JESUS CALLS MATTHEW, THE TAX COLLECTOR
CHRIST ASSOCIATES WITH SINNERS TO HELP THEM
For a short time after healing the paralytic, Jesus remains in the area of Capernaum by the Sea of Galilee. Again crowds come to him, and he begins teaching them. As he walks on, he sees Matthew, who is also called Levi, sitting at the tax office. Jesus extends a wonderful invitation to him: “Be my follower.”
Likely, Matthew is already somewhat familiar with Jesus’ teachings and the works he has performed in the area, as were Peter, Andrew, James, and John. Like them, Matthew responds immediately. Matthew describes this in his Gospel, saying: “At that he [Matthew himself] rose up and followed” Jesus. (Matthew 9:9) Hence, Matthew leaves his responsibilities as a tax collector behind and becomes a disciple of Jesus.
At some later point, perhaps to express appreciation for this special call from Jesus, Matthew holds a large feast at his house. Who are invited in addition to Jesus and his disciples? Well, a number of Matthew’s former associates, other tax collectors, are present. They collect taxes for the hated Roman authorities, including taxes on ships coming into the harbor, taxes on caravan traffic on the main roads, and duties on imported goods. How do the Jews in general view those tax collectors? The people despise them because they often dishonestly exact more money than the regular tax rate. There are also ‘sinners’ at the feast, individuals who have a reputation for practicing wrongdoing.
Observing Jesus at the feast with such people, the self-righteous Pharisees who are present ask his disciples: “Why does your teacher eat with tax collectors and sinners?” (Matthew 9:11) Overhearing them, Jesus answers: “Healthy people do not need a physician, but those who are ill do. Go, then, and learn what this means: ‘I want mercy, and not sacrifice.’ For I came to call, not righteous people, but sinners.” (Matthew 9:12, 13; Hosea 6:6) The Pharisees are not sincere when they refer to Jesus as “teacher,” but they can learn something from him about what is right.
Apparently, Matthew has invited tax collectors and sinners to his home so that they can listen to Jesus and receive spiritual healing, “for there were many of them who were following him.” (Mark 2:15) Jesus wants to help them to attain a healthy relationship with God. Unlike the self-righteous Pharisees, Jesus does not despise such ones. He is moved with compassion and mercy; he can serve as a spiritual physician to all who are spiritually ill.
Jesus shows mercy toward tax collectors and sinners, not to condone their sins, but to show tender feelings similar to those that he displayed toward the physically ill. Recall, for example, when he compassionately touched the leper, saying: “I want to! Be made clean.” (Matthew 8:3) Should we not cultivate the same merciful view and help those in need, especially by assisting them in a spiritual way?