... continued from Saturday.
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).
I will return to the Pharisees later. For now, I mainly want to argue that we should only describe them and other Jewish teachers as "healthy" in quotation marks--implying that they were not truly healthy--in hindsight. It is not something everyone would have immediately understood at the time. In the Parable of the Two Sons in Matthew 21, they initially say they will go work in the field. It is only after they reject Jesus that it turns out they do not. Similarly, the Parable of the Prodigal Son (Luke 15), it is only after the prodigal returns that we begin to realize that the elder brother is not as righteous as he may have appeared. As I have sometimes said, the Pharisees would have been voted "Most Likely to be Righteous" in high school.
But the Pharisees are really more a focus for a later chapter. Here, I am more interested in the sinners. They are represented by the prodigal son in Luke 15 and by the son who initially says he will not go work in the field in Matthew 21. But the story of Jesus' ministry is a story of great reversal. By the end of his ministry, those who said they would go work in the field, the "healthy," turn out not to follow Jesus. Meanwhile, those who initially said they would not go work, do. They repent and follow Jesus.
So we know in hindsight that the word "healthy" should be put in quotation marks, but quotation marks do not belong around the word sinners at all. These individuals really did start off sinners in a much stronger sense than the Pharisees did. It is at this point that our knowledge of Paul is prone to interfere with our hearing of Jesus--especially the way later Christians have appropriated Paul. We are prone to have Romans 3:23 ringing in our ears--"all have sinned."
To be sure, Jews did believe that no person stood self-sufficiently righteous before God. That's why there was a sacrificial system, so both the corporate and individual sins of Israel--especially unintentional sins--could find atonement. But this was not the focus of Jewish understanding like it seemingly has become in so many Christian circles. The focus was on intentional wrongdoing and on making the right choice when a person came to a conscious decision between doing right and wrong.
This is the standard of the gospels and, when we read him in focus, it is even the focus of Paul's moral understanding. The righteous in the gospels are not those who are absolutely perfect but those who consistently make the righteous choice when a moral choice comes. The concrete starting point for such choices at the time was the Jewish Law found in the Old Testament. But, as I will argue in the next chapter, Jesus was more interested in the motives behind a person's action and whether a person was acting with love and mercy.
The sinners of these parable were not. They were truly "lost sheep" in a clear way. The Pharisees were actually trying to obey. The tax collectors and prostitutes were not. They are of course represented by the prodigal in the Parable of the Prodigal Son...