Imagine a doctor who avoided sick people, who exhibited distaste for contact with anyone who was ill. How long would he last as a doctor? His attitude would be in fundamental conflict with his calling. Jesus often drew on the everyday experience of his listeners to illustrate his teaching and so he uses the figure of the doctor to explain his saving mission. Consider Matthew 9:12-13 Calling the sick.
1. The criticism levelled at Jesus
The context of this encounter is the calling of Matthew (Levi) the tax-collector (v9). There is immediate obedience to Jesus’ call – ‘Matthew got up and followed him’. God’s grace was at work in a powerful way. In response Matthew arranges a banquet for Jesus and his disciples, along with friends and former work colleagues (v10). The latter were ‘sinners’ in the estimate of observant Jews and especially of the religious authorities. The latter are in view in v11 ‘When the Pharisees saw this’ – probably looking on, as they would not attend a meal involving contact with the ritually unclean. Their question is an accusation – ‘Why does your teacher eat with tax collectors and sinners?’ tax-collectors worked for the Romans and were notoriously greedy and dishonest. In the Pharisees’ view a godly teacher would avoid such people. If Jesus does not, what does that say about him?
2. The need identified by Jesus
Jesus has a striking answer to the criticism: ‘It is not the healthy who need a doctor, but the sick’. He casts himself in the role of a spiritual doctor coming to bring healing. If that is the case, where should he be found? He ought to be among ‘the sick’ – how else could he help them? Note 2 categories of people:
(i). The sick: this refers to ‘tax-collectors and sinners’. Jesus does not deny their sinfulness – they need a Saviour. Like all others, they are sinners (Romans 3:23). Their need is great and only the ministry of this doctor can deal with their plight.
(ii). The healthy: This could be those who are right with God by grace, but in context it refers to those like the Pharisees who were ‘healthy’ in their own estimate. They are confident of their own righteousness (Luke 18:9), but in fact they too are among the sick, though they do not realise or admit it. Their need is as great as the tax-collectors and others.
3. The mission fulfilled by Jesus
If the Pharisees believed that tax-collectors were sinners, what had they done to rescue them? Jesus quotes Hosea 6:6 ‘I desire mercy, not sacrifice’ to point out that ritual observances do not make up for self-righteous hearts. Jesus stands in complete contrast. His ‘coming’ (v13) indicates his divine origin and his coming to fulfil his messianic mission, including his suffering and death (16:21). Nothing less can heal our deadly sickness. He came ‘to call sinners’ – it is the call of the gospel, accepted by some (by the Spirit’s enabling) and rejected by others. By repentance (Luke 5:32) salvation is received and new life in Christ enjoyed.