9 As Jesus passed on from there, he saw a man called Matthew sitting at the tax booth, and he said to him, “Follow me.” And he rose and followed him.
10 And as Jesus reclined at table in the house, behold, many tax collectors and sinners came and were reclining with Jesus and his disciples. 11 And when the Pharisees saw this, they said to his disciples, “Why does your teacher eat with tax collectors and sinners?” 12 But when he heard it, he said, “Those who are well have no need of a physician, but those who are sick. 13 Go and learn what this means: ‘I desire mercy, and not sacrifice.’ For I came not to call the righteous, but sinners.” – Matthew 9:9-13 ESV
By this point in Matthew’s narrative, it is obvious that there is something radically different about Jesus. He is not your average rabbi or teacher. He has supernatural powers that allow Him to heal with a touch of His hand or a word from His mouth. He exhibits a never-before-seen authority that allows Him to cast out demons and control the wind and waves of the sea. To the Jews, He’s like nothing they have ever seen before. To the religious leaders, He is an enigma and a growing concern, because of His increasing popularity among the people.
And in today’s passage, we are going to see yet another aspect of Jesus’ radically different nature. We have already seen that He has no problem associating with the unclean, such as the leper whom He touched and healed. And unlike most Jews, Jesus was willing to have contact with Gentiles, even healing the servant of the Roman centurion. Now, in Matthew’s account of his own calling by Jesus, we are going to see that Jesus broke all rules of social protocal by associating with known sinners, such as tax collectors. It just so happens that Matthew himself had been a tax collector, and his retelling of his call by Jesus provides the perfect occasion to, once again, illustrate the radically different nature of Jesus’ ministry.
Just as He had done with Peter, Andrew, James and John, Jesus used a simple two-word phrase to issue His call to Matthew: “Follow me.” And Matthew records that he did just that. Luke provides us with a bit more information regarding this initial encounter between Jesus and Matthew.
Jesus went out and saw a tax collector by the name of Levi sitting at his tax booth. “Follow me,” Jesus said to him, and Levi got up, left everything and followed him. – Luke 5:27-28 ESV
We’re not given an explanation as to why Matthew (Levi) had two different names, but it was probably nothing more than a case of him having a given name as well as a nick-name. But Luke makes it clear that Matthew “left everything” and followed Jesus. He turned his back on what had to have been a lucrative business as a tax collector in order to obey the invitation of Jesus. And one of the first things he did was invite Jesus into his home for a meal. It was this occasion that set the stage for yet another illustration of Jesus’ out-of-the-ordinary behavior. Evidently, Matthew wanted his friends and business associates to meet Jesus, so he records that he invited “many tax collectors and sinners” (Matthew 9:10 ESV). Notice the close association between these two groups. From a Jewish perspective, tax collectors were despised and seen as some of the worst of all sinners. They were traitors to their people, choosing to make a profit off their fellow Jews by collecting taxes for the Roman government. Tax collectors were well known for their corruption and vice. They were viewed as social pariahs by the Jewish community. Which explains why Matthew invited other tax collectors and known sinners to his party. And yet, Jesus willingly accepted Matthew’s invitation, choosing to dine with those whom the average Jew would readily shun.
The Pharisees who witnessed this appalling scene addressed their shock to the disciples of Jesus, asking, “Why does your teacher eat with tax collectors and sinners?” And before the disciples had a chance to respond, Jesus provided the Pharisees with an answer:
“Those who are well have no need of a physician, but those who are sick.” – Matthew 9:12 ESV
This carefully worded retort from Jesus was like a missile aimed at the prideful arrogance of the Jewish religious leaders. Jesus knew exactly what they were thinking and was well aware that these men saw His actions as unacceptable and unworthy of someone who claimed to be a faithful Jew, let alone a rabbi or teacher. In their minds, Jesus had discredited Himself by His actions. But Jesus’ statement revealed the radical difference between His outlook on sinful humanity and their own. The Pharisees saw themselves as anything but sinners. They were not only Jews and, therefore, part of the chosen people of God, but well-respected religious leaders and experts in the law of Moses. They were professional law-keepers, priding themselves on their knowledge of the law and their adherence to it. But as Jesus had revealed in His sermon on the mount, most of their interpretations of the Mosaic law were flawed. And their so-called righteousness was deemed inadequate by Jesus when viewed from God’s perspective.
The problem, as Jesus exposes it, was that these men did not see themselves as sinners. They prided themselves on their righteousness and their ability to earn a right standing with God through their actions. Which is why Jesus refers to them sarcastically as “those who are well.” They had the mistaken impression that they were somehow better than the tax collectors and sinners sitting at the table with Jesus. It is reminiscent of the story Jesus told about the two men praying in the temple. Luke tells us that “Jesus told this story to some who had great confidence in their own righteousness and scorned everyone else” (Luke 18:9 NLT). In the story, Jesus compares the prayers of tax collector and a Pharisee. The tax collector “dared not even lift his eyes to heaven as he prayed. Instead, he beat his chest in sorrow, saying, ‘O God, be merciful to me, for I am a sinner’” (Luke 18:13 NLT). But the Pharisee exhibited a dramatically different attitude.
“The Pharisee stood by himself and prayed this prayer: ‘I thank you, God, that I am not a sinner like everyone else. For I don’t cheat, I don’t sin, and I don’t commit adultery. I’m certainly not like that tax collector! I fast twice a week, and I give you a tenth of my income.’’” – Luke 18:11-12 NLT
Notice that the Pharisee prided himself on a sinlessness that was based on his self-manufactured righteousness. He fasted and tithed. He didn’t cheat, commit adultery or sin. But remember what Jesus said in His sermon on the mount: “But I warn you–unless your righteousness is better than the righteousness of the teachers of religious law and the Pharisees, you will never enter the Kingdom of Heaven!” (Matthew 5:20 NLT). This self-produced kind of righteousness was inadequate. It was insufficient to earn anyone a place in the Kingdom of God. No man could earn his way into God’s favor. As Paul puts it in his letter to the Romans, “For everyone has sinned; we all fall short of God’s glorious standard” (Romans 3:23 NLT).
The Pharisees, standing outside Matthew’s house and shaking their judgmental fingers in the face of Jesus and His disciples, pridefully viewed themselves as non-sinners. They were above the fray, having already earned their right standing with God through their status as God’s chosen people and their strict adherance to the law. But Jesus reveals that He came to minister to those who recognized their need for a physician. In other words, He came to provide spiritual healing to those who recognized their sinfulness. Like the tax collector in Jesus’ story, they cry out, “be merciful to me, for I am a sinner!”
When Jesus stated, “I came not to call the righteous, but sinners,” He was not commending the Pharisees or indicating that they were somehow exempt from the need for His salvation. He was simply stating that their prideful belief in their own self-produced righteousness was going to keep them from ever admitting their need for a righteousness outside of themselves. They were convinced that they could earn a right relationship with God on their own. They needed no Messiah. But they were wrong. Dead wrong.
Jesus refers the Pharisees to an Old Testament passage they would have not quite well: Hosea 6:6:
For I desire steadfast love and not sacrifice,
the knowledge of God rather than burnt offerings.
Like their Old Testament ancestors, the Pharisees prided themselves on their strict adherance to the laws of Moses and their keeping of the religious rules and rituals associated with temple worship. But in all their activity they had lost their knowledge of God. It had become all about rule-keeping, not a relationship with God. And these arrogant men were as guilty as their ancestors, whom God condemned as little more than hypocrites.
“These people say they are mine. They honor me with their lips, but their hearts are far from me. And their worship of me is nothing but man-made rules learned by rote.” – Isaiah 29:13 NLT
Jesus willingly associated with sinners, because they are the ones for whom He came give His life. And while the Pharisees refused to admit it, they too were sinners in need of a Savior. But pride and self-sufficiency would prevent them from seeing and admitting their need. Their self-reliance would keep them turning to Jesus for the salvation they so desperately needed.
English Standard Version (ESV)
The Holy Bible, English Standard Version. ESV® Permanent Text Edition® (2016). Copyright © 2001 by Crossway Bibles, a publishing ministry of Good News Publishers.
New Living Translation (NLT)
Holy Bible, New Living Translation, copyright © 1996, 2004, 2015 by Tyndale House Foundation. Used by permission of Tyndale House Publishers Inc., Carol Stream, Illinois 60188. All rights reserved.