Tuesday, August 29, 2017

Eating at the Wrong Time with the Wrong People

(Here's a little excerpt from my forthcoming commentary on Matthew for the Story of God Bible Commentary--to be published soon).

It’s easy to see a correlation between the healing of the paralytic and the calling of Matthew (Matt. 9:9-13).  Neither man asked for Jesus to do what he did.  The paralytic had his sins forgiven and the tax collector became a disciple of Jesus.  Furthermore, both men apparently popped up quickly in response to Jesus’ word:  the paralytic “got up and went home” and the tax collector “got up and followed him” (v. 9).  We might even be tempted to merge their stories together, seeing Matthew just as paralyzed by corruption as the paralytic was paralyzed by disease.  “It is not the healthy who need a doctor, but the sick,” Jesus would say about Matthew and his friends (v. 12), almost leading the reader to hear echoes between these two stories.  And, in both cases, the Pharisees and scribes objected to Jesus’ behavior regarding sin and sinners.  Is that why Matthew put his story here, so that we would see him and the paralytic as “fraternal twins” of God’s mercy?  That’s certainly the lesson the scribes and Pharisees were supposed to learn.  Having just seen Jesus forgive the paralytic’s sins by healing him, they were forced to stand and watch Jesus dine with a bunch of tax collectors and sinners (vv. 10-11).  It was too much to take in for one day, “Why does your teacher eat with tax collectors and sinners?” they asked the disciples.  The answer should have been apparent—at least that’s what Jesus thought.  Sick people need a doctor, right (v. 12)?  That seems obvious.  Sinners need God, right?  Still don’t understand, huh?  Time for a little homework, “Go and learn what this means, ‘I desire mercy, not sacrifice’” (v. 13).  Boy, are they going to learn a lesson they’ll never forget.

The issue between Jesus, the Pharisees and even John’s disciples had to do with the question:  How can we restore sinners to God?  Of course, the question rests on two presumptions:  those doing the restoring are righteous and those who need restoration are the sinners.  Everyone should know the difference between the two groups.  And just in case anyone was fuzzy-headed about the distinction, the righteous people were the first to point out who was righteous and who wasn’t:  the righteous are the ones who are serious about sin.  Even though the Pharisees and the Baptizer had very different ideas about how to deal with the problem of Israel’s sin, they agreed on one thing:  fasting was necessary for repentance.  And, it’s easy to see why.  Of the six festivals Israel observed to commemorate God’s salvation, there was only one that required fasting.  Yom Kippur, the “Day of Atonement.”  Forgiveness and fasting went together like feasting and Passover.  Evidently, both the Pharisees and the Baptizer (11:18) extended the practice of fasting beyond the once-a-year ritual.  In fact, the Pharisees were known to fast twice per week, Mondays and Thursdays.  But Jesus defied the tradition, choosing to eat with sinners rather than join the righteous in fasting.  This was the way he would restore sinners to God (v. 13).  That’s a completely different approach, feasting when you should be fasting.  And yet, it wasn’t the Pharisees who raised the objection this time.  Instead, John’s disciples were the ones who wanted to know, “How is it that we and the Pharisees fast often, but your disciples do not fast?” (9:14).  In their minds, the man who preached repentance (4:17) should lead sinners to perform the proper acts of repentance.

Jesus knew his methods were unconventional.  He had already decided it was time for something new, something radical—an approach to sin that would change everything.  It was time for the mercy of God.  But, his approach wasn’t completely brand new.  Hosea had already predicted long ago that God would prefer mercy over sacrifice once he had disciplined Israel for their sin (Hos. 6:1-6).  So, as far as Jesus was concerned, it was time to show sinners the mercy of God; it was the only way to recover them, to lead them to the kingdom.  And yet, eating with sinners to deal with Israel’s sin problem seemed completely backwards, out of place, upside down to the righteous.  Feasting was the last thing sinners needed to do to get serious about their sin.  But Jesus acted like times had changed.  The bridegroom is here!  Mourning at a time like this would be completely out of place (v. 15).  Besides, to go back to the old ways of repentance would be like sowing a new patch on an old piece of clothing, or trying to put new wine in an old container (9:16-17).  It would just make things worse.  That’s what mercy does; it destroys the old ways of dealing with sin.  You can’t pour mercy into the wineskin of judgment.  You can’t cover the hole in your worn-out-jeans of sin management with the fresh patch of God’s forgiveness.  It was time for new wineskins to hold God’s mercy, a new way to get serious about sin:  eat with sinners.  And, of course, those of us who gather around the Lord’s Table know exactly why that is true, as we eat and drink our way into the kingdom of God.

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