... continued from yesterday.
Our heads are so full of things from Christian tradition and other parts of the New Testament (e.g., Paul) that it is hard for us to hear the connotations words like "healthy" and "sinner" likely had at the time of Jesus in his rhetoric. At least to start with, we should take these words somewhat straightforwardly. The son that initially says he will go work in the field is the "healthy" son and refers to the teachers, elders, Pharisees, and priests of Israel.
Since none of us has ever met an ancient Pharisee today, it is all too easy for us to make them into cartoon characters who are predictably evil and predictably hypocrite. Perhaps you've heard the children's ditty: "I don't want to be a Pharisee, 'cause they're not fair, you see." It is true that Matthew 23 absolutely excoriates the Pharisees as hypocrites, but as with most things, we will have a skewed view of them if we only form our understanding from one passage.
For one thing, the other gospels and Acts do not have as strongly a negative view of them. In John 3, Nicodemus is a Pharisee and is clearly friendly with Jesus, and Jesus is friendly with him. John portrays Nicodemus as surprisingly without understanding (John 3:10), but he is clearly genuine in his pursuit of God. Similarly, Acts sees no contradiction between being a Pharisee and being a follower of Jesus (e.g., Acts 15:5; 23:6).
Additionally, there may very well be aspects to Matthew's situation that have led it to focus on the worst elements in Pharisaism. Many think that Matthew was written in the decades immediately following the destruction of Jerusalem, at the time when the Pharisees were basically all that was left of the leadership of Israel. The Sadducees were priests closely associated with the temple, but the temple was gone. Many Essenes had probably fought as revolutionaries in the Jewish War, but they lost and the Romans hunted others down.
The Romans arguably engaged Pharisees when they looked for someone among those left who could be liaisons between the empire and the people who remained in the land of Israel. These were those who were to set up their leadership at a place called Jamnia. These were those who would shift the focus to purity and away from politics. This was the beginning of what would become rabbinic Judaism.
Matthew's presentation of Jesus' engagement with the Pharisees was about much more than remembering what they were like. It was written to show that Christian Jews were the true heirs of God's people, not Pharisaic Judaism. Matthew accentuates the negative aspects of the Pharisees in its presentations to show its primarily Jewish audience not to follow the current leaders of Israel.
But at the time of Jesus' ministry, the Pharisees were perhaps the most popular religious leaders of Israel. They inspired hope in the people. Their agenda was to return Israel to its covenant with God. If Israel would only be faithful enough, then God would forgive its sins and restore it. When we read the Parable of the Pharisee and the Tax Collector, we are not surprised that Jesus honors the "genuine" tax collector who is honest about his sin. But in Jesus' day, this conclusion would have been quite shocking.
After all, the Pharisees were actually trying to keep the covenant. Jesus never applauds the prostitutes for their sexual activities or the tax collectors for cheating the people. What he does is open the door for their restoration. Similarly, Jesus does not criticize the Pharisees for being strict. He criticizes them for having their priorities out of whack (e.g., Matt. 23:23)...