Sinners in Need of a Savior

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

Matthew has pieced together a series of events that provide evidence to support his contention that Jesus was the Son of God and the long-awaited Messiah of Israel. And the identity of Jesus was proven by His obvious authority over sickness, disease, demons, and the creative order. Jesus had both the power and authority to command the winds and waves, representing the natural world, as well as demons, who represent the spiritual realm. He was more than a mere man with a talent for oratory and the gift of healing. Every word He spoke carried weight and left all those who heard Him in a state of awe.

…the people were amazed at his teaching, for he spoke with authority.  – Luke 4:32 NLT

“We have never heard anyone speak like this!” – John 7:46 NLT

The disciples had witnessed Jesus calm a storm by speaking the words, “Peace! Be still!” (Mark 4:39 ESV), and that scene had left them amazed and confused as to just who Jesus really was.

…they were filled with great fear and said to one another, “Who then is this, that even the wind and the sea obey him?” – Mark 4:41 ESV

Now, Matthew chronicles yet another event in the life of Jesus that provides further evidence of His power and authority – this time, over men.

In these verses, Matthew retells the story of his own calling by Jesus, but he does so from the third-person perspective as if he is an outsider recalling a scene he has witnessed. His account, though personal in nature, differs little from those of Luke and Mark. They all describe Jesus coming into contact with Matthew at his place of business, where he served as a tax collector. His “office” was little more than a booth, located on the edge of the city where he collected taxes on trade goods. These taxes, collected on behalf of the Roman government, were a form of sales tax or customs duty, paid by the seller. Matthew would have had a contract with the Romans, most likely purchased at a high cost, that provided him with the authority to collect taxes within a specific geographic region. In order to recoup the cost of his contract, Matthew would have charged fees and commissions on all the taxes he collected, making him a social pariah among his fellow Jews. They would have viewed him as a sell-out to the Romans and a tool of the enemy. And yet, Jesus offered Matthew the same invitation He had extended to Peter, Andrew, James, and John: “Follow me.”

It’s interesting to note that both Mark and Luke record that Jesus “saw” Matthew. This seems to reflect a recognition on the part of Jesus. He saw Matthew and approached him. And yet, there is no dialogue between them. Jesus simply stated, “Follow me.” And all three gospel writers indicate that Matthew accepted the invitation. Luke adds the clarifying note: “leaving everything, he rose and followed him” (Luke 5:28 ESV).

Matthew wasn’t just taking a well-deserved break. Whether he fully realized it or not, he was making a complete break with his past, leaving everything he knew behind. By following Jesus, he was walking away from his booth, his business, and all the benefits and perks that came with his profession.

And both Mark and Luke record that the next thing Matthew did was host Jesus in his own home.

And Levi made him a great feast in his house, and there was a large company of tax collectors and others reclining at table with them. – Luke 5:29 ESV

And as he reclined at table in his house, many tax collectors and sinners were reclining with Jesus and his disciples, for there were many who followed him. – Mark 2:15 ESV

Matthew threw a party for Jesus, the disciples, and an assortment of other interesting guests. All three gospel writers make it clear that the room contained “tax collectors and sinners.” This term is meant to convey a message. The people with whom Jesus was willingly sharing a meal were considered social outcasts by the Jews. The term “sinners” was not a reference to anyone who had broken God’s laws. It was an expression commonly used by the Pharisees for anyone who broke their man-made rules of conduct. Matthew provides an illustration of these rules later on in his gospel.

Some Pharisees and teachers of religious law now arrived from Jerusalem to see Jesus. They asked him, “Why do your disciples disobey our age-old tradition? For they ignore our tradition of ceremonial hand washing before they eat.” – Matthew 15:1-2 NLT

Anyone who refused to live according to their exacting standards was considered a sinner. And Luke records another event in the life of Jesus, where He shared a meal with a Pharisee.

As Jesus was speaking, one of the Pharisees invited him home for a meal. So he went in and took his place at the table. His host was amazed to see that he sat down to eat without first performing the hand-washing ceremony required by Jewish custom. – Luke 11:37-38 NLT

And Jesus had some harsh words for these religious rule-keepers who burdened people with unnecessary and legalistic standards of righteousness that had nothing to do with God.

“…what sorrow also awaits you experts in religious law! For you crush people with unbearable religious demands, and you never lift a finger to ease the burden.” – Luke 11:46 NLT

But the Pharisees were just as appalled by Jesus’ behavior. In their eyes, He was nothing more than a sinner, who broke their laws by associating with the defiled and unclean. Which prompted them to ask His disciples, “Why does your teacher eat with tax collectors and sinners?” (Matthew 9:11 ESV). This question came from the scribes, the experts in religious law, whose man-made additions to the Mosaic Law had turned the righteous commands of God into a petty list of impossible tasks designed to make them look good. But, once again, Jesus had some condemning words for these men, describing their form of worship as “a farce, for they teach man-made ideas as commands from God” (Matthew 15:9 NLT).

The scribes and Pharisees viewed themselves as righteous. They considered themselves to be the true law-keepers, while everyone else was a sinner, including Jesus. And while they looked down their noses at tax collectors and sinners, they did nothing to help them improve their lot in life. Jesus accused them of crushing people with unbearable religious demands, never lifting a finger to ease the burden.

But Jesus answered their question. He explained His presence in the room that day, fully admitting that all those in His midst were indeed sinners. But He added that they were sinners in need of a Savior. And He had come to offer them a way to ease the burden they bore because of their sin. In fact, Jesus would later offer His “great invitation,” imploring sinners just like these to come to Him and find rest.

“Come to me, all of you who are weary and carry heavy burdens, and I will give you rest. Take my yoke upon you. Let me teach you, because I am humble and gentle at heart, and you will find rest for your souls. For my yoke is easy to bear, and the burden I give you is light.” – Matthew 11:28-30 NLT

Jesus was in His element that day. He was surrounded by those He came to save. And He made that point perfectly clear in His answer to the Pharisees and scribes.

“Those who are well have no need of a physician, but those who are sick. – Matthew 9:12 ESV

Jesus was not inferring that the religious leaders were righteous and in no need of salvation. He was condemning their false sense of confidence in their own righteousness. They only thought they were well and in no need of a physician. Jesus came to minister to those who were willing to recognize their own spiritual infirmity and their need for healing. Just as the leper, the Centurion’s servant, and Peter’s mother-in-law needed the healing touch of Jesus, so did the tax collectors and sinners in Matthew’s house. But their illness was spiritual in nature, not physical. They were sinners in need of a Savior. And while the Pharisees and scribes saw themselves as perfectly righteous before God, they too were spiritually sick.

The apostle Paul reminds us that every single individual on this planet is a sinner in need of a Savior and that those of us who have found healing in Christ are the beneficiaries of God’s grace and goodness.

Once you were dead because of your disobedience and your many sins. You used to live in sin, just like the rest of the world, obeying the devil—the commander of the powers in the unseen world. He is the spirit at work in the hearts of those who refuse to obey God. All of us used to live that way, following the passionate desires and inclinations of our sinful nature. By our very nature we were subject to God’s anger, just like everyone else.

But God is so rich in mercy, and he loved us so much, that even though we were dead because of our sins, he gave us life when he raised Christ from the dead. – Ephesians 2:1-5 NLT

Matthew and his dinner guests, as well as the disciples, the Pharisees and scribes, were all in need of a physician. Some recognized it, while others refused to admit their need and chose instead to see themselves as righteous in their own eyes. But Jesus warned them all, telling them, “I came not to call the righteous, but sinners” (Matthew 9:13 ESV).

Jesus had not come to earth so that He might round up all those who had perfectly obeyed the Mosaic law. Those people did not exist. His reference to mercy and sacrifice is meant to let the Pharisees know that law-keeping would not be the means by which people earn a righteous standing with God. It would be through the unmerited mercy extended to them by God through the sacrificial death of His Son. And the apostle Paul stresses that point in his letter to the Galatians.

Now it is evident that no one is justified before God by the law, for “The righteous shall live by faith.” – Galatians 3:11 ESV

All the “sacrifices” of the Pharisees would amount to nothing. Even their most righteous deeds were nothing more than filthy rags in the eyes of God. But the Great Physician was offering them healing from the spiritual infirmity by providing His Son as their Savior from sin. But as long as they arrogantly and errantly considered themselves to be righteous, they would never accept the free gift of salvation.

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.

The Message (MSG)Copyright © 1993, 1994, 1995, 1996, 2000, 2001, 2002 by Eugene H. Peterson
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