As Jesus went on from there, he saw a man named Matthew sitting at the tax collector’s booth. “Follow me,” he told him, and Matthew got up and followed him.
While Jesus was having dinner at Matthew’s house, many tax collectors and sinners came and ate with him and his disciples. When the Pharisees saw this, they asked his disciples, “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.” (Matthew 9:9-13)
I love Jesus’ style. He comes from the splendor of heaven to be born in a barn, raised by a common family and then hangs out with sinners and the like. And this is where we find Jesus, once again. These events follow Jesus’ healing of the paralytic. Mark indicates that he’s back by the Sea of Galilee (2:13), probably in Capernaum, when he spots Matthew at a tax collector’s booth. Some scholars think that Matthew was there collecting taxes on fish since his booth was right by the water. Let’s take a minute to talk about tax collectors back in the day. With as bad a rap as modern day tax collectors have, the collectors of Jesus’ day had it even worse… and for good reason. The office of tax collector was purchased by the highest bidder. The winning bid won the seat of collector. There were many different kinds of tax collectors and Matthew was probably in charge of fishing for the area. The way tax collection usually worked was this- the Roman government set a certain amount that had to be charged for taxes and the tax collector added to that amount whatever he wanted. This portion was his salary. If you had a fair tax collector (which apparently were few and very far between) you were charged a reasonable amount. Greedy collectors could charge exorbitant amounts and you had no choice but to pay it. It is because of this corruption and because they were employed by the Roman government that Jewish tax collectors were viewed as traitors.
Yes, Matthew was viewed as a traitor by his fellow Jews yet Jesus walks right up to him and asks Matthew to join him. Up to this point Jesus has called Philip and Nathaniel, Peter, Andrew, James and John. Now we see him inviting Matthew to join the ranks. What is interesting about this line up? The majority of them had jobs that would have made them unclean. We don’t know what Philip and Nathaniel did but we know the other four were fishermen. Because they would not have access to ceremonial water for washing they would not have been able to keep the Mosaic laws about being clean. They would have been considered sinners by the Pharisees and other teachers of the law. Matthew, viewed as a traitor to the Jewish faith, was also considered a sinner. That was just the way Jesus worked. And Matthew responds to Jesus by getting up, leaving behind his lucrative career. We can assume that this was not the first time that Matthew had heard of Jesus. He was after all pretty famous in those parts. How much Matthew knew about Jesus is not known however.
An interesting thing to note about how Jesus calls his disciples is that he tells them to follow himself. Traditionally when a rabbi would take on a new student he would require the student to bind himself to the law. Jesus, being the fulfillment of the laws, requires his students to follow him.
The next scene involves a dinner at Matthew’s house with “many tax collectors and sinners,” (v. 10). I don’t know for a fact but I’d be willing to guess that Matthew, upon dedicating his life to following Jesus, invited his friends and colleagues over to tell them the good news. Dinners in Jesus’ time were a little different than dinner’s we know in modern day America. Women ate separate and served the men. Men reclined at a table, leaning on their left elbows and using their right hand to eat. Also, there were no coverings on the windows so passersby would often lean through the window and join in the dinner conversation. Also, an open front door was a sign that anyone was welcome to come in. It is because of these customs that we see Pharisees watching the “sinner dinner”. Being “righteous” Jews, they were appalled that Jesus was dining with notoriously, “unrighteous” people. Let’s chat about these sinners. I’ll bet when you read that you are thinking prostitutes, thieves and the like. And it could have been that was the case. More than likely though it was people, like the fishermen we talked about earlier, who simply couldn’t maintain the Mosaic laws due to their jobs. People like tanners, fishermen, hunters, and shepherds were unable to do all the washing that was required to stay ceremonially clean. These people were therefore “sinners” in the eyes of the Pharisees. In fact the Pharisees were so put off by Jesus’ association with such riff raff that they said something about it to his disciples. Jesus hears the Pharisees and speaks up, “It’s 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,” (Matthew 9:12-13). When Jesus says, “It’s not the healthy who need a doctor,” he does not mean that the Pharisees are ‘healthy’. Jesus came for them too although they clearly think they don’t need a Savior. They are too busy keeping laws to recognize their own need. I think Jesus is being a little sarcastic here. He is playing on their self-righteousness. Then he hits the Pharisees with a sucker punch by telling the learned Pharisees to go learn the real meaning of Hosea 6:6. This had to be an epic slap in the face for the Pharisees. Jesus was teaching the teachers? Just who did he think he was? And the verse he quoted was meant to really drive home a point with the law-blinded Pharisees: “I desire mercy, not sacrifice.” the rest of the verse says, “and acknowledgement of God rather than burnt offerings.” In other words, you can keep every blessed law Moses ever uttered, but if you heart is hardened against others you are still lost. It makes me wonder about the modern church. Do we ever overlook someone because we think they don’t fit into our mold? Of course we do. I’m not just talking about race either, I’m talking about social status, economic status, marital status, age, sexual orientation (yes, Jesus loves them too!), mental status and personality. These are all things that I know I have been guilty of looking down on at some point or another. A quick word on the sexual orientation thing… We can totally love a person while disagreeing with how they live their life. It happens all the time just not over something so polarizing as this. All I know is that I know of several divorced people whom God has richly blessed even though divorce is condemned in the Bible. If God can work despite the sin of divorce then he can work despite all sin, even my and your sin.
Now that I probably lost most of my small readership…
Father God, Thank you for loving us despite our ugliness and sins. “You see the depths of my heart and you love me the same. You are amazing, God!” Help us, help me to seek out the least of these and show them the love that you have shown to me- a love without end. May our actions touch not only the ones we show your love to but also be an example to others about how you love us. “By this everyone will know that [we] are [your] disciples, if [we] love one another.” Amen!