In his daily conversations with different kinds of people, Jesus used to quote a number of biblical texts, mainly to show the continuity that existed between the Old Testament and his own messianic time.
Often times he did this in order to respond to different situations which required long explanations as to why he had done this or said that.
A situation of that kind arose when Jesus was present at a meal probably at Matthew’s house. On such occasions Jesus used to mix freely with his disciples and the people who were referred to as public sinners.
On that particular occasion, there were as well a few tax collectors who happened to be Matthew’s colleagues.
The “just”, the Pharisees, who could not bear the sight of these “unclean” people, did not hide their feeling that they were scandalised by what Jesus was doing; a rabbi mixing with public sinners.
It was something unheard of; a rabbi according to their culture, would never eat with sinners, invite them to his table or accept their invitation.
In short, the law was clear; in the Pharisees’ view, Jesus was supposed to avoid speaking to any person who had a bad reputation, a sinner, a peasant or a leper.
It is a pity for the Pharisees! In fact, they found out later that Jesus had not stopped at befriending the public sinners and eating with them, but to make matters worse, he had even knowingly chosen one of them, Matthew, as one of his dear disciples.
They were sure that Jesus knew very well that Publicans like Matthew were hated by the people of Israel because they were considered thieves and exploiters.
Nobody believed a word of what they used to say. Even their evidence in court was not accepted. They were considered liars by profession. Humanly speaking (according to Pharisees) their salvation was considered impossible.
The Jewish law was against them; how could they give back all that they had stolen, plus twenty per cent as they seemed to make Jesus believe? Due to all these facts, the Pharisees let it be known to Jesus that he had scandalised them.
Jesus still paid attention to the Pharisees and listened to what they had to say. “It is not the healthy who need the doctor, but the sick,” he responded.
His action was a declaration that the messianic age has dawned, and that they need not question his actions: the Physician has come.
Jesus continues to show the Pharisees that they were mistaken: “Go and learn the meaning of the words, ‘Mercy is what pleases me, not sacrifice”.
Jesus was driving his lesson home that true religion must necessarily involve a deep faith in the mercy and love of God.
As if to make the Pharisees understand him better, he ends with a phrase which sums up his divine attitude, “I came to call not the upright but sinners.”
Here is a great lesson for us today: In dining with tax-collectors and “sinners”, Jesus expressed his solidarity with them in a manner very rare today save with the few Mother Theresas of our time.
The correct attitude to social dropouts is not one of sequestration and condemnation but rather of familiarity and service.
In Jesus’ eyes, the Pharisees are the descendants of the hypocrites of Hosea’s day who were assiduous at attending the liturgy of the sanctuaries while they ground the faces of the poor.
They did not realise that the word “liturgy” means “service,” in both senses of service of God in the liturgy and the service of men by love.
Jesus’ association with the “outlaws” of his day should not be understood as tantamount to a condonation of their action or situation; rather, he associated with them in order to raise their sights and to show them a new life.
We should adopt Jesus’ way. In order to help such people who might be present in our community, we too, should first be sympathetic towards them.