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How do we deal with sinners?

(Written by Pastor Tim Redfield)

Matthew 9:9-13 – As Jesus went on from there, he saw a man named Matthew sitting at the tax collector’s booth. “Follow me,” he told him, and Matthew got up and followed him.

10 While Jesus was having dinner at Matthew’s house, many tax collectors and “sinners” came and ate with him and his disciples. 11 When the Pharisees saw this, they asked his disciples, “Why does your teacher eat with tax collectors and ‘sinners’?”

12 On hearing this, Jesus said, “It is not the healthy who need a doctor, but the sick. 13 But go and learn what this means: ‘I desire mercy, not sacrifice.’ For I have not come to call the righteous, but sinners.”


When Jesus called Matthew to be one of his disciples, he knew exactly what kind of person Matthew was. Jesus knew the reputation of a tax collector. Tax collectors were thought of as the worst kind of sinner. The Jewish people thought of the tax collectors as traitors because the tax collectors were Jews who were helping the hated Roman government. These tax collectors had a certain amount of money they needed to give to the Romans and whatever they collected above that was their own income. Since there was no limit on how much money they could collect, the tax collectors often took a large amount from the people and became wealthy. Their fellow Jews viewed these tax collectors as traitors and liars.

Even though Matthew would have had this reputation, Jesus still called him as one of the twelve disciples. Jesus gave Matthew the wonderful gospel message and Matthew left everything behind to serve Jesus. We don’t know much about Matthew. We don’t know how much he cheated people as a tax collector or even how wealthy he had become. We don’t even hear about much of what he did after he was brought to faith by Jesus. We know that he wrote the gospel book that shares his name but we don’t know much more about him. One thing we do know is what he wrote down for us in these verses. After being called as one of the disciples, he showed his joy by inviting people over for dinner.

At the dinner there were at least four groups of people: Jesus’ disciples, Pharisees, tax collectors, and other people who were thought of as “sinners”. The Pharisees despised the tax collectors and sinners because they thought that there was no way that those people could ever earn God’s favor. The Pharisees thought that people needed to live very good, perhaps even perfect lives if they wanted to enter into heaven. For this reason, they could not understand why Jesus would even talk to sinners. We see this attitude in our text. In verse 11, the Pharisees asked the disciples, “Why does your teacher eat with tax collectors and ‘sinners’?” (Matthew 9:11).

The Pharisees responded in this way because they were focused on outward actions. They thought that serving God meant only obedience to God’s commands. They did not have an understanding of forgiveness and they certainly did not have a good understanding of the sinful nature inside of every human being. Pharisees had the attitude that we see displayed in the parable of the Pharisee and the tax collector. The Pharisee in that parable prayed, “God, I thank you that I am not like other men—robbers, evildoers, adulterers—or even like this tax collector. I fast twice a week and give a tenth of all I get” (Luke 18:11-12). Pharisees trusted in their own obedience rather than looking to God’s forgiveness.

The Pharisees had a misunderstanding about God’s Law. They thought that it was their religious duty to obey the law as perfectly as possible. They thought that they should preach this message of the law to others and if people didn’t obey the laws then they were not following God. The Pharisees had even added extra laws to God’s law so that they could be even more holy in the eyes of their fellow Jews. Because of the way the Pharisees acted and because of what they said, the Pharisees appeared to be very judgmental toward anyone who was known to have committed a sin.

In our world today, there are certainly many sins that need to be spoken against. God’s law needs to be proclaimed. It just needs to be proclaimed in the correct way. Far too often, the sinful world thinks of Christians as self-righteous Pharisees. Our society likes to portray the image of the Christian holding a Bible and shouting that people need to repent or they will go to hell. When someone stands up for God’s law, they are usually portrayed as the bad guy or the person who is intolerant of other people’s lifestyles. While it is true that we need to stand up for God’s law, we do not want to act like the Pharisees.

Even though we don’t want to be associated with the Pharisees, there are times that we sin just like they did. There are times that we look down on people for specific sins that they commit. Perhaps we judge the person who has committed adultery. Maybe it is the person who has ended up in jail for the crime they committed. Or maybe we look down our noses at the person who doesn’t come to church very often. Our sinful nature likes to think like a Pharisee. Our sinful nature wants us to fall into the temptations of pride and arrogance by thinking that somehow we are better in God’s eyes because we are more active in Church and we have committed fewer sins that people know about.

Even if we don’t have a “holier than thou” attitude about the sins of our neighbors, do we always call them to repentance like we should? The proper approach for using God’s law would be to urge a person to repent of their sins and turn back to Christ for forgiveness. But is that what we do when we learn about someone’s sin? Or do we sit back and say nothing? Or even worse, do we spread the news as gossip? If someone is caught in a sin, the loving thing to do is to show them their sin so that they repent. And yet the devil can help us make all kinds of excuses for why we should say nothing to a person caught in a sin.

We certainly don’t want to act like self-righteous Pharisees when looking at sins. But that doesn’t mean that we should say nothing. Just like our Savior Jesus, we are to deal with the sinner by showing mercy.

Look at Jesus’ response to the attitude of the Pharisees. He 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.’ For I have not come to call the righteous, but sinners.” (Matthew 9:12-13). If the Pharisees who were there understood what Jesus was saying, they would have realized that he was calling them to repentance. The Pharisees thought that they were healthy. They thought that they were righteous in God’s eyes. Jesus wanted them to repent of that sin and realize that faith was about more than outward sacrifices. Faith is about God’s mercy.

There were certainly Pharisees that responded to Jesus call to repent and believe in him for salvation. We hear about Nicodemus in John chapter 3 and we hear about Saul in the book of Acts. Jesus certainly spoke against the sins that the Pharisees committed but he did so with the goal of leading them to faith. The Pharisees were correct when they said that Matthew was a sinner. All people are sinners and we all need the cure that Jesus offers. The difference between Matthew and the Pharisees was that Matthew trusted in Jesus. Jesus always dealt with people with a merciful attitude. 

Our goal always needs to be the same as our Savior. We want all people to repent and to believe in Jesus for forgiveness and eternal life. A good motto for this proclamation of God’s Word is “Speaking the Truth in Love.” The motto “Speaking the Truth in Love” ought to be on our minds when we approach anyone with the message of God’s law and gospel. When we speak the truths of his word in a loving way it prevents us from coming off as self-righteous Pharisees. If our goal is always to lead people to Christ, then we understand that we are proclaiming the law out of concern for a person’s eternal soul. The goal is always to proclaim the gospel when the person repents of their sin. When we approach things with this attitude we avoid the impression that we are just trying to bash people over the head with the law.

As Jesus spoke the truth in love, he would proclaim forgiveness to the penitent sinner. However, he would not offer forgiveness to those who would not repent. He proclaims that same forgiveness to us when we come to him with repentant hearts. When we repent of the times that our sinful arrogance has made us feel superior to other Christians, Christ points us again to his humility and how he obeyed the law in our place. When we are repentant over our failure in our responsibility to call others to repentance, Jesus gives us the forgiveness of the cross. We have been forgiven for all of our sins.

Only with our own forgiveness in mind can we ever speak to others with a proper attitude. Recognizing our own sinfulness gives us an attitude of humility because we realize that we do not deserve forgiveness. It is all because of Christ’s mercy that we are saved. He loved us even though we are often times unlovable. As we keep this in mind we are able to speak the truth of God’s Word with a loving and merciful attitude.

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