There was a time when doctors actually visited sick people in their homes. It was known as a house call. Nobody makes house calls anymore. Well, there is a guy named Jason in Grand Junction, Colorado.
1 He still makes house calls. But Jason is not a doctor. He is a barber. So if you get sick, there may not be a doctor who will come and heal you, but thanks to Jason at least you can look tidy. . . .
Jesus made house calls.
After one of his house calls in Capernaum, Jesus goes out and sees a man sitting at a tax booth.
2 The man’s name is Matthew. Jesus says to him, “Follow me!” Matthew gets up and follows Jesus. By answering Jesus’ invitation Matthew becomes Jesus’ disciple, a learner with Jesus as his teacher, his master.
Then Matthew hosts a banquet and invites Jesus to his house. He wants his friends and associates to meet his new teacher. And many tax collectors and sinners come and share the table with Jesus and his other disciples.
The fact that Jesus goes to Matthew’s house and shares a table with him and his friends is significant. Sharing a table is an act of friendship, an expression of fellowship. Jesus seems to be making a statement through his personal contact with Matthew’s peer group.
Jesus’ attendance at Matthew’s banquet gets the attention of a powerful group: the Pharisees. These men are part of the religious establishment. Tension is building between them and Jesus. They do not see eye to eye with the former carpenter-turned-preacher who makes house calls.
The Pharisees emphasize ritual purity in their religious practice. If you touch the wrong thing, you are rendered ritually impure in the sight of God. And if you touch a person who has touched the wrong thing, you are impure in God’s eyes.
Their ideas about ritual purity are so strict that almost no one can follow the extensive rules and regulations that make up the heart of their religion. So they tend to be separated from the common folks.
These Pharisees are apparently keeping a pretty close eye on Jesus. They are suspicious of him. When they see Jesus at Matthew’s banquet they start asking Jesus’ disciples, “Why is your teacher eating with tax collectors and sinners?”
They are questioning Jesus’ association with these common people. Matthew’s friends are the types of people who do not keep themselves ritually pure according to the long list of rules kept by the Pharisees.
So these Pharisees are accusing Jesus of fraternizing with the enemy, so to speak. Since he claims to be a teacher of what is godly and righteous, they reason, then Jesus should be acting like they do. And they would never have close social contact with these tax collectors and sinners.
This phrase, “tax collectors and sinners,” is a standard way of referring to the very people that the Pharisees carefully avoid. Notice that tax collectors are singled out in this formula. It’s not the sheep herders and sinners, or the soldiers and sinners, but the tax collectors and sinners.
Tax collectors are one group that most everyone can agree to despise, just like people today seldom have warm feelings toward IRS agents. Jewish tax collectors like Matthew not only take away people’s hard-earned money, but they give that money to the hated Roman occupiers. So they are doubly despised.
Why doesn’t Jesus go to Jerusalem and choose his followers from established and recognized leaders, men with a track record for being gifted and influential? Why go to one of the most hated groups in society and choose a follower? Why invite such a despised man?
Jesus does not come to win everyone’s approval. On one occasion he saw that a crowd had gathered around him and so he departed.
3 People who want popularity run toward the crowds. Jesus goes the other way.
On at least two occasions men came and promised to follow Jesus, but he questioned their commitment.
4 If you want to be popular, then you make compromises in order to gain followers and supporters. Jesus, however, trims the ranks by maintaining unusually high standards.
Today’s church can learn a lot from Jesus. His work was not to win approval, but to win souls. We can gain people’s approval and still not win souls for the Lord. And often winning souls can actually lead to society’s disapproval. After all, saving souls requires one to believe that they are lost in the first place, which can be insulting.
Jesus hears the Pharisees accusing him to his disciples and answers for himself. But why don’t the disciples answer? Why don’t they defend their leader? Are they secretly wondering about Jesus? Are they uncomfortable coming to a banquet with all these tax collectors and sinners? (Matthew and his friends may have collected taxes from some of these fishermen who are now following Jesus, maybe even cheated them!) After hearing the Pharisees’ accusation against Jesus, maybe they are thinking to themselves: “I was wondering that very same thing! Why are we eating with these people?”
Jesus gives a great answer. He says, “The healthy have no need for a doctor, but those who are sick do.” What good is a savior if he doesn’t go where people need to be saved?
Notice that Jesus characterizes sin as sickness. He pictures these tax collectors and sinners as people who have an illness which needs to be cured. People who sin have sick souls. To disobey God’s commands is to be spiritually ill. Jesus is the soul doctor, the Great Physician, who can heal the sick, both physically and spiritually.
So the religious leaders accuse Jesus of sending the wrong message by socializing with these sinners. Not only is he risking ritual impurity, he is affirming the sinful lifestyles of Matthew and his friends. As far as they are concerned, a real teacher of God’s truth would not enable sinners.
Note carefully that Jesus does not defend these tax collectors and sinners. He does not insist that they are perfectly fine just the way they are. Instead Jesus says that he has come to change them. And how can a doctor heal without going where the sick are? How can a savior rescue without going where the lost are? Is Jesus approving sinful lifestyles? No. Jesus is not becoming a sinner. Matthew is becoming a disciple.
Jesus is not finished. Next he tells the Pharisees, “Now go and learn what this means, ‘Mercy is what I desire and not sacrifice,’ for I did not come to call the righteous but sinners.”
Jesus is sending the teachers back to school! He quotes from the Bible and tells these Pharisees to go and study it. Remember, these men are the religious leaders of Israel. They are the ones who teach God’s word to the people. And Jesus tells them that they flunked their course in God’s mercy.
The Scripture which Jesus sends these Pharisees to re-learn is Hosea 6:6.
5 Hosea was a prophet sent by God to Israel at a time when the people were at a low point spiritually. They brought their offerings to the temple from time to time but they did not live their daily lives according to God’s ways.
The sacrifices God prescribes in the Old Testament were not meant to be indulgences, that is, go to church once a week and give to God and then do whatever you please the rest of the week. More than endless sacrifices for constant disobedience, God desires a people who have a heart of mercy.
Of all people, the religious leaders should know that God desires mercy, grace, forgiveness and restoration. But these men are cold-hearted toward the tax collectors and sinners. Their religion is a dead letter, not a living word.
So Jesus is not defending the tax collectors and sinners. He says that he came to call them, to invite them to a new life, a life of repentance and salvation, discipleship, victory over sin. Jesus is reaching out to the sinners so that they can share his power and holiness.
Jesus says that he did not come to call the righteous. But nobody is righteous. All have sinned and fallen short of God’s glory.
If these Pharisees were not so blinded by their own self-righteous attitudes then they would be able to marvel at the mercy of God which is capable of saving even the tax collectors and sinners. More than that, as the religious leaders of Israel, they should model the mercy of God. They should be out making house calls with Jesus.
Here is a message so important for the American church today. We find ourselves in a world that is moving away from the morals and ethics of God’s perfect word. Many believers struggle, not wanting to compromise God’s truth or to approve of sinful lifestyles, but also yearning to show the love of God. What are Bible-believing parents to do when invited to a wedding between their son and another man? What should Christians do when a friend is celebrating the birth of her baby born out of wedlock?
There are two very simple responses to these types of dilemmas. On one side, Christians could choose to disown those who do not live up to God’s moral standards. Simple. But those choosing this option become more like the Pharisees than Jesus.
On the other side, Christians could choose to redefine God’s righteousness, becoming so concerned with winning people’s approval that they adopt the world’s standards, being so concerned with winning a person’s friendship that they refuse to challenge or correct them, even in love. But then they have stopped following Jesus, because Jesus offers healing to sin-sick souls, not excuses.
There is a third option. We can refuse to give up on holiness and refuse to give up on the sinner, both at the same time. But will we be seen as approving sin if we socialize with the sinner? How can we balance holiness and mercy? This approach is so difficult, so thorny, so filled with complexities that it seems impossible to get it right. And it is. But the good news is that we serve God who does the impossible.
I’ve seen how this can be done. As a young man I was entangled in drugs, alcohol and other poor lifestyle choices. Through all those years of foolishness I always knew two things about my dad. First, I knew that he disagreed with my sin. Second, I knew that he loved me and his door was always open for me. My dad modeled Jesus. God enables us to be like Jesus, holy and merciful.
What has this to do with Christmas? Everything! We often hear that Christmas is about some fuzzy feel-good notion about giving. God gave his Son so we should give to one another. That’s true in a general sense but it is not enough.
Vague notions about giving leave out the fact that Christmas is about a people in desperate need, sinners in need of a Great Physician. Christmas is about Christ stepping down and leaving behind the privileges and safety of heaven in order to rescue souls bound for hell.
It’s no surprise that this technology-driven generation has turned to videoconferencing for a solution to the house call question. Imagine a service that offers you a virtual house call on your iPad, iPhone or computer.
6 A doctor speaks to you on your device, trying to diagnose your illness and prescribe an appropriate therapy. But those who have tried this discovered that it is not nearly as effective as having a live doctor in the same room with you. There is no replacement for personal contact.
God still desires and provides for personal spiritual contact that brings healing, restoration and great joy. Christmas is about the greatest house call ever made. Jesus came so that we can be saved from our sin.
1 Karaline Ann, “Barber offers house call haircut to disabled friend,” WEAU 13 News [on-line]; accessed 2 December 2016; available from http://www.weau.com/content/news?article=400278221; Internet.
2 This article is based on Matthew 9:9-13.
3 See Matthew 8:18.
4 See Matthew 8:19-22.
5 The entire verse is as follows: “For I desire mercy, not sacrifice, and acknowledgment of God rather than burnt offerings” (NIV).
6 “Virtual doctor visits: A new kind of house call,” Harvard Health Publications [on-line]; accessed 2 December 2016; available from http://www.health.harvard.edu/staying-healthy/virtual-doctor-visits-a-new-kind-of-house-call; Internet.