Jesus continues to defy convention, especially for the religious leaders. He shockingly chooses a tax collector as one of His followers and then uses that choice to make a statement about who He is and what He’s here to begin. Jesus is unlike anything the scribes and Pharisees have seen, and His approach and goals are so different from theirs that none of their ways will work in the kingdom He represents. Even more ominously, He makes clear that He’s ultimately not here for the religious leaders at all; He’s here for the very people they loathe and scorn.
Tax collectors work for the local Roman government. They collect duties and tolls on commerce (taxes on property and other types of Roman taxes are collected by imperial officials). They are awarded territories by bid. They are given a standard levy they’re responsible for. If they’re short in their collections, they must make up the difference. If they collect more than the levy, they’re allowed to keep the excess. They are thus motivated to collect as much as possible and to not extend mercy to those who can’t pay. They’re hated by the Jews because most are corrupt and enrich themselves on the backs of the taxpayers, AND because they work for the despised Romans.
We know from Matthew’s account (9:9-13) that Levi is also called Matthew (which is how he’s generally identified in the gospels). The tax office (or booth) where he sits is likely situated where he can track goods coming in and out of Capernaum (a major trade city, so the taxes are likely lucrative). It’s likely that the job requires Matthew to keep meticulous records. This skill will come in handy when he records Jesus’ life and ministry and later writes his own gospel account.
Jesus walks by him one day and calls Matthew to follow Him. No way to know if this is Jesus’ first encounter with Matthew or not. Capernaum is Jesus’ unofficial home base, so it’s not unreasonable to assume Matthew knows who He is and has either witnessed some of His miracles or certainly heard first person accounts. He also may have already heard Jesus teach. Regardless of their history, Matthew makes an immediate decision to leave everything behind and follow Jesus. He walks away from the lucrative profession and becomes a disciple.
Something not to miss about Matthew’s choice that separates him from the fishermen who follow Jesus – Matthew can’t go back. There’s no way to leave his position as a tax collector for the Romans and then resume it later. Especially in this instance where he apparently leaves without notice (a Jew doesn’t tell the Romans “I’m out” and then change his mind). He walks away from a high paying job and has no plan B. It is interesting that He apparently doesn’t walk away from his house and possessions – we’re about to see that he throws a party for his friends and Jesus – but the income and way of life are gone as he makes the decision to become a Jesus-follower.
To call Matthew to be His follower shows how unconventional Jesus’ ministry is. NO ONE who wants to be esteemed by the religious leaders and popular among the people would do this. Matthew is hated by everyone respectable in society. His only friends are other despised people like himself (as we’re about to see). That Jesus calls him shows that His ministry has different aims than just about anyone expects. He’s not just here for the respectable people; He’s here for all people who have a need.
And that shows the other side of this choice. Even though it must shock just about everyone (likely including the other disciples who may not be excited about rubbing elbows with someone they consider a traitor and who they probably have never spoken to amicably before now), it also communicates loud and clear that sinners are welcome in Jesus’ ministry. No matter what you’ve done or what your old life looks like, you’re welcome to come along. It’s a huge statement about what Jesus wants to accomplish.
Matthew gives a big reception for Jesus at his house with a great crowd. Matthew may be scorned by polite society, but that doesn’t mean he’s lonely. It just means his friends don’t belong in polite society either. The size of the reception shows his wealth. Notice who’s at the party – tax collectors and others who the Pharisees identify as sinners. These sinners are likely non-religious Jews who live with no regard for the law, so they have much in common with the tax collectors who work on the Sabbath and regularly interact with gentiles. No one at this party is welcomed in the synagogue. It’s this group that Jesus and His disciples eat with. In Jewish culture meals signify social acceptance, so it’s as shocking that Jesus eats with these people as it was to call Matthew in the first place.
Notice the purpose of the reception. Matthew wants his friends to meet Jesus. He’s left everything to follow someone who’s changing his life and he wants others to have the same experience. It shows that he doesn’t leave his old life behind grudgingly; he celebrates his new status and is so excited about it that he wants others to have what he has. Matthew acts as every Christian should. If we’re excited about what Christ means in our lives, we’ll want others to know about it too. And understand, this likely isn’t a crowd predisposed to religious awakening – it may not be the most unthreatening group to invite to the house to meet the Messiah. But Matthew throws this party right after his call. His soul has been healed and he wants that healing for others also. He’s not a fisherman, but he’s already fishing for men (5:10).
The Pharisees are appalled to see Jesus at Matthew’s home. Jesus the rabbi, the one who says He’s here to preach the kingdom of God, parties with the lowest and worst elements of society. What self-respecting religious leader would do this? It’s easy to criticize the Pharisees for this reaction, but what would we think if we heard a leader in the Christian community was attending a party at the Director of Planned Parenthood’s house? And consider that if Matthew and his friends live outside the law, it’s likely their parties aren’t overly concerned with righteous behavior. Remember too that the Jews probably don’t know that Matthew renounced his profession and now follows Jesus; they just see Jesus endorsing Matthew and his friends by eating with them.
That said, the Pharisees show their true colors by approaching the disciples and not Jesus. And they aren’t interested at all in a plausible explanation. They just condemn the disciples and Jesus for callously disregarding appropriate behavior. They ultimately just want to make Jesus look bad. The Pharisees would NEVER associate with Matthew and his friends and risk defilement. Since Jesus apparently isn’t concerned with ritual purity, He’s not fit to be followed and respected like they are. With their response, the Pharisees draw a clear contrast between themselves and Jesus, but it’s not the one they intend. What they show is that they’re more concerned with their standing and reputation than with people, the exact opposite of Jesus’ approach.
The Pharisees went to the disciples with their question but it’s Jesus who answers (similar to when He answered their thoughts at the healing of the paralytic – Jesus has to be maddening as an adversary). He quotes what is likely a known proverb: “It is not those who are well who need a physician, but those who are sick.” He then sums up His whole ministry with some of the greatest words every uttered: “I have not come to call the righteous but sinners to repentance.” Jesus is here to minister to the Matthews of the world. He brings hope to sinners and will ultimately sacrifice Himself for them. The sinners the Pharisees scorn are the very focus of His ministry.
Notice, however, the negative side of the two statements. “It is NOT those who are well who need a physician” and “I have NOT come to call the righteous.” There are people who don’t need Jesus and for whom He did not come. They are the people who think they’re healthy and righteous. This is enormously scary. Jesus essentially says to the Pharisees, “I did not come for you.” What the Pharisees miss, of course, is that everyone – including them – is sick and everyone is a sinner, but only those – like Matthew – who understand their sickness and sin will seek out the Great Physician for healing. The Pharisees are lost in their self-righteousness and thus don’t see their need. And in their self-righteousness, they’re damned. The sad irony of this scene is that the righteous leaders who scorn Matthew and his friends are the ones truly lost, while the scorned sinners are the ones who will be saved.
One other element of Jesus’ statements needs to be highlighted. Jesus calls sinners to repentance. He doesn’t just go to sinners and accept them and tell them they’re okay as they are. He calls them to repent. Matthew’s response to the call of Jesus is to leave everything behind and follow. He doesn’t bring his old life with him, he makes a complete change. This is a picture of repentance. Jesus saves sinners but He never saves sinners and leaves them where they are. Sinners repent; they leave the old life behind and turn and follow Jesus.
Ultimately these are enormously encouraging words. Jesus came for US. We are all sinners without hope and in desperate need of salvation. And Jesus came for just such people. If He said that He came for the righteous and those who already had their act together, we’d continue to be in desperate straits. But that’s not who He was looking for. He came to save sinners; He came for US.
The conversation with the Pharisees continues (and per Matt 9:14 it includes the disciples of John the Baptist – John is in prison at this point so it’s interesting to consider the state of mind of his disciples – perhaps they’re frustrated by their master’s fate while Jesus travels freely with enormous crowds who seem to have forgotten about John). They ask Jesus (apparently they’re good with interacting with Jesus directly now) why their disciples and the disciples of John the Baptist fast, but His disciples don’t? The fasting they reference is ceremonial and not commanded by the law (the only fast required is on the Day of Atonement). The religious leaders typically fast twice a week during daylight hours. That they know Jesus’ disciples don’t do this shows the public nature of the fasts. These aren’t fasts done in private; they’re done very outwardly. This is the kind of religiosity that Jesus condemns (Matt 6:16-18). Religious acts done to improve the reputation of the one doing them are of no benefit.
Jesus replies by pointing to wedding feasts. Wedding celebrations are generally held for seven days. No one involved in the wedding party is allowed to fast, mourn, or engage in heavy labor during the feast. The disciples of Jesus are essentially at a wedding feast now and Jesus is the bridegroom. There will come a time when fasting is appropriate, when the bridegroom is taken away (which refers to His crucifixion). But that day is not now. Since the purpose of fasting is to have more time to spend with God, there’s no need to fast if you’re with the Messiah every day in the flesh.
Don’t miss what Jesus claims by using this illustration. He clearly identifies as God in the flesh. You don’t need to fast if you’re WITH God. No one will fast in heaven. He essentially says, “My disciples right now are experiencing a little heaven on earth, so they don’t need to fast.” Who knows if the Pharisees catch this, but it’s an amazingly audacious statement.
Jesus goes on to tell them a parable that’s somewhat difficult to understand. He says no one takes cloth from a new garment to patch an old one, and no one puts new wine in an old wineskin. The illustrations themselves are easy to understand. If you take a patch from a new garment, you ruin the new garment. And if you sew the new patch on an old garment that has already shrunk, the new patch will shrink and ruin the old garment it’s sewn to. Wineskins are made out of animal skins sewn together. When they’re new, they’re pliable; as they age, they lose flexibility. Wine as it ferments emits a gas that causes the wineskin to expand. If new wine is put in old wineskins that can’t stretch, the wineskins burst and the wine is ruined.
The meaning of the illustrations is harder to comprehend. What Jesus could mean is that His ministry can’t be contained in the current religious structures. He’s not here to continue what the Pharisees preach and do. He’s here to bring a new covenant. The kingdom of God is at hand (4:43) and the old ways under the law are insufficient (Heb 8:13 – the first covenant is obsolete). The Gospel is not something to just ADD to life – it is NEW life. Jesus’ teaching won’t fit into accepted practices of the day – trying to assimilate it into the law and tradition would make both ineffective.
The only problem with this understanding is verse 39. This verse could mean that those who are happy with the old covenant and the current religious ceremony won’t embrace Jesus and His teaching. But in this case old wine IS better than new. So it’s odd to make it sound like those who are happy with the old are wrong. That probably is the correct way of looking at it, but it definitely lends a different nuance to the parable. At the end of the day, it’s a hard illustration to understand, but the simplest meaning is probably that Jesus and His ministry won’t fit into the Pharisees’ mold.
We should be greatly encouraged that we serve a Savior who seeks out sinners; that He’s here for the outcasts and the needy. We should also be careful, however, that we don’t put Him in a box and limit how we think He should act. We must guard against the disappointment that comes from broken boxes. The Jesus in this story shatters the expectations of those around Him. We need to allow for a Savior who is larger than our comprehension and greater than our plans.