One day Jesus passed by a tax office and saw a man named Matthew, a tax collector, and said, ‘Follow me’ (Matthew 9:9).
Matthew did follow and invited Jesus to dinner at his house. Matthew’s friends, like him tax collectors and ‘sinners’, came to dinner and sat down with Jesus. The term ‘sinner’ here has more than one meaning. On the one hand, it was a label that the Pharisees stuck on anyone who didn’t observe the law according to their rules and regulations.
On the other, these friends of Matthew were indeed guilty of notorious sins. They had given up even the pretence of religion. They were fornicators, gamblers, swindlers, cheaters, liars and drunks.
Jesus shocked the Pharisees by dining with such people. Offended, they asked Jesus’ disciples why he associated with known sinners. They didn’t ask because they truly cared; they just wanted to shame the Master and his followers.
The Pharisees were trying to assassinate Jesus’ character, for in their eyes he was guilty by association. ‘Doesn’t he know who they are?’ their words implied. ‘Is this any way for a proper rabbi to behave?’
Jesus responded by saying, ‘They that are whole have no need of the physician, but they that are sick: I came not to call the righteous, but sinners to repentance’ (Mark 2:17).
What a relief it is to know that the Son of God not only associates with sinners, but offers to heal their spiritual sickness and cleanse them of sin! Jesus came to call sinners to repentance. Had the Pharisees recognised and acknowledged their own sin, they would have realised that they had as much need of the Saviour as anyone else.
The Pharisees thought they were the best of believers. They were not like the tax collectors, who betrayed fellow Jews by overcharging them with taxes to line their own pockets, and those of their Roman overlords. They were not like notorious sinners, who wasted their lives and property in godless living.
The Pharisees demonstrate to us the great danger of people thinking they have no sin to repent of (1 John 4:8). If we think we are good enough, then we, like the Pharisees, will miss God’s great offer of salvation to sinners.
The Pharisees missed God’s command to teach transgressors his ways and his promise to convert sinners to himself (Psalm 51:13; 25:8). God’s plan of redemption is exclusively for sinners, even those who are morally noble and religious. Jesus calls all sinners to repent.
True repentance is not a nebulous response of sorrow; it requires definite actions. Repentance so transforms the mind that it results in a changed life. Repentance does not merely say ‘I’m sorry’ (as we might say when we step on someone’s foot!); rather, it says from the heart, ‘I’ve been wrong, but now I see the truth and will change my ways accordingly’.
The first step of repentance, according to the Heidelberg Catechism, ‘is heartfelt sorrow that we have provoked God by our sins’. This sorrow, coupled with a deep sense of God’s majesty and a profound awareness of his goodness, causes us to hate our sins more and more.
This sorrow and hatred, in turn, cause us to flee from sin. True repentance also leads us to ‘heartfelt joy in God through Christ, and with love and delight to live according to the will of God in all good works’ (Heidelberg, Q. 90). Mere sorrow over sin that does not lead to changed living is a sham.
Jesus still calls sinners — even the greatest of sinners — to join him in his kingdom. His call does not ask us to do penance by increasing our religious duties, but to truly repent, that is, cease from sin, turn back to the path of righteousness, and walk in new obedience to God.
Those who practise true repentance know what Jesus meant when he said, ‘I will have mercy, and not sacrifice’ (Matthew 9:13). When they respond to that call, they will experience deep joy in union with the Friend of sinners. And nothing causes more joy in heaven than the repentance of these!
This article is adapted from Why Christ came: 31 Meditations on the Incarnation, by Joel Beeke and William Boekestein.