This is part three in a five part series from a paper I wrote about the ministry of Jesus to the social outcasts of his day. See the blog archive to the right to read the first two parts.
Jesus Eats with Tax Collectors and Sinners:
Also in Mark 2:13-17, Luke 5:27-32
All three synoptic gospels record the account of Jesus calling Matthew (Levi) to follow him as a disciple. Interestingly, he is the only disciple whose calling is given individual attention. The reason for this is almost certainly due to the scandalous nature of Jesus inviting a tax collector to be one of his inner twelve. Most Jewish citizens despised tax collectors for two main reasons. First, the Jewish patriots had a disdain for them because they worked for an unpopular government established by Rome.[i] Second, tax collectors were known for taking more than what was officially due in order to fill their own pockets.[ii] Even though tax collectors were neither poor nor sick, they were nonetheless considered social outcasts because of their occupation. The story of Matthew's call and the scandalous dinner that followed reveals the heart of Jesus for the outcasts of his day. He seemed to have a particular openness to tax collectors and sinners.[iii]
While dining at the home of Matthew, many tax collectors and sinners came to eat with Jesus and his disciples. Apparently, Matthew represented a large group of outcasts who were interested in Jesus and his message.[iv] It is likely they heard rumors of Matthew's invitation to follow Jesus, and came to see if Jesus was really open to associating with people like themselves. In the Old Testament era, Jewish culture considered a meal a type of boundary marker.[v] Only those who belonged to the fellowship were welcome at the table.[vi] This idea remained true for Jewish culture in the first century. For Jesus to share a meal with these people implied his full acceptance of them.[vii] This was certainly the understanding of the Pharisees.[viii] Jesus did not allow this cultural standard to prevent him from ministering to these people. He did not require repentance as a prerequisite to sharing a meal with these sinners and tax collectors.[ix] Jesus welcomed sinners at the table, though he never condoned their sinful lifestyles. Jesus was very open to sinners, but he always confronted their sin. For Jesus, the table was an opportunity to offer them an invitation to repentance, transformation, and discipleship.[x]
A group of Pharisees witnessing the event approached the disciples and asked, "Why does your teacher eat with tax collectors and 'sinners'?" (Matthew 9:11b NIV) There are several possible reasons why they approached the disciples rather than Jesus himself. Most likely they were avoiding direct confrontation because of Jesus reputation as a formidable teacher.[xi] Apparently Jesus overheard their question and responded directly to the Pharisees in the form of a proverb.[xii] Jesus said, "It is not the healthy who need a doctor, but the sick" (Matthew 9:12 NIV). Jesus was likely drawing upon a proverbial saying that had been recorded in various forms.[xiii] He proceeded to explain the parable by quoting from Hosea 6:6, "I desire mercy, not sacrifice." In this context, Jesus was condemning the Pharisees for their preoccupation with ritual purity, which caused them to neglect those in need.[xiv] For Jesus to use the Scriptures as a means to condemn the Pharisees would be terribly embarrassing to them because they considered themselves experts in the Scriptures.
The scene ends poignantly with Jesus making perhaps the most scandalous statement of the night. Jesus said, "I have not come to call the righteous, but sinners." This statement emphasizes the centrality of forgiveness of sin in Jesus' ministry.[xv] He came to call sinners to repentance, and those who easily recognized themselves in this category were often the quickest to respond.[xvi] Readers and hearers of the story would immediately think of Jesus calling Matthew, the most recent "sinner" to join his group of followers.[xvii] Essentially, Jesus was saying that the sinners and tax collectors qualify for discipleship because they recognize their need. The Pharisees rejected the doctor because they thought they were healthy. They were condemned by their self-righteousness. Later in the same gospel account, while addressing the chief priests and elders of the court, Jesus said, "I tell you the truth, the tax collectors and the prostitutes are entering the kingdom of God ahead of you" (Matthew 21:31b NIV). Jesus was not excluding the religious leaders from forgiveness, rather trying to reveal to them their need for forgiveness just as much as the sinners they so eagerly opposed.
When Jesus calls Matthew to become one of his followers, he reveals the universal scope of his compassion and mercy.[xviii] The mission of Christ was a work of mercy rather than merit, thus no one was excluded from the invitation to discipleship.[xix] When Jesus emphasized his coming for the sinners and not the righteous, he was not excluding the Pharisees from discipleship. Rather, he was making it clear that they must follow him on his terms. They must be willing to admit their illness and need for a doctor. Again, the gospel is offensive to human pride. Sadly, many of them were unwilling to step down from their high status and join the humble repentant sinners.
[i] R.T. France, The Gospel of Matthew (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 2007), 351.
[iii] Helmet Merkel, "The opposition between Jesus and Judaism," in Jesus and the Politics of His Day, ed. Ernst Bammel and C.F.D. Moule (Cambridge: University Press, 1984), 137.
[iv] France, Matthew, 350.
[v] Craig L. Blomberg, Contagious Holiness: Jesus' Meals with Sinners (Downers Grove: IVP, 2005), 64.
[vii] Donald A. Hagner, Matthew 1-13 (Dallas: Word, 1993), 238.
[viii] Craig Keener, Matthew (Downers Grove: IVP, 1997), 188.
[ix] Blomberg, Contagious Holiness, 102.
[xi] France, Matthew, 354.
[xv] Hagner, Matthew 1-13, 240.
[xvii] France, Matthew, 355.
[xviii] Hagner, Matthew 1-13, 240.