Sometimes we are quick to criticize the Pharisees for their questions to Jesus, but end up imitating them with our actions. In this short article, Dr. Sklar encourages us to consider how those who follow Jesus can imitate him well by loving well those who do not know him.
Did the Pharisees have a fair point: Was Jesus wrong to eat with sinners?
While Jesus was having dinner at Matthew’s house, many tax collectors and sinners came and ate with him and his disciples. When the Pharisees saw this, they asked his disciples, “Why does your teacher eat with tax collectors and sinners?” (Matt. 9:10–11)
It is easy for us to scoff at the Pharisees’ question. We are used to viewing them as the bad guys, the ones who should be looked at suspiciously. But then we come across Psalm 26:4–5:
I do not sit with the deceitful, nor do I associate with hypocrites.
I abhor the assembly of evildoers and refuse to sit with the wicked.
So, did the Pharisees have a fair point?
Everyone in Jesus’s day knew that tax collectors and sinners would fit the psalmist’s description. Tax collectors were known for defrauding their fellow Jews (cf. Luke 3:12–13) and despised as traitors for working on behalf of the occupying Romans. The term “sinners” is used alongside words like “glutton” and “drunkard” (Luke 7:34) and could serve as a general way to describe those at the lowest end of the moral spectrum (Luke 6:32–34). No one questioned that these two groups would count as “deceitful,” “hypocrites,” “evildoers,” and “wicked,” the very ones the psalmist refused to sit with. But, in our passage, Jesus not only sat with them—he was also breaking bread with them! What is going on?
As always, context is king. In Psalm 26, the psalmist is contrasting two different ways of living: he is choosing to live uprightly, following God’s law (vv. 1–3) instead of throwing his lot in with those choosing evil (vv. 4–5). In other words, when he says, “I abhor the assembly of evildoers” and “I will not sit with the wicked,” he is saying, “I abhor it when evildoers assemble together to plan and commit evil,” and “I will not sit with them as they plan and carry it out.” Joining in with wicked behavior is what the psalmist is talking about, and he refuses to do it. So did Jesus—and if we are Jesus’s followers, we must refuse to join in wicked behavior as well. So, no, the Pharisees did not have a fair point.
But are we making the same mistake as the Pharisees?
But if we are Jesus’s followers, then to sit with those who do not try to follow God or his law in order to show them God’s love is the very thing we must do because it is the very thing Jesus did—and what the Pharisees refused to do. In responding to the Pharisees’ question, Jesus said, “It is not the healthy who need a doctor, but the sick. But go and learn what this means: ‘I desire mercy, not sacrifice’ [Hosea 6:6a]. For I have not come to call the righteous, but sinners” (Matt. 9:12–13).
He is saying, “Do you see these people you despise because they don’t try to follow God or his law? Do you not see they need help? Do you not see they need to know the same mercy and love from God that you have experienced from him? You do well to avoid their evil but you have completely missed that they bear God’s image, and God has entrusted those who know him with the privilege of making him known to them. So, sit with them, eat with them, laugh with them, love them—be a ‘friend of tax collectors and sinners’ like me, so that you can share God’s redeeming love with them, and they can know the joy of having life with God.”
So, it’s good to ask, “Are we more like Jesus in this or more like the Pharisees? Do we feel comfortable sitting and breaking bread with those who are not trying to follow God or his law? Are we friends with them? Do we know how to show them God’s love?” If not, find some mature followers of Jesus who do this well, ask for their help, and pray that God would give you the chance to love others well for Jesus’s sake.