Site icon Thinking on Scripture

The Call of Matthew

As Jesus went on from there, He saw a man called Matthew, sitting in the tax collector’s booth; and He said to him, “Follow Me!” And he got up and followed Him. Then it happened that as Jesus was reclining at the table in the house, behold, many tax collectors and sinners came and were dining with Jesus and His disciples. When the Pharisees saw this, they said to His disciples, “Why is your Teacher eating with the tax collectors and sinners?” But when Jesus heard this, He said, “It is not those who are healthy who need a physician, but those who are sick. “But go and learn what this means: ‘I DESIRE COMPASSION, AND NOT SACRIFICE,’ for I did not come to call the righteous, but sinners.” (Matt 9:9-13) [Audio message at end]

     The above passage is Matthew’s personal account of being called by Jesus to be His disciple. The location of the event was probably in or near the city of Capernaum. The event occurred shortly after Jesus had demonstrated His power to forgive sins and heal disease (Matt 9:1-12). Matthew opens his account by telling us, “As Jesus went on from there, He saw a man called Matthew, sitting in the tax collector’s booth; and He said to him, ‘Follow Me!’ And he got up and followed Him” (Matt 9:9). This Matthew is the author of the Gospel that bears his name. He is also called Levi by Mark and Luke (Mark 2:14; Luke 5:27).

     Matthew was identified according to his occupation as a tax collector. Tax collectors sat in booths at the entry points of cities and cross sections of commerce, collecting taxes for the Roman government, and sometimes taking a little extra for themselves. Matthew would have been regarded by many as no better than a robber. Being a tax collector for the Romans would have made Matthew despised by his fellow Jews, who would have regarded him as a traitor, an enemy of the state who took Jewish money and gave it to their overlords. Donald Hagner comments:

Tax collectors, or tax farmers, in that culture were despised as greedy, self-serving, and parasitic. They grew rich at the expense of the poor by extorting from them more than was required by their superiors in order to fill their own pockets. They furthermore often compromised regulations for purity in their handling of pagan money and their dealings with Gentiles. That Jesus should call a tax collector to be his disciple must have been in itself scandalous. We hear no objection to that here, but when in the following narrative Jesus fraternizes with tax collectors and sinners (the “lower” end of society), we do encounter a protest.[1]

     Jesus called Matthew while he was working, telling him, “Follow Me!” The word follow translates the Greek verb ἀκολουθέω akoloutheo, which means, “to move behind someone in the same direction, come after…to follow or accompany someone who takes the lead, accompany, go along with.”[2] In this context, the word connotes following Jesus as a disciple. This began Matthew’s journey as a disciple of Jesus, and Matthew would eventually be counted among the apostles (Matt 10:1-4). In an instant, Matthew walked away from a lucrative and secure job to follow Jesus. This was a radical move for sure. Though he forfeited earthly riches, he obtained new life, a greater sense of destiny, and a personal relationship with the King of kings and Lord of lords. He also secured for himself riches in heaven, which are far greater than anything this world could offer.

     Matthew recorded a big dinner he gave for Jesus, telling us, “Then it happened that as Jesus was reclining at the table in the house, behold, many tax collectors and sinners came and were dining with Jesus and His disciples” (Matt 9:10). Luke reveals the dinner was actually a “big reception” (Luke 5:29), revealing Matthew was financially well off. The banquet included several of Matthew’s friends who were fellow tax collectors, and a group of people identified as “sinners” (Grk. ἁμαρτωλός hamartolos). Sinners were the irreligious, “who did not observe the Law in detail and therefore were shunned by observers of traditional precepts.”[3] These were the outsiders who did not play along with the religious hypocrisy of the Pharisees, and were condemned for it. Matthew did not care. He was once classified among them, and now he’d been transformed and was ready to move on with a new life as a disciple of the One who was truly righteous. Matthew’s dinner party for Jesus was, in itself, a form of public confession concerning his new life.

     But the antagonists soon arrived and, in typical fashion, began meddling in other people’s business. Matthew records the event, saying, “When the Pharisees saw this, they said to His disciples, ‘Why is your Teacher eating with the tax collectors and sinners?’” (Matt 9:11). In the first century Jewish culture, when people fellowshipped at a table of food, it was regarded as a picture of friendship and acceptance. The Pharisees were befuddled when they saw Jesus and His disciples eating with the dregs of society. In addition, the Pharisees had a growing abhorrence toward Jesus, so their observations were filtered through a lens of hatred. This prompted them to bring a question; not for clarification, but to impugn His character. The question they asked implied guilt by association. But Jesus’ disciples did not answer the Pharisees; rather, “when Jesus heard this, He said, ‘It is not those who are healthy who need a physician, but those who are sick’” (Matt 9:12). There was a common image in Jewish culture that compared teachers with physicians. These were regarded as soul-doctors who helped bring about spiritual and mental wellbeing. Of course, to need healing, one must admit sickness, and this the Pharisees were not willing to do. William MacDonald writes:

The Pharisees considered themselves healthy and were unwilling to confess their need for Jesus. The tax collectors and sinners, by contrast, were more willing to acknowledge their true condition and to seek Christ’s saving grace. So the charge was true! Jesus did eat with sinners. If He had eaten with the Pharisees, the charge would still have been true—perhaps even more so! If Jesus hadn’t eaten with sinners in a world like ours, He would always have eaten alone. But it is important to remember that when He ate with sinners, He never indulged in their evil ways or compromised His testimony. He used the occasion to call men to truth and holiness.[4]

     The Pharisees were correct that Jesus was a Teacher, and He promptly gave them something to learn. Jesus said, “But go and learn what this means: ‘I desire compassion, and not sacrifice,’ for I did not come to call the righteous, but sinners” (Matt 9:13). The phrase “go and learn” was a common expression used by rabbis when pointing them to a particular passage of Scripture to be considered. This was a poke at the Pharisees, for even though they regarded themselves as the experts of the Law, Jesus treated them as though they were novices. And the passage Jesus pointed them to was Hosea 6:6, which states, “I desire compassion, and not sacrifice.” Certainly, sacrifice was important to God, and there is much in the Mosaic Law that explains this, especially in the book of Leviticus. However, the activity of sacrifice, no matter how great the offering or sophisticated the occasion, meant nothing to God if the worshipper lacked the qualities of compassion, kindness, and mercy found in the One to whom the offering was brought. Hosea, and other OT prophets mentioned this repeatedly. Note the following examples:

For You do not delight in sacrifice, otherwise I would give it; You are not pleased with burnt offering. The sacrifices of God are a broken spirit; a broken and a contrite heart, O God, You will not despise. (Psa 51:16-17)

To do righteousness and justice is desired by the LORD more than sacrifice. (Pro 21:3)

What are your multiplied sacrifices to Me? Says the LORD. I have had enough of burnt offerings of rams, and the fat of fed cattle. And I take no pleasure in the blood of bulls, lambs, or goats. When you come to appear before Me, who requires of you this trampling of My courts? Bring your worthless offerings no longer, incense is an abomination to Me. New moon and sabbath, the calling of assemblies—I cannot endure iniquity and the solemn assembly. I hate your new moon festivals and your appointed feasts, they have become a burden to Me. I am weary of bearing them. So, when you spread out your hands in prayer, I will hide My eyes from you, yes, even though you multiply prayers, I will not listen. Your hands are covered with blood. Wash yourselves, make yourselves clean; remove the evil of your deeds from My sight. Cease to do evil, learn to do good; seek justice, reprove the ruthless; defend the orphan, plead for the widow. (Isa 1:11-17)

For I delight in mercy rather than sacrifice, and in the knowledge of God rather than burnt offerings. (Hos 6:6)

With what shall I come to the LORD and bow myself before the God on high? Shall I come to Him with burnt offerings, with yearling calves? 7 Does the LORD take delight in thousands of rams, in ten thousand rivers of oil? Shall I present my firstborn for my rebellious acts, the fruit of my body for the sin of my soul? 8 He has told you, O man, what is good; and what the LORD requires of you: to do justice, to love kindness, and to walk humbly with your God (Mic 6:6-8)

     The Pharisees, like the religious apostates in Hosea’s day, performed the outward rituals of sacrifice at the temple, but their hearts were far from God. They were careful to keep the ceremonial practices, but failed to capture the greater heart qualities the Lord expected of those who claimed to know and walk with Him. How the Pharisees treated the tax collectors and sinners demonstrated this.

     In summary, Jesus called Matthew to be His disciple, and the tax collector left everything to begin a new life with Jesus. Matthew celebrated his new life as a disciple by hosting a dinner party for Jesus and inviting other tax collectors and irreligious sinners to come and meet his new Master. The Pharisees arrived and filtered the event through their hate filled heart, and then tried to trap Jesus with a question concerning His company, which question implied His guilt. But Jesus corrected the Pharisees by pointing out He’d come to heal the sick and therefore needed to be among them. Jesus then instructed the Pharisees to learn a lesson from the book of Hosea, that God desires compassion and not sacrifice. How Jesus treated the tax collectors and sinners demonstrated His compassion, and how the Pharisees treated them demonstrated their self-righteous pride and hatred.

Dr. Steven R. Cook

Audio Message

Related Articles:

[1] Donald A. Hagner, Matthew 1–13, vol. 33A, Word Biblical Commentary (Dallas: Word, Incorporated, 1993), 238.

[2] William Arndt et al., A Greek-English Lexicon of the New Testament and Other Early Christian Literature (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2000), 36.

[3] Ibid., 51.

[4] William MacDonald, Believer’s Bible Commentary: Old and New Testaments, ed. Arthur Farstad (Nashville: Thomas Nelson, 1995), 1235.


Exit mobile version