder (Eds.), The Lexham Bible Dictionary. Bellingham, WA: Lexham Press.

And this completes the picture of the Jewish tax collectors at that time.

What do we have?

Let’s start with the question asked about Jesus and His choice of dining companions.

When the teachers of the law who were Pharisees saw him eating with the “sinners” and tax collectors, they asked his disciples: “Why does he eat with tax collectors and ‘sinners’?”

We see the Pharisees – Jewish leaders – considered sinners as people who were unacceptable to be eating with.  But beyond that, tax collectors – since they were singled out – were considered to be even worse.

And we have Levi being “called”.  Levi – aka Matthew.  By the way, if you’re looking for the spot where Levi gets his new name – it’s only noticeable by looking at the same encounter in two different Gospels.  Above, we looked at Luke – the doctor – who was very precise.  At the time of this “calling”, the tax collector’s name was Levi.  However, when reading Matthew’s own Gospel, we see that Matthew was, in fact, this same Levi –

Mt 9:9 As Jesus went on from there, he saw a man named Matthew sitting at the tax collector’s booth. “Follow me,” he told him, and Matthew got up and followed him.
Mt 9:10 While Jesus was having dinner at Matthew’s house, many tax collectors and “sinners” came and ate with him and his disciples. 11 When the Pharisees saw this, they asked his disciples, “Why does your teacher eat with tax collectors and ‘sinners’?”
Mt 9:12 On hearing this, Jesus said, “It is not the healthy who need a doctor, but the sick. 13 But go and learn what this means: ‘I desire mercy, not sacrifice.’ For I have not come to call the righteous, but sinners.”

So Matthew – identifying himself as one of the worst of the sinners in Jewish eyes – follows Jesus and ends up writing this Gospel.

Maybe not quite so obviously, but we also have the Pharisees giving themselves a degree of separation from both the sinners and Jesus.  Yes – both of them.  They don’t feel it’s proper to eat with tax collectors and other sinners.  They, therefore think it’s not proper for Jesus to be eating with them – since He is a Jew, and people even called Him Rabbi (or master / teacher).  Finally, they were making it quite clear that they, as Pharisees, would never do this.

Now, the setup of the scenario is complete.  The Pharisees think they have Jesus’ followers trapped.  Their teacher, Jesus, is eating with sinners.  Tax collectors even.  It’s disgraceful!  The Pharisees are above such a thing.  And they ask Jesus followers – how can your teacher do these things?

What happens next is like a preview of something Jesus tells His followers before sending them out to spread the word –

Mt 10:17 “Be on your guard against men; they will hand you over to the local councils and flog you in their synagogues. 18 On my account you will be brought before governors and kings as witnesses to them and to the Gentiles. 19 But when they arrest you, do not worry about what to say or how to say it. At that time you will be given what to say, 20 for it will not be you speaking, but the Spirit of your Father speaking through you.

Although the question about eating with sinners was clearly directed at Jesus’ followers, since Jesus was right there – He answered the question Himself.  They didn’t need to come up with the words to answer.  And that’s exactly what Jesus is going to tell His disciples when He sends them out on their own.  Even though He won’t be physically with them, they should not worry – because they will not be left alone.  The Holy Spirit – the third member of the Trinity – will give them the words.  The end result will be the same as what we see in the questioning of the Pharisees – where Jesus answers the question put to His followers.

So we pick up something additional here – Jesus is, and will be – trustworthy.  He will not leave His people.

What does it all mean?

Then come the closing – where Jesus shuts down the discussion.

It is not the healthy who need a doctor, but the sick.

Possibly the Pharisees could have taken this statement and concluded that Jesus was saying something like – even though it’s improper to eat with people such as these, they are the ones I have come for.  Therefore, it’s a necessary action to dine with them.  And the Pharisees can tell themselves that they can continue to only eat with “good” people – not sinners.

But go and learn what this means: ‘I desire mercy, not sacrifice.’ from Matthew’s Gospel

Ouch!  You may have no idea just how bad this was – what a slap in the face it was to the Pharisees.

It’s a line from Hosea, in the Old Testament –

Hos 6:6 For I desire mercy, not sacrifice,

is how the verse starts.

Before giving you the rest of it, here’s a bit of background about the book of Hosea,  In order to make it more readable, I’m going to remove verse references and just leave the summary –

Hosea

This book describes God’s relationship to Israel in terms of the prophet’s own unfortunate marriage. Hosea’s first marriage to a prostitute  symbolizes Israel’s and Judah’s apostasy, while the faithfulness of Hosea to his wife symbolizes God’s faithfulness to Israel. The Lord’s love for Israel is characterized as “loyal love”—a steadfast love for his own chosen people. God is determined to remain faithful to the covenant regardless of Israel’s unfaithfulness. He shows this loyal love to thousands of generations who obey and love him. In spite of all that happens to Israel, this love cannot be quenched.

By quoting that line from Hosea, which the Pharisees would have certainly recognized – Jesus just called the Pharisees prostitutes.  Just think of what that would mean to these self-righteous leaders who considered themselves too good to eat with tax collectors and other sinners.  Now, they are being called something worse than the average sinner as well.

Here is just a bit of information to give you an idea of how prostitutes were considered in Old Testament times –

prostitutes in general were considered an underclass. Priests could not marry prostitutes (Lev. 21:7), Israelites should not make their daughters prostitutes (19:29), and a priest’s daughter who became a prostitute should be burned (21:9). The payment a prostitute received was considered analogous to the price of a dog; neither could be used to fulfill vows (Deut. 23:18).  Frymer-Kensky, T. S., & Powell, M. A. (2011). prostitute. In M. A. Powell (Ed.), The HarperCollins Bible Dictionary (Revised and Updated) (Third Edition, p. 838). New York: HarperCollins.

Yes – quite a comeback – and big time slap in the face – from Jesus to the Pharisees.

But Israel has sinned and will be cast away from God’s presence. This prophecy against them is based squarely on the stipulations of the Mosaic law, that the Lord is a jealous God and Israel is to have no other gods before him. But Israel has been looking to other nations for help (Egypt and Assyria) rather than to the Lord; thus, they will go into exile in Assyria. This is seen as a return to the bondage of Egypt. In this coming judgment on the northern kingdom, Judah will be delivered from Israel’s fate. In the future, however, God will have compassion on Israel and regather them from among the nations and, with Judah, they will again dwell in the land. The exodus of God’s people from Egypt as recounted in the Pentateuch becomes a picture of Israel’s future salvation. That is, Israel’s punishment is not permanent rejection, for the Lord will again bring his people back into the Promised Land and care for them as at the beginning. 

However, it wouldn’t have stopped there.  Notice the part about prophecy against them is based squarely on the stipulations of the Mosaic law.  That’s yet another direct blow, since these Pharisees were –

a group of particularly observant and influential Jews, mainly in Judea, from the second century BCE to the first century CE. The meaning of the name itself is obscure. It may mean “separate ones” in Hebrew, referring to their observance of ritual purity laws in ways that separated them from others, or it could mean “interpreters,” referring to their penchant for studying and teaching biblical law.  Saldarini, A. J., & Powell, M. A. (2011). Pharisees. In M. A. Powell (Ed.), The HarperCollins Bible Dictionary (Revised and Updated) (Third Edition, p. 790). New York: HarperCollins.

Hosea’s second marriage to a prostitute, with the intent of curing her of her prostitution, symbolizes God’s use of the exile to cure Israel of apostasy. The mention of David is derived from God’s promise to David—the Messiah is to be a king of the house of David, and when he comes he will rule like David. Thus Hosea, who lived long after the time of David, can still look forward to a time when Israel “will return and seek the LORD their God and David their king”.

The past sins of Israel and Judah provide the context for viewing their present sin and for showing God’s loyal love for Israel. The past is a parable. God has long endured his disobedient people, but his love for them remains. God will not forsake them forever.

Finally, some hope – although look how it comes.  Through another marriage to a prostitute and an exile – to cure all the things they have been doing wrong.  So, yes – hope.  But are they willing to pay the price of “admission” – pun entirely intended.  They have to “admit” what they had become in order to be “admitted” back to a relationship with God.

In keeping with the parabolic nature of this book, the author closes by calling for careful and discerning reading. A wise reader will gain much understanding from this book; a rebellious reader will stumble.  Sailhamerl The Books of The Bible



This post first appeared on Forgiven: Study God, please read the originial post: here

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