Most emergency rooms in the United States are structured around the concept of triage. A patient is first assessed by a nurse, who checks vital signs and determines the severity of the patient’s condition. She assigns each condition a rating of “immediately life threatening,” or “urgent but not immediately life threatening,” or “less urgent.” The purpose for triage is that the most severe or time-critical cases are the first to see a doctor.
When Jesus and His disciples were eating dinner at Matthew the tax collector’s house, many of Matthew’s friends also joined them. Like him, his friends were tax collectors and others that the religious leaders considered to be sinners (v. 10). The religious leaders noticed Jesus was consorting with sinners, but rather than approach Him directly they asked His disciples why their master would debase Himself with such company.
Though it would have been interesting to hear how the disciples would have answered, Jesus overheard and answered them, “It is not the healthy who need a doctor, but the sick” (v. 12). Looking at the condition of all the suffering souls around Him, Jesus had performed spiritual triage and identified the condition of Matthew and his friends as urgent enough to receive immediate attention.
Those called “sinners” were embraced by Jesus, and they experienced something—Someone—radically different from either the cool rejection or hot fury of the religious leaders. They were treated as those who were worthy of dignity and respect. They encountered Someone who loved them enough to share a meal with them. They were embraced by Someone who not only diagnosed them as sick and sinful but also offered them healing and salvation.