Subverting “Sinners” as a Category

This morning at church we looked at the call of Matthew in Matthew 9. Jesus tells Matthew, the outcast tax collector, to follow him and accepts an invitation to dinner chez Matt. There he is criticised for being associated with the riff-raff, the people who were most hated by the religious establishment –

“Why does your teacher eat with tax collectors and sinners?”
On hearing this, Jesus 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.”
(Matt 9:11-13, NIV)

You can almost taste the disgust with which ‘sinners’ is spat out at Jesus – without the faintest glimmer of respect for the host and guests at the meal, these visitors turn up and pour hate on the host, guest of honour and all the other guests at the meal. The designation ‘sinner’ is seen as a pejorative condemnation just as much today as it was then.

Anyone who questions Jesus’ sense of humour needs to look at this carefully – the sarcasm should not be lost. In the context of the chapter, Jesus has been going round healing people, and continues to after this accusation and another linked on in the next four verses. The writer is showing us that Matthew’s call – his call (we must read this story as a ‘signature’, the author being given a walk on cameo) – is just the same, a healing. Jesus is most definitely not saying that Matthew is still sick – he’s been called, he left his booth like a cripple leaving his begging post. No, Jesus is sarcastically saying ‘if you’re so pure and “healthy”, what do you care who I’m healing and doctoring?’ His scriptural quotation shows up their hypocrisy, they don’t even have the ‘mercy’ to temper their insults in another man’s home.

I imagine air-quotes around “righteous” and “sinners” in that last line – neither one is quite as it seems. Those who think they are healthy are sick to the core, while the patients are already getting healed. The ‘righteous’ are merely self-righteous and no better than the rest.

Jesus is not saying he’s come to make the sinners into righteous people. He’s showing that the division of humanity into those two discrete categories is bankrupt. There is no ‘them’ and ‘us’. God doesn’t ‘hate’ anyone at all, least of all the ones that religious people hate and pillory.

Jesus didn’t call himself a sinner – though by identifying with them he came pretty close. He didn’t call himself a Pharisee or ‘righteous’, though people called him ‘teacher’, ‘rabbi’, and immediately recognised his integrity. This is his call to abolish the categories of ‘sinner’ and ‘righteous’ and to get on with caring for people’s needs, whatever they may be. Reading into the next verses (which we didn’t this morning, probably because people get so confused reading them), the old categories won’t hold the  new wine, the new kingdom. Jesus’ transcending of barriers will tear categories apart.

Yet somehow the mudslinging of ‘sinner’ continues to this day. We barely disguise hatred by talking about ‘loving the sinner’. When someone else calls you a sinner, it’s no better than ‘criminal’ or ‘convict’ at welcoming you. Maybe today Jesus would say that ‘Mercy is better than doctrine’ and keep on hanging out with the scum of society, whether they are tax collectors, Sun journalists or just ordinary people who don’t feel good enough when they hurry past our church doorways.