Who are the Sinners?

To spend any time with Jesus’ teachings is to be amazed by the depth of the simplicity. I have sometimes asked students in class to write parables, in order to see how difficult it is to tell a simple story that has power, meaning, force and a moral that does not seem sappy, contrived or sentimental. I join them in the exercise. Never once have we managed to come up with a parable that comes near to matching the power of Jesus’ teaching. That is to be expected, I know, but sometimes Jesus’ teachings, whether from having heard them so many times or having thought we understand them in full already, are not allowed their full measure of careful brilliance, even in simple statements. For me, a teaching that fits into this category is "I did not come to call the righteous but sinners" (Matthew 9:13). I think I understand that, especially in light of Jesus’ teaching just prior that it is the sick who need a physician, not the well (Matthew 9:12). Jesus is coming in aid of those who have the need, to heal those who are sick, and so the good physician must be with those who are ailing, regardless of their social and religious standing (see Father Leonard’s and Father Kilgallen’s posts below for excellent analyses of what it meant to be a "sinner" in Jesus’ day). Yet, I always wonder if Jesus in this simple statement is getting at more, asking us to open our eyes to who we are and to what sin is. It is easy to classify "sinners," but how does it feel to be the one classified as "sinner," comprising the major component of one’s identity? "This is my friend Bob the farmer, my friend Bill the merchant, and my friend John, the sinner." But so they are classified in Matthew 9:10-11. Jesus seems to accept the classification, but I think there is something deeper going on in this passage. Ultimately, we are all sinners, and Jesus accepts us for who we are and sees beyond that classification in each of us to call us all to be healed. The question is whether we are willing to put ourselves in the class of sinners in order to allow ourselves to be healed. When Jesus says, "I did not come to call the righteous but sinners," do we hear the call? I do not suggest that the Pharisees of Jesus’ day did not have a measure of righteousness which exceeded that of those called sinners, but it might be that very righteousness, both for the Pharisees in Jesus’ day and for us today, that blinds us to our own faults and does not allow us to see that we, too, are in need of the physician. When we can accept who we are, then we can join Jesus at the table with the rest of the sinners. John W. Martens

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