21 September 2010

Matthew 9:9-13

"Those who are well have no need of a physician, but those who are sick. Go and learn what this means, 'I desire mercy, not sacrifice.' For I have come to call not the righteous but sinners." (v.12-13)


Today the Church celebrates the life of the disciple and apostle Matthew.

Today's passage is one of many where Jesus comes into conflict with the Pharisees. The Pharisees were a particular grouping of Jews in New Testament times who kept strict food and purity practices as set out in Moses' holiness code (see Leviticus 10-17, for example). Many Pharisees initially respected Jesus as an observant Jew and teacher, but then rejected him when he flouted these regulations. To do so was, for them, entirely scandalous - it was not just that it was inappropriate, but it struck at the very heart of their religious faith.

Tax collectors were despised by Jews of their day. They were often corrupt and became rich working as Jewish agents for the Roman governors in their own communities. That Jesus would call one of these to become his disciple, let alone eat with them and other 'sinners' was highly offensive to the Pharisees. Why would a holy teacher behave this way?

Jesus uses the Jewish Scriptures themselves against the Pharisees. When challenged he responds by quoting the prophet Hosea, "For I desire steadfast love and not sacrifice, the knowledge of God rather than burnt-offerings" (Hosea 6:6). Jesus uses the same verse defending himself against the Pharisees in Matthew 12:7, knowing that to do so would confuse and silence his accusers.

But what does Jesus mean? He is not saying that the way people live and their behaviour does not matter. Rather he says that fullness of life in community is not just about following rules and excluding those who don't follow them. The mercy or "steadfast love" that Jesus hopes for among his followers is a sign of the mercy that God extends to all people. The teasing irony of Jesus' teaching here is that from his standpoint the Pharisees were equally 'sick' and in need of a 'physician'.

To Ponder

In your opinion, how has behaviour in church (clothing, seating, style of worship, minister) changed over the past 50 years in the UK?

If you have lived in another country, what are some of the differences between behaviour in UK churches versus churches there?

How should we deal with something we find offensive in church?

Bible notes author

The Revd Dr Jennifer Smith

Revd Dr Jennifer Smith is a Methodist minister, and superintendent of the Ealing Trinity Circuit in the London District. Though resident in the UK since 1993, she is a US citizen and continues to observe US political and religious culture with interest.