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Matthew 9:10-13 "Jesus’ Purpose"

" And it came about that as He reclined in the house, and behold! Many tax collectors and sinners came reclining together with Jesus and His disciples. And seeing, the Pharisees were speaking to His disciples, ‘On what account does your teacher eat with tax collectors and sinners?’ Now, when He heard He said, ‘The healthy have no need of a physician, but those having sickness. Now go, learn what this is: I desire mercy and not sacrifice. For I did not come to call the righteous but sinners.’“


In the remainder of this discipleship narrative Matthew begins to describe and define the nature of the disciples’ Master. What sort of person is Jesus? The earlier disciples have already asked this question (8:27) and it is high time that the reader is made fully aware. If the pressing issue that Matthew is arguing for is that his readers follow Jesus alone, then prospective disciples must be acquainted with the One to whom they pledge fealty. Matthew chooses to accomplish this task through Jesus’ own lips. To the Pharisees (vv. 10-13) Jesus makes clear the purpose of His coming and to the disciples of John (vv. 14-17) Jesus introduces the place His work occupies in God’s eternal plan of redemption.


The following paragraph takes place after Matthew’s calling to discipleship and is used by Matthew to further define what it means to be a disciple. There is an assumed relationship between a disciple and his master. Thus, the purpose of the master must become the purpose of the disciple. Here Jesus will make clear the purpose of His mission. Matthew presents this in his typical fashion of first providing some context (v. 10) followed by the conflict (v. 11) to which Jesus provides a correction (vv. 12-13).


Context (v. 10)

“And it came about that as He reclined in the house, and behold! Many tax collectors and sinners came reclining together with Jesus and His disciples.”


Matthew, true to form, is careful to maintain the context while keeping his role in the events to a low profile. The Greek (αὐτοῦ ἀνακειμένοθ ἐν τῇ οἰκίᾳ) is somewhat ambiguous as to whose house this takes place. That “he” (αὐτοῦ) refers to Jesus is made clear when we read that the tax collectors and sinners where reclining together with Jesus. But rather than stating that Jesus was reclining in Matthew’s house, our author simply refers to the place as the house (τῇ οἰκίᾳ). Our Matthew accurately records the events while ensuring that Jesus maintains the spotlight. The scene is thus described as a dinner party where guests recline at a low table and eat at their leisure. Yet there is something about this dinner party that bears scrutiny.

Matthew’s favorite “and behold!” (καὶ ἰδοὺ) introduces those present who were not (1) Jesus, or (2) one of Jesus’ disciples. Also at the table are many tax collectors and sinners (πολλοὶ τελῶναι καὶ ἁμαρτωλοὶ). That Matthew invited his former colleagues (τελῶναι) is hardly surprising. But that there were also sinners (ἁμαρτωλοὶ) in attendance requires explanation, for to recline with them (συνανέκειντο) paints a most intimate picture. While the gospels regularly couple tax collectors and sinners together (Matt. 9:10, 11; 11:19; Mk. 2:15, 16; Lk. 5:30; 7:34; 15:1), it is perhaps going too far to say that both terms refer to a single group (tax collectors-sinners). Yet, on the other hand, it is not likely that in the term “sinners” (ἁμαρτωλοὶ) we see a reference to notorious godless persons (pimps, prostitutes, thieves, and brigands) as is normally propounded from so many pulpits. It is useful to know that according to the Mishnah (Sanh. 3:3) such persons to be regarded as “sinners” include dice players, loan sharks, pigeon racers, and those who trade in produce from Sabbatical years.[1] In other words, the term “sinners” was used rather loosely by the religious elite to describe anyone who failed to conform to their concept of holiness and was thus used more as a social distinction than an ethical, moral, or religious distinction (though only the context can confirm this). With this in place, there are several things worthy of note.

First, contextually speaking, the term sinners (ἁμαρτωλοὶ) points the reader back to v. 2 (sins - ἁμαρτίαι), v. 5 (sins - ἁμαρτίαι), and v. 6 (sins - ἁμαρτίας). That repentance from sin is necessary for kingdom entrance has already been made clear through the ministry of John the Baptist (3:2, 4) and in Jesus’ early ministry (4:17). The moral righteousness expected after such repentance has been thoroughly discussed in the SM (5:1-7:27). After the forgiveness of the paralytic (9:1-8), it is becoming apparent that Jesus is the one who will connect these dots as the one who will personally deal with the sin of sinners.[2]

Second, that this scene takes place while all the players recline (ἀνάκειμαι) at a feast brings to mind what Jesus said about the centurion’s faith. Namely, that Jesus compared him with those who will come from the east and west and recline (ἀνακλίνω) with Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob in the kingdom of heaven (8:11). This scene is a foretaste of what Jesus described as commonplace in the kingdom of heaven, that it will be filled by so called foreigners while those who considered themselves sons of the kingdom are left out.

Third, this scene is appropriate, purposeful, and completely within Jesus’ control. (1) By appropriate we mean that Matthew does not portray Jesus as hobnobbing with unrepentant and uninterested sinners. We cannot equate this scene to a license for believers to freely associate with immoral, sinful, and unrighteous persons in a way that condones and/or participates in their immoral, sinful and unrighteous lives.[3] Plainly stated, Jesus is neither participating in sin nor is He providing a cover for sinful behavior. There’s nothing wrong with this scene. (2) By purposeful we mean that this is not a gathering for the sake of gathering or having a good time. Matthew is hosting a party with Jesus as the guest of honor while also inviting his friends and acquaintances. Matthew is literally introducing his friends to Jesus. This dinner party is an announcement to Matthew’s small community of disreputable persons that he is taking a new path that follows Jesus and he wants to introduce them to his new master.[4] This is a far cry from social fraternization with the rebelliously unrepentant. Believers have but one message to the unbelieving world: repent and follow Jesus alone. This is exactly what Matthew is doing. (3) By stating that Jesus is in complete control of the situation we mean precisely that. There is zero danger of this gathering turning a dark corner and spiraling into a drunken dinner party. With these things in mind, it is difficult to consider how one could possibly replicate such a scene without Jesus’ physical presence. All of this to say that (a) there is nothing unseemly about this gathering yet (b) this is not necessarily a model for believers to replicate in their evangelism.

Finally, that Jesus and His disciples would share an intimate setting with such persons may not be sinful from a biblical point of view, but it was shocking, unexpected, and unacceptable from a social and political standpoint. Thus, Matthew introduces the guest list with “behold!”. The scene implies that those who recline with Messiah are surprising and unexpected, as is made clear by the coming conflict.


Conflict (v. 11)

“And seeing, the Pharisees were speaking to His disciples, ‘On what account does your teacher eat with tax collectors and sinners?’”


Other than Matthew’s description of the Pharisees and Sadducees coming to John at the Jordan (3:7) and Jesus’ reference to their insufficient righteousness (5:20), this is the first time Matthew records an interaction with the Pharisees and Jesus. From what we know about the Pharisees, it is doubtful that they were in attendance for this dinner party because (1) their social sensibilities would not allow it, (2) there was no reason for Matthew to include them, and (3) their attendance would make them guilty of the very thing in which they accuse Jesus of.[5] Because (a) there is nothing that suggests Matthew was a wealthy man with a large home and (b) ancient eastern custom regularly held dinner gathering outdoors within the house’s courtyard, it is better to see the Pharisees as lookers-on.[6] When the Pharisees see (καὶ ἰδόντες) this gathering they make contact and thus begin the conflict. There are several things we must notice regarding this opening salvo.

First, that the Pharisees speak with Jesus’ disciples rather than addressing Jesus directly is most revealing. If they were concerned with Jesus’ “sin”, would they not bring their concerns to Him? Yet, the fact that they direct their address to Jesus’ disciples (apparently away from Jesus) indicates that their motives are more sinister. Namely, to undermine Jesus’ influence over His own disciples.

Second, the Pharisees’ question does not seek to understand Jesus’ motives so much as it is an accusation against Him. Of the many things that might bring disgrace upon a teacher, rabbinic tradition included the act of reclining at table with those who were ignorant of the Law, lest he become like them.[7] Their question is a not so veiled attempt to impugn Jesus’ character that implies an unspoken question to follow: Why does your teacher eat with tax collectors and sinners? He does not want to become like them, does He?

Third, the emphasis on Jesus as the disciples’ teacher is noticeable. Jesus is referred to as your teacher (ὁ διδάσκαλος ὑμῶν). The implication is that the Pharisees have no desire to be associated with Jesus. With this, we should include the indictment that is being made against Jesus is laid at the disciples’ feet. If they continue to follow Jesus, the Pharisees will judge them accordingly.

Until this moment, the Pharisees have hung in the background, receiving very little attention from Matthew. Yet now, they enter the stage as decided opponents of Jesus and their opposition will only grow as Matthew’s narrative continues. They are the ones who chose to enter into conflict with Jesus and thus it is now Jesus’ turn to return a volley of His own in the form of a correction.


Correction (vv. 12-13)

It seems that Jesus overheard what was being said to the disciples. Rather than waiting for His disciples to come up with some sort of answer that would appease the Pharisees, when He heard (ὁ δὲ ἀκούσας) the Pharisees’ accusation, Jesus went on the offensive. Jesus corrects the Pharisees assumptions on three grounds: (1) The grounds of common sense, (2) the grounds of divine revelation, and (3) the grounds of Jesus’ mission.


Common Sense (v. 12)

“Now, when He heard He said, ‘The healthy have no need of a physician, but those having sickness.’”

Jesus, the master of rhetoric, answers the Pharisees with an argumentum ad hominem, that is to say: an argument which assumes the Pharisees own premise.[8] They consider the tax collectors and sinners to be spiritually, morally, and socially sick. It is for this reason that they considered such persons as unclean and unfit for fraternization. Their criticism of Jesus is that He was not associating with the healthy: i.e., those who were spiritually, morally, and socially pure, righteous, and holy…like themselves. Yet, a physician is wasted upon the healthy and is needed among the sick. Just so, a savior is wasted upon those who require no salvation and is needed among those who are perishing. Within this argument is an implied two-pronged critique.

First, there is the implication that the Pharisees consider themselves to be healthy or righteous. Jesus neither confirms nor denies the reality of the assumption, but His statement implies a challenge: by what standard do you consider yourselves to be healthy?

Second, the fact that the Pharisees consider themselves to be healthy and yet offer no relief to those whom they consider to be sick is an indictment against them. Why have you not attempted to call these “sinners” to repentance? Why have you not sought to heal these you deem “sick”?

Jesus never argues the point that these men with whom He shared a table with are sick sinners in need of a savior. Yet, this fact only serves to confirm Jesus’ righteousness and the wickedness of the Pharisees. When appropriately applied, logic always prevails. But Jesus does not rest on logic alone and proceeds to call the Pharisees’ attention to the Scriptures.


Corresponding Scripture (v. 13a)

“Now go, learn what this is: I desire mercy and not sacrifice.”

This statement from Jesus is a stunning rebuke on three different levels. First, the phrase “go and learn” (πορευθέντες δὲ μάθετε) is a technical expression in a classroom environment used by a teacher to his students when they have failed to understand a point.[9] Jesus is taking the Pharisees to school. Second, Jesus here delivers a challenge to the Pharisees. Because a disciple (μαθητής) is a learner, Jesus’ command to go and learn (μανθάνω) is a challenge of discipleship. Jesus is here asserting His authority to teach by challenging the Pharisees to submit. Jesus’ first major point in the SM was to point out the shortcomings of the Pharisees’ so-called righteousness (5:20) before moving to correct their false teaching (5:21-48). Finally, that the Pharisees require such learning implies that they may not be as “healthy” as they at first supposed.

Jesus quotes from Hosea 6:6, a text that condemns the rebellious northern tribes of their inward rebellion in spite of their outward “conformity”. By choosing this text, Jesus is making a very bold statement. To appreciate the precision Jesus utilizes, we must examine the context of Hosea.


Hosea’s Prophecy: Hosea lived and prophesied between 755-714 BC, about 180 years after the northern tribes rebelled against Solomon’s son Rehoboam. Their choice of king, Jeroboam, introduced a counterfeit religion to northern Israel that mimicked the worship of Yhwh in Jerusalem. This counterfeit included the making of idols that represented Yhwh, a priestly cult made up of non-Levites, alters set up for offerings in Bethel and Dan (the southern and northern extremities of this new kingdom). These locations would serve as the gathering places during the feasts prescribed to Israel through Moses (Ex. 12; 23; Lev. 23; Num. 29). Thus, Jeroboam transformed Israel into an utterly apostate nation (1 Kings 12). This is the nation to whom Hosea proclaims a message of repentance.

The statement made concerning offerings is not an indication that Yhwh did not require such things, for He most certainly did (Lev. 1-7). The point made in Hos. 6:6 is three-fold. First, that the act of presenting an offering is of no value unless the act is an accurate reflection of the heart. It is not simply what man does but why he does it. This statement reflects the words of Samuel to Saul: Has Yhwh as much delight in burnt offerings and sacrifices as in obeying the voice of Yhwh? Behold! to obey is better than sacrifice, to heed than the fat of rams (1 Sam. 15:22). In other words, one’s motives and one’s actions are never pitted against each other in an either/or fashion. Rather, one’s motives and one’s actions must be unified in submissive obedience. Second, even the sacrifices being offered in Bethel by the rebellious north were repugnant to Yhwh. Though they may have prided themselves on outward religious obedience, northern Israel could not even claim this as something that would please Yhwh. If their outward religion was rebellious, what does this speak of their heart? It is for this reason that Hos. 6 begins with a call to repent and return to Yhwh so that He will heal them (Hos. 6:1-3). Finally, that sacrifice (θυσίαν/זָבַח) is pitted against mercy/compassion/loyalty (ἔλεος/חֶסֶד) is of note. The Hebrew noun חֶסֶד is normally translated as lovingkindness and denotes a loyal love and fidelity. The point here is that one who is obedient is one who is loyal to the covenant and thus lives as God has directed. The lovingkindness, loyalty, mercy, compassion that God requires is the same characteristic that is part of God’s own character (Ex. 34:6-7) as was brought out in Jesus’ SM (5:7; 6:2-4). The one who practices loyalty (ἔλεος/חֶסֶד) is one who’s character mimics God.


Jesus’ use of Hosea: Jesus’ precision in using Hosea 6:6 introduces a host of implications that can be assembled under two broad headings. The first is the implication that Jesus considers the Pharisees in the same proverbial and spiritual boat as the rebellious north in Hosea’s day. This means that Jesus condemns the Pharisees (a) for replacing obedience with outward conformity to religion (Hos. 6:6a), (b) that they know nothing of God (Hos. 6:6b), and (c) even their outward expressions of worship are counterfeit, corrupt, and not pleasing to God. Even Jesus’ location in Galilee seems to identify Him with Hosea who preached to the northern tribes. While the Pharisees considered themselves as the exclusive adherents to Moses and the Prophets, Jesus condemns them as being thoroughly rebellious in heart and deed so that they are only comparable to Jeroboam’s Israel.

The second implication comes from reading the entirety of Hosea 6 in context. By mentioning the need of a physician before quoting Hos. 6:6a, Jesus hints at the fact that He is the physician who will heal Israel (Hos. 6:1-3). This is a profound statement, because the prophet clearly states that it is Yhwh who will heal the nation who repents. Jesus is not simply claiming to be the one sent by Yhwh to heal, but that He is Yhwh who heals. This point is made clear when Jesus corrects the Pharisees’ notion of Jesus’ mission.


Condensed Statement (v. 13b)

“For I did not come to call the righteous but sinners.”

Here Matthew records a condensed statement that articulates Jesus’ purpose in His first advent. As the divine healer, Jesus has come to call sinners (or the sick) so that He might heal them. Those who are healthy (righteous) have no need of Him, and thus He has not come to call them. This is not a statement that suggests that the Pharisees, or anyone, is in fact righteous. Rather, this is an indictment against those who do not recognize their sin, sickness, and thus their need for a savior and healer. According to Hosea, healing comes after a return (or repentance) to Yhwh. That is what Jesus has come to call sinners to do. His ministry began by preaching repentance for the kingdom (4:17) and nothing has changed. Those who see no reason to repent due to their self-diagnosed righteous (like the Pharisees) will not be healed. Yet, those who are aware of the sin and long to be healed (like Matthew) are precisely those whom Jesus has come to heal and restore. It is Jesus, and Jesus alone, who can heal the body, spirit, and soul. This reality has been experienced by Matthew who invited his friends to meet Jesus the restorer. This is the reason Jesus dines with sinners: because they need Him. And this is the reason why the Pharisees despise and oppose Him: because He exposed their apostasy.

[1] Hermann Strack and Paul Billerbeck, A Commentary on the New Testament from the Talmud & Midrash, trans. Andrew Bowden and Joseph Longarino, vol. 1 (Bellingham, WA: Lexham Press, 2022), p. 558.

[2] John Nolland, The Gospel of Matthew, The New International Greek Testament Commentary (Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans Publishing Company, 2005), p. 386.

[3] R. C. H. Lenski, The Interpretation of St. Matthew’s Gospel (Minneapolis, MN: Augsburg Publishing House, 1961), p. 363-4.

[4] Leon Morris, The Gospel According to Matthew, The Pillar New Testament Commentary (Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans Publishing Company, 1992), p. 220.

[5] John Broadus, Commentary on the Gospel of Matthew, An American Commentary on the New Testament (Forgotten Books, 2012), p. 199.

[6] Nolland, p. 386.

[7] Strack and Billerbeck, p. 558. This helps to understand what the Pharisees might mean by “sinners”; those ignorant of the Law rather than debauched people steeped in depraved living.

[8] Lenski, p. 365.

[9] Strack and Billerbeck, p. 559.

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