People who are well do not need a doctor, but only those who are sick. Go and find out what is meant by the scripture that says, “It is kindness that I want, not animal sacrifices.” I have not come to call respectable people, but outcasts.
Jesus has recently called Matthew to follow him, and he is now invited along with his disciples to dine at Matthew’s house. Matthew was a tax collector, so it was natural that he would ask other tax collectors and outcasts join them. Some Pharisees observe this and ask the disciples why Jesus eats with outcasts. Jesus responds with these words.
So who are were these Pharisees that Jesus was addressing? Of course, the traditional teaching of the church is that they were the villains, the evil ones, the legalistic hypocrites who are out to get Jesus because they are too stupid to understand his teachings and ministry.
In reality there is a lot of controversy among religious scholars about the Pharisees. All seem to agree that the Pharisees were zealous observers of the Law of Moses, especially the laws about the Sabbath. The Pharisees were well-educated and most of them were small landowners. They did not have any official status relative to Jewish law or religious life. What is not clearly understood is the nature of the relationship between the Pharisees and Jesus.
The Pharisees believed that it was appropriate to use their intellect and knowledge to understand God’s will relative to their own time and place. They believed that the Law of Moses used in conjunction with the teachings of the prophets revealed God’s truth for mankind. This is exactly what Jesus asserts (see Days 17-21), so on this point they had conceptual agreement. Both Jesus and the Pharisees believed in a final Judgment Day when each person would be held accountable for his actions. They both believed in life after death, heaven and hell. They both believed in the free will of man and the importance of personal accountability. Theologically they didn’t have any major disagreements. It seems that Jesus agreed with the Pharisees on their approach to the Law, but he criticized the way that they put the Law into practice.
As for the Pharisees being the enemies of Jesus, this may be somewhat exaggerated. There is no question that there was a lot of passionate disagreement. The Pharisees disagree with Jesus’ ideas regarding appropriate observance of the Sabbath, while Jesus believed that the Pharisees did not embody the spirit of the Law in their actions. He tried to convince the Pharisees that love is more important than strict observance of the Law.
On the other hand, many scholars now see their relationship as one of lively discourse within the Jewish tradition, not necessarily enmity. For one thing, Jesus spent a lot of time hanging out and eating with the Pharisees. He challenged them and tried to teach them concepts, they in turn tried to correct his behavior. They were definitely in relationship. They argued passionately and tried to persuade each other. My husband and I have been known to have heated discussions about Biblical interpretation and we really like each other. Just because they disagreed doesn’t mean that they were enemies. Also, the Pharisees initiated the practice of using parables to illustrate religious principles. Of course, Jesus also adopted the practice of using parables when teaching.
But what about those passages where the Pharisees talk about killing Jesus? This would have been an issue for discussion because death was the penalty under the law for disobeying the Sabbath laws, which Jesus certainly pushed the law to their limits. The Pharisees apparently compromised their principles and bent the law for Jesus. They were not the ones who ultimately killed Jesus. Maybe it was because he finally got to them. Maybe they started to feel the love.
While Jesus was in relationship with the Pharisees, he had no relationship whatsoever with the chief priests and the elders. He never talked to them and never ate with them. It was the chief priests, teachers of the Law, and the elders who plotted against Jesus and orchestrated his prosecution and crucifixion. Check it out. The Pharisees were totally absent during this process.
Certainly the Pharisees were intrigued by Jesus. They recognized the wisdom of his teachings but were baffled by his actions. They undoubtedly thought he was wild and crazy and reckless. On the other hand those “teachers of the Law” (scribes) were always trying to entrap him and get him killed or arrested. They are a sinister presence in the Gospels, lurking around spying on Jesus, asking incriminating questions – unlike the Pharisees who seem to be “following” him (see Day 76); watching and observing; trying to figure out if he’s a false prophet or a true one (see Day 61); whether he’s crazy or sane.
Despite their differences Jesus and the Pharisees were not mortal enemies; they were working out of the same paradigm and trying to figure out the best way of doing God’s will 1500 years after the Law was handed down to Moses.
So in this scripture, the Pharisees question Jesus’ behavior and he defends his actions on the basis of his superior understanding of the Law and its proper application. The Pharisees in this scripture were scandalized by Jesus’ association with outcasts and wanted to know why he would eat with them, so Jesus told them. He informed them that his call was to minister to the outcasts, not to the people who were already participating in the Jewish religious institution. Jesus said that traditional Jewish religion wasn’t working for these outcasts and that they needed somebody to help them reconnect to God. They were not being served by the temple, the priests, and the pagan-based system of sacrificial offerings.
Further, as evidence of the legitimacy of his ministry of kindness, Jesus quoted from the prophet Hosea: I want your constant love, not your animal sacrifices. I would rather have my people know me than burn offerings to me. (Hosea 6:4-6).
Jesus came to tell the outcasts that even though they had been rejected by the religious community, they had not been cast out of the heart of God. And he wanted the Pharisees to know that just like Charlie Brown’s Christmas tree, these outcasts weren’t really so bad; they just need a little love and kindness.
Thomas Merton says, “The beginning of love is to let those we love be perfectly themselves, and not to twist them to fit our own image. Otherwise we love only the reflection of ourselves we find in them.”
Jesus doesn’t just command us to love, he teaches us HOW to love – by accepting people and letting them be who they are, reconciling them with God, using kindness not religion.
What does this scripture say to you?