Wednesday

21 September 2016

"Go and learn what this means, 'I desire mercy, not sacrifice.' For I have some to call not the righteous but sinners." (v. 13)

Psalm: Psalm 119:65-72

Background

'Righteous' and 'righteousness' are familiar words in the New Testament, especially in the writings of St Paul (38 times in Romans alone) and here, in Matthew's Gospel (20 times). But the meaning of the Greek words that lie behind them is still debated by scholars. Does 'righteous' mean 'good' or 'virtuous'? Or does it mean 'innocent' or 'acceptable' in the sight of God? Or is it simply 'doing the right thing'? Or maybe 'self-righteous' or 'respectable'? What about 'belonging to God and God's people'? It all depends on how, and where, the word is being used, of course. Here, in this familiar little story in Matthew, it is this last meaning that may help us most.

Another technical word used here is 'sinner'. This has a particular meaning in 1st century Judaism - it refers to someone whose occupation put them beyond the boundary of religious and social acceptability because they were regarded as 'unclean'. All kinds of people, from shepherds (because they came into contact with dead animals) to prostitutes were considered 'unclean', in much the same way that lepers were. They were regarded as necessarily excluded from fully belonging to God's people, even though they may have fulfilled a necessary role in society. The right sacrifices, however, could make them clean again. Tax collectors were a particular, and extreme category, of 'sinner' - not only did they act as agents for the Roman overlords, but they regularly handled 'unclean' coins, bearing the image of the emperor. For many strict Jews, including Pharisees, this was about as bad as it could get. For Jesus to sit down and eat with "tax collectors and sinners" (v. 11) was to put himself beyond the boundary too.

In answer to his critics Jesus declared that his task was to redraw the boundaries so that those who were previously excluded were now included - not on the basis of religious acceptability but simply by being with him. Those "who are well" (v. 12) - faithful, observant Jews - already belonged to God's people. They were the 'righteous'. Jesus' concern was for those who did not already belong - the 'sick' and the 'sinners'.

To Ponder

  • Jesus quoted from Hosea 6:6: "For I desire steadfast love and not sacrifice, the knowledge of God rather than burnt offerings". Why do you think he chose that particular verse? What does that say about 'religion'?
  • Jesus' 'gospel message' came in just two words: "Follow me" (v. 9). When the gospel (good news) is proclaimed by the Church, it is rarely that simple. Why do you think that is?
  • Where would you put the boundaries for 'belonging to God and God's people'? Why?


Bible notes author: The Revd David Rhymer

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