9 As Jesus continued on from there, he saw a man named Matthew sitting at a kiosk for collecting taxes. He said to him, “ Follow me, ” and he got up and followed him. 10 As Jesus sat down to eat in Matthew’s house, many tax collectors and sinners joined Jesus and his disciples at the table.
11 But when the Pharisees saw this, they said to his disciples, “ Why does your teacher eat with tax collectors and sinners? ”
12 When Jesus heard it, he said, “ Healthy people don’t need a doctor, but sick people do. 13 Go and learn what this means: I want mercy and not sacrifice .t I didn’t come to call righteous people, but sinners. ”
We know the drill. We know exactly what we’re supposed to think and feel about this passage. We’ve been here before.
We are supposed to recognize that Matthew, as a tax collector, is unwanted and unvalued by his society. In their eyes, he has, “turned his back” to them and begun working for the Romans, the occupiers. When Jesus comes to Matthew’s house to eat, a plain reading of the text tells us that in addition to the tax collectors, other sinners come round for the feast.
Regardless of the reframing that we try to do, the only word we can ever seem to focus on in this passage is “sinners.” Matthew was a sinner, his friends were sinners, Jesus ate with he and his friends who were sinners, the Pharisees want to know why Jesus would hang out with such sinners, and Jesus retorts that he did not come for the righteous but the sinners.
Sinner, sinner, sinner. You’re a sinner, I’m a sinner. The whole world is full of sinners. Everybody better stop sinning and being sinners. Sinners, sinners, sinners.
Don’t misunderstand: I’m not suggesting that we should ignore this reality, present in the text. But I am suggesting that this way of looking at things tends to work us right into the situation Jesus is actually talking about.
Without going into the social reality of the tax collector, it is safe to safe that these folks are despised by their neighbors for they are Jews who are working for the Romans. I’m not sure where they stood on the social hierarchy, but if it is better than where the shepherds and fisherman found themselves, it certainly wasn’t much better.
Rather than focus on the “sinners” aspect of this text, I think we would be better off recognizing that naming Matthew and his fellow tax collectors in the same breath as the other “sinners” says more about Jesus (in this passage) than it does about them. Because here is the uncomfortable fact: Jesus called outcasts and sinners to be his disciples.
Now, from our modern perspective, this seems like exactly the kind of thing our sweet Jesus would do, but that was completely counter to what a rabbi would do in his day. Rabbis picked the best and only the best. They picked people to be their disciples who had already studied the Torah for most of their life. Tax collectors and fisherman had to stop studying at some point to earn a living. These were not the top draft picks (so to speak).
So when the Pharisees ask, “Why does your teacher eat with tax collectors and sinners?” they’re not asking why a “holy man” would be caught dead with “sinners.” They’re asking why a teacher would hang out with stupid people who have no potential to add anything to the discipline of Torah teaching. To their minds, there was a criteria one had to meet in order to be considered worthy of being with a teacher. This rogue Rabbi from Gallilee screwed that notion up.
The beauty of Jesus is that he pays no attention to what we think are the important qualifications of a disciple. Jesus makes a point of finding those that no one else wants and saying “Come, follow me.”
So remember, Jesus used to hang out with sinners. Now he hangs out with us.