As Jesus went on from there, he saw a man named Matthew sitting at the tax collector’s booth. “Follow me,” he told him, and Matthew got up and followed him.
While Jesus was having dinner at Matthew’s house, many tax collectors and sinners came and ate with him and his disciples. When the Pharisees saw this, they asked his disciples, “Why does your teacher eat with tax collectors and sinners?”
On hearing this, Jesus said, “It is not the healthy who need a doctor, but the sick. But go and learn what this means: ‘I desire mercy, not sacrifice.’ For I have not come to call the righteous, but sinners.”
In this account, Matthew speaks of himself in the third person as he tells us how he came to be on Jesus’ team of disciples. Like you, I have heard the sermons on this passage many times; I have also heard the “Sunday school” version many (many) times, and in all of those renditions, I have seldom heard anyone come right out and say what Jesus was really teaching in this. Let’s see if we can fix that right now…
First, we know that tax collectors then as now, were not popular with the population, in fact in those days, they were considered one notch above a gentile in Jewish society, which would be several notches lower than dirt. Of course they partied with “sinners” and that was because nobody else would give them the time of day. So, Jesus walks up to Matthew’s tax booth, the scene of his crimes, we might say, and calls him to be His disciple… and surprisingly, Matthew follows Jesus, even inviting him to dinner. In an even more scandalous reply, Jesus accepts and goes to dinner at Matthew’s place and eats with tax collectors and sinners.
When the Pharisees heard about this, they were distressed because such a teacher as Jesus would be seen in such unsuitable company.
Sidebar: Before we continue, why don’t I re-write that last sentence: “When the church leaders heard about this, they were distressed because such a teacher as Jesus would be seen in such unsuitable company.” How often we see this scenario play out, with the assumption that the disciple of Jesus is up to no good, hanging out with the “wrong crowd”, “Why you’d never catch me eating with such people!” My question to something along these lines would have to be: “Then how can you share Christ with them?” OK, now back to the story…
Take a look at Jesus’ reply to the Pharisees; He didn’t come to preach righteousness to the ones who already were righteous, He came to save the “unsuitable”, the “ungodly” and the sinner; they are the ones who really need time in His company. Oh, and by the way, He came to die for them. Jesus came to bring righteousness to the unrighteous; this is a very important point, and where the lesson usually ends.
There is one more thing that we need to see in this picture; it’s the thing that many very righteous Christians don’t particularly want to hear… are you ready?
A person should not wait to clean up his or her act before they follow Jesus. If you are not a follower of Jesus yet, you do not need to clean up your act and get it all together before you follow Him. Look at the text! There was old Matthew the tax collector, right there in his booth, conducting his crooked and dirty business, and Jesus walks up right in the middle of it and says, “Follow me.” Did Jesus lecture him or tell him to change his evil ways first?
No, that comes later as the person grows in their relationship with the very same Jesus who called Matthew and went to his house and ate dinner with the wicked. Am I saying that Jesus didn’t care about their sin? Of course not; may it never be! Forgiveness comes first, repentance and growth and Christ-likeness is a process, and that is why followers of Jesus need to be in a loving community of faith, where they can be taught, nurtured and loved while they grow as a follower of Jesus in just the same way as the first twelve disciples did; that, dear reader is what Jesus is trying to show us in this passage, about life in the Kingdom.