As Jesus was walking along, he saw a man called Matthew sitting at the tax booth; and he said to him, “Follow me.” And he got up and followed him.
And as he sat at dinner in the house, many tax collectors and sinners came and were sitting with him and his disciples. When the Pharisees saw this, they said to his disciples, “Why does your teacher eat with tax collectors and sinners?” But when he heard this, he said, “Those who are well have no need of a physician, but those who are sick. Go and learn what this means, ‘I desire mercy, not sacrifice.’ For I have come to call not the righteous but sinners.”
Matthew 9:9-13 (NRSV)
The actual story of the calling of Matthew is not very dramatic. If you decide to make a movie about Matthew’s life, someday, I would not use Matthew 9:9 as the sum of your source material.
The important detail about the calling of Matthew is that Matthew is a tax collector.
Intentionally or no, one of the primary aspects of Roman oppression was economic. The grand buildings, cities, libraries, statues, etc. were not free, and what great things were built under the reign of a particular emperor was an item of note of early historians when assessing the overall greatness of that emperor. Often, these projects where funded by a rather large amount of taxation.
The effect this had in the lives of first century Israelites cannot be overstated. The vast majority of Israelites under the Roman Empire were not wealthy merchants or high-ranking government officials. Many were laborers or farmers. Rarely were these citizens able to keep up with their taxes and would find themselves owing to the government the very means of their livelihood. If you were a farmer, for instance, you might very easily find yourself being a sharecropper on land owned by a wealthy politician that used to be in your family for generations.
And of course, once your primary means of making money belongs to the Empire, your whole life is essentially a struggle to survive while staying out of prison. It’s cyclical, generational, and self-sustaining.
You can see why the subjects of Empire and taxation would be such volatile topics for Jesus to have to address and how easily it could land him on either the wrong side of the Empire or the wrong side of prison.
For various reasons, the Empire often chose to collect taxes through tax collectors who were members of the occupied people. You can imagine how odious this would be to the occupied. Here was someone of your own people who had Rome’s enforcement power behind them taking your money and your lands to support the Empire that had dominion. It would be like a black slave-catcher in the antebellum South or a Jewish administrator of a concentration camp in Nazi Germany. It didn’t help that your typical tax collector did pretty well for themselves by skimming a little extra off the top.
Just imagine the loathing a people group would have for someone like that. Imagine how despised an Israelite tax collector would be to the Israelite people. They are enemy collaborators. They chose their own security and prosperity over the welfare of their own people. Instead of joining the poor and oppressed, they became the oppressor. It is ironic, indeed, that tax collectors would be the targets of the ire of Israel’s religious leaders who often played the same role, just from a religious sphere rather than a financial one. One might even consider that hypocrisy.
And so, when Jesus calls a tax collector to follow him, this is bound to upset everyone. Nobody liked the Roman soldiers, but at least we expect Roman soldiers to act in Rome’s best interest over the interest of Israel. Here, Jesus calls an Israelite who has chosen Rome over Israel. Or perhaps more accurately, they have chosen themselves over Israel.
To push the analogy further, we might envision a rabbi in a concentration camp inviting that Jewish administrator working for the Nazis to come be a part of Sabbath worship. You can imagine the reaction this might cause for the Jews in the camp. But you also might imagine that a transformation of that administrator might not be far behind.
Jesus is retrieving the lost of Israel. Matthew stands for them – the Israel who might have been faithful except they are lost – snatched out of the fold by circumstances and wandering hearts. It is part of Jesus’ mission to turn their hearts back to their God and bring the lost sheep back into the fold.
Thus, this short little ditty about Matthew serves as the perfect prologue to what comes after. Jesus is having table fellowship with “many tax collectors and sinners.” We don’t know what sort of people are described by the label “sinners,” and we don’t need to know. All we need to know is, by any honest reckoning by Israel, these people are unfaithful. They are the lowest of the low. Nobody who cared about faithfulness in terms of purity would even be in their house, much less having dinner and chatting with people like this.
Surprising no one, the Pharisees find this curious to say the least. How can a rabbi have meals with people like this – people who are clearly on the “outside” when it comes to religious purity? We might debate over where the line is between faithful and unfaithful, but we don’t need to debate about the people Jesus is eating with. By any way of reckoning, these are people to be shunned – shunned because of what they have done and what they have become.
Jesus, by contrast, seems to think these are exactly the sort of people he should be eating with. These are the lost of Israel; these are who need a Shepherd. Israelites who have been consistently faithful the whole time do not need to be brought back around to God. Like the elder son in the prodigal son parable, such people have been in the house the whole time, honoring the father, and the inheritance is theirs. But here, Jesus is after the prodigals. He is the shepherd who leaves the ninety-nine sheep who are safely in the fold to find the one who is in a very dangerous place.
But Jesus does not stop with that instruction; he does the unthinkable. He issues an eschatological warning – not to the sinners, but to the Pharisees – by quoting Hosea 6:6.
In Hosea 6, YHWH has issued a call for repentance to Israel, and he has sent them the prophets to warn them. But instead, Israel has killed her prophets and become a land of injustice. God tells Israel, as He does in many passages in the prophets, that her outward observance of Torah means nothing to Him in light of their idolatry and the oppression of their religious leaders.
As robbers lie in wait for someone,
so the priests are banded together;
they murder on the road to Shechem,
they commit a monstrous crime.
Hosea 6:9 (NRSV)
At the end of chapter 6 and on into chapter 7, God speaks of a day when He will restore faithful Israel, but that day will be a day of retribution for unfaithful Israel.
It is unlikely that Jesus’ point is lost on the Pharisees. You can keep Torah fastidiously, but if you have neglected justice and mercy toward the people in your care, you will be judged as an infidel. Law-observing religious authorities without love and mercy will find themselves receiving God’s wrath, while sinners and tax collectors who are brought back to God by believing Jesus and following him will be healed and restored.
We should note that, even though Matthew often portrays the Pharisees in a bad light, we should not assume that “Pharisee” is a synonym for “legalistic hypocrite.” Most Pharisees were Pharisees because they genuinely wanted to obey God from their hearts and believed that Israel needed to turn away from her disobedience and back to obedience so that God would save them from the Torah’s curses. Their oral tradition wasn’t because they were legalistic prudes, but because they genuinely wanted to figure out how to obey God, especially since the Torah can be kind of vague on various points.
We would expect that at least some Pharisees would resonate with Jesus’ message and believe in what he was doing, and if they were faithful and their hearts were soft might even have signed on. Paul was a Pharisee and, at first, a great opponent of Jesus and his movement, and if someone like that could convert, then anyone could.
But this is the gospel of Matthew, and this gospel has a laser like focus on Israel and the pivotal choice Matthew presents to his Jewish audience – here is Israel’s Messiah, what are you going to do about him? And, so, we do not see much good coming from Israel’s religious leaders in this gospel. The good guys in Matthew’s story are the humble, faithful Israelites who turn from their disobedience to Jesus in faith. The bad guys are the rich, the powerful, and the religious leadership – because that’s who the bad guys are in the Old Testament prophetic works Matthew loves to use to explain Jesus’ significance.
And here, we find the Son of God in the midst of sinners, eating and talking with them as if nothing is strange at all about that, and we find the sinners receptive.
- Think of a group of people that, as far as you understand Christian moral behavior, are clearly on the outside. Abortion doctors? Muslims? Homosexuals? Democrats? Can you imagine Jesus spending his time eating and having conversations with that group? Can you imagine him preferring to do that than to associate with Christians who checked all the boxes on the Christian Morality Checklist? How would you feel about that? How should you feel about that?
- There doesn’t seem to be any indication in the text that Jesus insisted that everyone give up their tax collecting and sinning in order to have fellowship with him. At the same time, we also know Jesus called his followers to faithfulness and obedience. Does this tell us anything about how we deal with those on the “outside” of our beliefs and morals?