“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’” (Matthew 9:12-13).
The call of Matthew
illustration by Alexandre Bida
Jesus’ purpose and mission is centered on his redemptive work of bringing salvation to sinners. This upsets the status quo and often calls for a radical break from traditional religious norms.
The passage before us (Matthew 9:9-13) describes Jesus’ call to Matthew, a despised tax collector. Matthew worked in Capernaum, where Jesus lived (4:13; 9:1). He would have undoubtedly seen Jesus or at least heard of him before their encounter.
Matthew was probably a customs officer working on Capernaum’s trade route. He was hated and despised by his own people for being a collaborator with imperial Rome. Jewish tax collectors were not allowed in the synagogues. They were an unscrupulous class that had bought or bribed to get their appointments to become very wealthy. They burdened their own people with excess tax, while bribing the wealthy and declaring less tax for them.
It is easy to see why the Pharisees were furious with Jesus’ apparent lax attitude in sharing a meal with Matthew and his kind (sinners). After all, Scripture says that righteous people should not sit with deceitful people or with the wicked (e.g. Psalm 26:4-5). Jesus responds in the opposite of traditional norms. What the self-righteous Pharisees did not understand, and what many churched people today do not grasp, is that Jesus’ redemptive activity must be thrust into center stage. The Pharisees have no reason to accuse. It is like telling a doctor not to get close to the patient because he might get contaminated with the same condition as the patient or get blood on his hands!
The next passage is linked to the previous controversy, but this time it deals with the disciples of John the Baptist (Matthew 9:14-17). It seems that not all of John’s disciples were fully convinced that Jesus was the Christ. Yet they were sincere, and this is probably why Jesus takes time to explain to them new changes already on the horizon of his redemptive mission. The disciples of John and the disciples of Moses (Pharisees) fasted on a regular basis. The Pharisees fasted on Mondays and Thursdays, and the disciples of John apparently did, too. The Pharisees were religious fundamentalists who sought to separate themselves from everything they deemed “worldly.” John’s disciples were probably gloom and doom last-days prophets.
But Jesus’ disciples were radically different, because they were filled with the presence of their Master’s joy! Who can fast when sinners are being saved? Who can separate themselves from the world when salvation is laid at its front door? Who can preach gloom and doom when the message of salvation is good news? The old religious patterns of yesterday will not hold the new wine of today’s new covenant gospel of Jesus.
In both the above passages, Jesus is not concerned with maintaining past shadows for ritual’s sake alone as much as he is concerned with the reality of showing mercy by sharing the good news of God’s saving grace (9:35-38).
Questions to Ponder:
1. As committed followers of Christ, what can we learn from Jesus’ availability and approach in sharing the good news to Matthew and Zacchaeus?
2. What kind of negative response can we expect from some within our own church community? Can you give a discrete example?
3. How did Jesus follow up his call in each of the above cases? What can we learn from this in integrating new believers into the community?
4. Is Jesus’ message to sinners one of condemnation, or one of acceptance? Why can’t old traditions hold the new wine of the gospel? Give examples.
5. What is Jesus’ motive for seeking the lost, and what challenge does he lay at his disciples’ front door and to every generation? See Matthew 9:35-38.
Jesus’ purpose and mission is the salvation of the lost. His encounters with despised sinners and society’s outcasts are centered on sharing the joy of his presence. He wants to live with us; he does not want to exclude us. We are disciples of this good news!