One of the most common questions Christians ask is, “how do I live for God in a non-Christian culture among sinful people?” Consciously or sub-consciously, we are always asking that question. Christian parents are constantly deciding whom their children can play with, what they can watch on television, etc.
Now if you were an Israelite living under the Old Covenant, our question was relatively easy to answer. The Mosaic Law prescribed whom you were allowed to associate with and whom you could not associate with; what you were allowed to do and not allowed to do; even what you were and were not allowed to eat.
But you are not under the Old Covenant; you are under the New Covenant. Christ demonstrates the dawning of the New Covenant by eating a meal with unclean people. To eat with such people in the Old Covenant would have defiled you.
The Lord had recently called Matthew the tax collector to be his disciple. Tax collectors were considered traitors in Israel, so no respectable Jew would befriend one. Tax collectors overcharged Jews to line their own pockets. Matthew would have been considered a traitor to his own country. Matthew could only find friends among the other notorious sinners in Israel, the adulterers, thieves and prostitutes. After Matthew believes upon Christ, he holds a banquet in Christ’s honor at his house, and he invites his friends to the banquet. Christ and his disciples share a meal with these notorious sinners.
The Pharisees were very offended that Jesus would eat with such people. In eastern culture, sharing a meal denoted acceptance and intimacy. A Pharisee might speak to a tax collector out of necessity, but he would never share a meal with a tax collector.
Christ did not seem worried about becoming defiled by these sinners, nor did he seem worried how he would look sharing an intimate meal with such people. The Pharisees begin grumbling that Jesus was ignoring God’s Law.
The Lord overhears the Pharisees complain and rebukes them with these words: the well have no need of a physician, but those who are sick. Jesus then quotes from Hosea 6, where God rebuked Israel for following the Law outwardly but having no love or mercy inwardly. Religious duty means nothing to God apart from love and mercy.
The Pharisees’ problem was not that they misunderstood the Mosaic Law. They read correctly that Israel was not to be contaminated by certain types of sinners. Even though the law technically forbade unclean foods and eating utensils, eating a meal with those who do not regard these rules would most likely result in them being defiles, so they avoided those people at meals altogether.
The Pharisees’ problem was not care for following the Law, it was that they refused to see that the Law was temporary; that the Law was typological. The unclean food and unclean people pictured the inward uncleanness of all people. The Pharisees wanted to believe that those distinctions between clean and unclean in the Mosaic Law were eternal distinctions, and that they were the clean.
The Pharisees ignored the fact that before the Law was given to Israel, God promised Abraham that he would graciously save people from every nation. This salvation would not be based on whether was one was Jewish or not, or a keeper of the law. Jesus had arrived to bring about the promise made to Abraham, but the Pharisees wanted nothing of it.
The Pharisees did not allow the Law to fulfill its purpose in their lives. The Law as given to teach the Jews that they were no better than the people they were not allowed to eat with, because they could not obey God fully as he required. The Law was given to drive them to Christ. If the Pharisees had admitted that they were as undeserving of God’s grace as the tax collectors, they would have had mercy toward all sinners.
In sharing a meal with notorious sinners, Christ was demonstrating that the physical separation from certain sinners required by the Mosaic Law was coming to an end. In the New Covenant, God’s people are not told to separate from sinners physically. The separation from sinners in the New Covenant is inward, not outward. God’s people in the New Covenant are to associate with sinners, as we read in I Corinthians 5.
Why this radical change? Why did the Lord end the Law’s requirement to physically separate from sinners in the Old Covenant, and require just the opposite in the New Covenant?
The answer is found in the words of our Lord in v. 12. The sick need a physician. Sinners need Christ. Christ the doctor came to earth to heal spiritual sickness. I did not come to call those convinced they are righteous, I came to call sinners.
The driving force behind the radical change from not associating with sinners to being commanded to associate with sinners is mission; the New Covenant inaugurated the age of mission.
Israel was not, as is often suggested, a mission nation to the world. Israelites were to separate themselves from the Gentile nations, not make treaties with them, and in certain cases be an agent of their judgment. The Holy Land of Israel was a land of separation, a land picturing heaven.
But we live in a different age, not an age of separation, but an age of mission. Jesus came not to judge, but to save. God is saving judgment for when this age comes to an end.
By Jesus sharing an intimate meal with notorious sinners, the Lord is telling you that it’s okay to do the same in this age. You will not become unclean by forming close relationships with all kinds of sinners. You can have them over for dinner, listen to them tell the stories of their lives, befriend them. You are not compromising your faith by doing so.
We often become easily offended when hearing unbelievers talk. You might ask the question, why wasn’t Jesus offended at the talk of these sinners at this banquet? It shouldn’t be difficult to imagine that the conversation from these people was not holy conversation. Why wasn’t Jesus offended? Why didn’t he get up from the table and walk out?
The answer is mission; he came to save sinners. To save sinners he would need to build relationships with sinners, to befriend them and listen to them. He was giving up his own rights to be offended for the sake of others. The demonstration of offense would come at final judgment, not now. It’s not that the Lord enjoyed crass, sinful talk, nor did he speak that way, but his love for these people and desire for their salvation trumped his desire to only hear pure talk.
When Paul looked at culture, he looked at culture as an opportunity to reach people. To the Jew, I became a Jew; to the Gentile I became a Gentile. I became all things to all men that I may save some.
Paul did not evaluate culture so he could sit in his living room and condemn it. Paul evaluated culture to see how much he could find in common with unbelievers in order to build relationships with them and bring them the gospel. Around Jews he identified with the Jewish culture as much as possible. Around Greeks he identified with the Greek culture as much as possible. Why? Mission.
We see from the gospels that Jesus loved to eat with bad people, to be in their company, to hear their life stories and banter; to care for them. You are to do the same.
When you ask the question, how should I, a New Covenant Christian, live in a non-Christian culture among non-Christian people, remember that the New Covenant treats you as adults in answering that question.
You are not like Israel under the Law. You do not have laws providing specific answers to that question. You are not told whom you can associate with and whom you cannot. You are not told what aspects of culture to use and what to reject.
You are adults. As New Covenant Christians you have the fullness of the Holy Spirit in you. Through the general truths of the Word, through the counsel of others, and through life experience and your own conscience, the Holy Spirit grants each of you wisdom to answer those questions for yourself.
Our children are not contaminated by playing with non-Christian children. But what is my child ready to be exposed to? Only you the parent can answer that question for your children.
Is it a sin to go to a bar? It depends. Are you going to befriend people and enjoy life without compromising, or are you going to compromise your faith by getting drunk? Only you can answer that question.
You live on this side of the resurrection. You live in a special age; the age of fulfillment; the age of the spread of the gospel, the age of God’s mercy; the age of mission. To be Christ-like is to befriend and love sinners. The only way you will feel compassion for sinners is to be convinced that deep down you are no different than they are. The Pharisees had no compassion because they thought too much of themselves.
In v. 13 Christ summarizes the whole law in one phrase, show mercy. If you truly belong to Christ, if you grasp the significance that God came down from heaven to redeem a sinner like you and bare all your shame on the cross, you will have compassionate on lost sinners who are your brothers and sisters according to the flesh.
In this age of mission you are called to get your hands dirty, not to separate yourselves. You are called to put aside your rights of being offended for the sake of reaching others. Leave all judgment in God’s hands. This is not the age to sit around and condemn everything you do not like about culture and separate yourself form anyone different from you. This is the age to love people. You are called to enter the sinner’s world, to listen to his story, and to take risks in loving that person, even if today’s Pharisees criticize you for doing so.
You are to be willing to take these risks because Christ did exactly that for you. If you are not willing to befriend and love the worst of sinners, why would they think God would be willing to forgive and love them? If you are too holy to befriend homosexuals, or weird-looking teenagers, you are claiming to be holier than Christ, who did just that.
We are Christ’s ambassadors to a sinful world on the brink of judgment. Live for Jesus, love people. Befriend sinners. When they are ready to hear, tell them about Jesus, or invite them to church. If they have no interest in hearing about Jesus, honor their wishes and love them anyway.
Be New Covenant Christians; be like Christ; be mission minded; take risks, get your hands dirty, love people; fulfill your calling as a church. Amen