Think for a moment of the images of Jesus you have seen over the years. Jesus, standing with arms stretched out in welcome, radiating gentleness and peace. Jesus, the Good Shepherd, with a lamb resting contentedly on his shoulders. Jesus, seated, tenderly welcoming little children to come near to him. These images show us a Jesus who is full of compassion, the One who reveals to us a God of compassion, mercy and love.
But Jesus’ compassion was also controversial. The ways he reached out to others, and the others to whom he reached out, shocked the righteous people of his day and scandalized them. Here he was, hanging out with disreputable people, scoundrels, and thoroughly enjoying himself at their gatherings! “A glutton and a drunkard, a friend of tax collectors and sinners!” they said (Mt 11:19) We’re left to wonder whom Jesus might have befriended if he lived in our world, and what sort of behaviors he might have engaged in with his controversial friends! Instead of leading them to church, he might rather have joined them in their revelry.
Why does he choose such company? Why does he surround himself with these suspicious and disreputable folks? Matthew explains it by quoting a proverb: “It is not the well who need a physician but the sick.” Jesus is not only a friend of tax collectors and sinners, he is their physician, even though they might not yet be aware of their illness and their need for healing. The explanation continues with Jesus saying, “I came not to call righteous persons but sinners.” Commentator Douglas Hare points out that the Greek verb here translated ‘call’ can also mean ‘invite,’ as in the parable of the wedding feast (Mt 22:1-10). He says, “A significant part of Jesus’ vocation is to invite sinners to the messianic banquet. They are invited not because they are worthy but because God in his graciousness wants them to be included.”[i]
Jesus here reminds us that it is God’s nature to be merciful, that God is, first and foremost, a God of boundless compassion and love. That is a challenge for us all, because of our strong human inclination to associate primarily with those who think like us, dress like us, and act like us. Jesus invites us to go outside our comfort zone and to risk opening our lives to those we might be tempted to think of as “unrighteous” or “sinners.” God’s embrace is wide enough for us all.
[i] Hare, Douglas R.A., Matthew (Interpretation Commentary);(Louisville KY: John Knox Press, 1993); p.101-102).
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