by Frank Sewall
I came not to call the righteous, but sinners to repentance.— St. Luke v. 32.
IT is recorded in the Holy Gospel that our Lord once gave a great supper in his own house, and there were many present who had followed Him from the wayside and throughout the country where He had been journeying; there were doubtless the fishermen whom He had called from their nets, and many a one from the great multitude who had resorted unto Him at the seaside, and of those, too, most likely, who surrounded his house at Capernaum in such numbers that they could not bring a certain man sick of the palsy to Him by the door, but were obliged to lift up the bed over the people’s heads and lower it down through the roof; and Levi we know was there, whom He had just called from the receipt of custom, and, not unlikely, many a poor man and woman who had been blind and now saw, or lame and now walked, or covered with the loathsome leprosy and was now clean and whole again; and all these, we can imagine, with mingled feelings of wonder and joy stood by at that feast and had some little consciousness within them of the real character of Him who was in their midst. For there were many there, says the account as we read it in St. Mark’s Gospel, and publicans and sinners, and they sat with Jesus and his disciples.
Thus, “in his own house,” our Lord did sit at meat with publicans and sinners, and they were many, and they followed Him.
There is more meaning, more stirring pathos, in this little verse than in all the eulogies on the Divine Compassion ever uttered by human lips. With our finite vision, our poor natural notions, we can derive but little light from this sublime passage wherein is portrayed, like a picture of the heavens and earth in the retina of the eye, the entire story of our Lord’s Incarnation and Glorification. But this little ray of light comes to us from the spiritual glory that burns beneath the letter,— that the house in which our Lord dwells means the doctrine which He believed and taught; and this doctrine is, “Love one another as I have loved you,” and all who received this doctrine and fed their souls upon it did really sit at meat with Him in his house: and such were his followers. Now, the righteous scribes and Pharisees stood without or walked by, doubtless, avoiding all contact with such vulgar company, and while pretending a kind of respect for the Lord, inquired of his disciples about this supper: ” How is it that He eateth and drinketh with publicans and sinners?”
O Pharisee, keep your clean robes intact! Venture not too near this plebeian throng! Leave the humble house where the poor, the lame, halt, blind, and leprous, only lately made to know the common joys of life,— where the abandoned outcast, the homeless, the hopeless but of yesterday now sit at the feet of their healer, their consoler, and ask not for lordlier or more stately company than this poor motley crowd, with Jesus in its midst! Go up to your own high places, Pharisee and publican, and think upon this new word which the Master sends to you in answer to your inquiry, “I came not to call the righteous, but sinners to repentance”!
And so let these words come home to Christian hearts, and with so much of their Divine meaning as we shall be enabled to discover, remembering that in the sight of God no man living is justified; and taking care lest, vainly numbering ourselves among the righteous, we become deaf to that call to repentance which it was for publicans and sinners alone to hear.
That was, indeed, a new word in those times, ” to call sinners to repentance.” For the righteous every promise had been made, every offer held out, every hope encouraged; but to call the sinner to repentance, this had not belonged to the religious system of the Jews. And who were these righteous? They were the Pharisees and scribes,— those scrupulous observers of the law; those men well versed in the religious books, to whom every minute rite and ceremony of the Jewish ritual was familiar; those who made long prayers and wore sad countenances and looked for the worldly prosperity, the earthly re-establishment, of the Israelitish kingdom. The heaven of the Pharisee, or, rather, his conception of the kingdom of God on earth, was not broad; a petty community of strict ritualists, externally supporting the ancient observances of the Jewish Church, this would suffice for the Messiah of the nations; the poor, the humble, the ignorant, and the Gentiles, they were of little account in the Pharisee’s reckoning. And yet, behold Jesus,the Messiah, sitting at meat with publicans and sinners!
The publicans were a low and hated class of the people, whose occupation was collecting the taxes under their Roman masters; and the sinners, they were, doubtless, very much the same class of beings as those persons nowadays who are spoken of by that name. At least, the term did not include the Pharisee and the scribe; no more in our day does the name sinner often fall upon the pious outdoor Christian of respectable position. But, however this may be, we know simply that while that “righteous” Pharisee walked by in scorn, our Lord did sit at meat in his own house with publicans and sinners.
Now, there wras a deep and solemn meaning in that reply of his to the Pharisee’s inquiry, “How is it that thy master eateth and drinketh with publicans and sinners ?” “I am not come,” is the Divine response, “to call the righteous, but sinners to repentance.” It is evident enough that the Pharisee was not, indeed, righteous; but that he is called so here because he seemed so to himself. If there had been true righteousness in the Jewish Church, as represented by this its ruling class, then the end of that Church had not come, it had not been necessary for Christ, the Messiah, to come at that time to save the world. But the fact was far otherwise. The race of mankind was perishing in evil, because the Church was dead. All men were alike sinners; all were alike swept down under the tyrannous rule of the prince of this world.
” None calleth for justice, nor any pleadeth for truth; they trust in vanity and speak lies. Judgment is turned away backward; justice standeth afar off; for truth is fallen in the street, and equity cannot enter.”
So describes the prophet the state of the Church at that day, when the clean and dainty Pharisee was to ask of the Saviour of. the world, “How is it that he eateth with publicans and sinners?” Thus, we see that when our Lord spoke of the righteous whom He came not to call, although He referred to the self-righteous Pharisee, yet He by no means would teach that Pharisee, or those like him, that he was not alike in need of repentance. No; the truth is, the Pharisee was not called by the Saviour to repentance, simply because he would not hear; the wall of his vain conceit, his foolishly-imagined righteousness, which consisted, as he believed, in external observance, while the heart was corrupt with evil within, this kept every cry of warning, every call to repentance, from his ear. When he went to the temple to pray, he could not fall down, smite upon his breast, and say, “God be merciful to me a sinner;” but rather he thanked God that he was not as other men are, and set forth a fair account of his fasting twice in the week, of his giving tithes of all that he possessed, and so on through the roll of his virtues. Such men have their reward, saith our Saviour, when speaking of their external religion; but what a poor, petty, shallow reward is that,— the glory of men, a proud name in the world, and the tyrant of self in the heart, with all his lusts and deceits, to rule and reign there forever and forever.
Now, how is it with those poor publicans and sinners who sat at meat in the Lord’s house with Him and were his followers? These were even the class whom Jesus Christ came into the world to call to repentance; not that they needed repentance more, not that they needed it less, than other men who bore fairer titles, but because being known, denounced, shunned as publicans and sinners, they were willing to appear, or were obliged to appear, to the world what they were, and thus really appeared to themselves in the true light of their own wretchedness. For the opinion of the world, and especially its evil opinion, is often a mirror in which we may see reflected a much truer picture of ourselves than we are wont to find when looking at our hearts through the medium of our own opinion only. These publicans were doubtless well represented by that one of their number who, when he went up to pray, dared not look up to God; so vile and degraded a being he really felt himself to be, he could only smite upon his breast, and cry out, “God be merciful to me a sinner!” And the others of that motley assembly, they had been afflicted with many troubles, were a poor troop of vagabonds, but they had found a man who spoke not as the scribes, but with authority, who healed their diseases as well as blessed them; who taught them how to pray to their Father in heaven; who told them what was forgiveness, what was mutual love, what was the treasure worth seeking after, and how they could become children of God and come into his kingdom. Now, these poor people were not better than others in their hearts and lives, perhaps, but they were willing to hear, to be instructed, to be commanded by the Living Incarnate Word of God in their midst; and listening to Him and receiving into their minds his instruction, they were indeed his followers, although the journey of the cross, their life of regeneration, had hardly begun. But such did our blessed Lord call to repentance, for such had ears to hear, and the call fell not upon them unheeded.
And what does it mean when Christ saith to men today, as He did to them of old, “I came not to call the righteous, but sinners to repentance!” Shall we imagine that before Him there are righteous men and others who are sinful men, and that the righteous are saved in any case and only the sinners need to repent? That is the falsity of a dead Church, a Church that has ceased to be the presence of God as the Divine Truth on earth. There is none good but one, that is God. Before God there are no men more or less righteous of themselves than others. He beholds the hearts of men only as they are more or less open to and ready to receive true righteousness from Him. The true and living Church of God must speak to men in the very words of its Divine Master, whose messenger, indeed, is the Church: “I am not come to call the righteous, but sinners to repentance.’ Let no man too readily class himself with the righteous; so far as he does he stops his ear against that call to repentance which all need alike to hear. He only who feels that he is a sinner can repent. Of what can that man repent who thinks there is nothing but righteousness in him? No; first we must become in our own eyes publicans and sinners; then we shall hear the Lord’s call to repentance, and happily, by God’s grace, come and sit at meat with Him in his own house!
All men are not indeed alike sinful; some are more righteous men than others; but these are not so of themselves, but of God. The righteousness that is in them is God’s righteousness, and they, only, need not repentance who, while they know that their evils are held in check, and the good things of heaven given into their hearts, yet remember that these good things belong to God and not to themselves, and that it is only by the Divine power that their evils are held in subjection and do not rouse themselves again and overcome them. So far as a man regards himself as separated from, or not dependent upon God, he must behold in himself a sinner: surely a sinner who may be called to repentance, and come to the Lord’s house to sit at meat with Him, if he feels, together with his sins, a sorrow for it and a desire to be united to the Lord, rather than to continue in this dreary absence of a wicked heart; but doubly a sinner and deaf to the Saviour’s call if so be he thinks whatever of righteousness is in him to be his own, and thus turns the light that is in him into darkness; thanking God that he is not as other men, and thinking to himself what reward his righteousness is meriting. This man is robbing God: surely his righteousness is as filthy rags; the publicans and harlots go into the kingdom of God before him.
There is no greater danger to those who are members of religious organizations than this that having united themselves externally to the Church and taken the name of church-member, they unthinkingly class themselves among the righteous, and believe henceforward that the call of the Lord to repentance is addressed only to those sinners who are without the Church. There is no more fatal and unjust distinction in the world than a distinction thus drawn,— namely, that the Church is for the righteous, for those who have no need of repentance, and that those outside the Church are the sinners who need to repent. The error is as fatal to the one class as to the other. Those in the Church are liable to the awful mistake and sin of thinking their salvation is accomplished, that their faith alone, their acceptance of doctrine, their subscribing to articles of belief,— that this places them among the righteous; and those without, feeling, yea, having it impressed upon them that the Church is not for sinners, but for the righteous only, conclude that they have no place there. The Messiah is not for them, but for the clean Pharisee ; they dare not lift their eyes unto heaven, but can only smite upon their breasts in their wretchedness and implore God’s mercy on them; while they in the Church, they can stand up and thank God that they are such righteous, just, and pious men.
Let us have done with this false and ruinous distinction. What is the church militant, the Church on earth, but the messenger of that same Lord and Saviour who sat at meat with publicans and sinners? Whom else does the Church call to repentance but sinners? With whom else has the church to do but with sinners? As for the righteous, if there are those within the Church who believe that their faith in Church doctrine alone is righteousness, they are like the Pharisees, straining at a gnat and swallowing a camel. They are so much death in the living body of the Church.
Like the Saviour of old, does the Church now come to all classes alike. And if the self-righteous are offended in it, because it commands repentance and actual endeavor to subjugate the evils within, and thus to become fit vessels of God’s righteousness, still, the Church is not ashamed to call under its own roof the publicans and sinners. Did Christ say to the multitude, “Not yet, good people; wait awhile; when you have become clean and learned, like the Pharisees and the scribes, then you may come in and eat with me and learn of my doctrine” ? Such was not the Saviour’s word to the poor outcast dregs of the people; but hear rather what He did say: “Come unto me all ye that labor and are heavy laden, and I will give you rest; take my yoke upon you, and learn of me, for I am meek and lowly in heart, and ye shall find rest to your souls!”
Shall the Church in our day assume the character of a closed fold, wherein only the righteous— the regenerate— sit at meat with the Lord ? Shall it not rather be that same house of the Lord,— his own house, whose door was open to all, however low and sinful and frowned upon and despised, who yet, if simply they desire to be followers of Him, may come in and sit at the Lord’s table with his disciples, feeling their sinfulness, and not their worthiness ; conscious of their unsightliness in God’s sight, and not of their fair looks? Feeling their sinfulness, I say! and no man can feel his sinfulness whose soul has not once been pierced through with the awful probe of God’s Word, revealing to him, at least, one sin out of the host that are there! Shall the Church say, “Wait until you are better; wait until you know the doctrines of our faith thoroughly; wait until you can thank God that you are not as other men are, and then come into the Temple” ? Or shall it simply ask, as did its Divine Master of those who wished to be healed of the very sins and evils in which they find themselves immersed, ” Wilt thou be made whole?
If so, follow me, immediately, just as you are leaving your nets, or your seat at the receipt of custom, or whatever your occupation be. Come into this the Lord’s own house! Come, burdened with your evils and all your spiritual infirmities! Come as you are, but come wishing to be what you are not! Come wishing to be healed, to be cleansed, to be made better!
Come and learn of the true way to health and peace under the Lord’s roof, not standing without. Here, in this open house, whenever you will come earnestly desiring to follow Him, you may sit at meat with Jesus and his disciples! The truths of God’s Word are open to you,— the plain, simple doctrines of the Church teaching the way of repentance and regeneration; this is the house into which you are to enter as sinners and publicans; and here, by actually learning to love and to rule your everyday life by these truths and instructions, you do verily sit at meat with your Lord?
Author: Frank Sewall, from The Hem of His Garment, 1876