“As Jesus passed on from there, he saw a man called Matthew sitting at the tax booth, and he said to him, “Follow me.” And he rose and followed him. And as Jesus reclined at table in the house, behold, many tax collectors and sinners came and were reclining with Jesus and his disciples. And when the Pharisees saw this, they said to his disciples, “Why does your teacher eat with tax collectors and sinners?” But when he heard it, he said, “Those who are well have no need of a physician, but those who are sick. Go and learn what this means, ‘I desire mercy, and not sacrifice.’ For I came not to call the righteous but sinners.” Matthew 9:9-13 ESV
Right before this passage we read of a paralytic who was brought to Jesus. Strangely enough, the first words Jesus spoke to him was, “Take heart, my son; your sins are forgiven.” (9:2) I can just imagine one of the disciples nudging Jesus and whispering, “I don’t think that’s why he’s here.” But Jesus did this on purpose to pinpoint that there is a condition much worse than being paralyzed or sick. It was much more important for the man’s sins to be forgiven than for him to be healed of his disability – Jesus saw his biggest need. The fact that Jesus gave him the ability to walk again afterwards, was just a bonus (9:6-7).
It is into this context that we read of the calling of Matthew. Tax collectors were detested by society in those days, for obvious reasons. They were usually Jewish men who were employed by Roman citizens and conned their fellow-Jews while filling their own pockets. No doubt a lot of bribery and blackmailing took place, as happens today as well (New Bible Commentary). In a sense, we can understand the Pharisees’ disdain at Jesus dining with these people. It would be the equal of Jesus dining with the Guptas in today’s times.
But Jesus’ reaction gives us an explanation. He compared sin to sickness when He said, “Those who are well have no need of a physician, but those who are sick.” This is not a new thing. In the Old Testament book, Leviticus, we read about leprosy being a symbol for the sinful nature of man. But does this mean that the Pharisees were “healthy” or “righteous”? Far from it.
The only type of righteousness that the Pharisees and scribes had were self-righteousness. A few chapters back in The Sermon on the Mount, Jesus warned his disciples against the Pharisees’ apparent religiousness and hypocrisy – where outwardly their behaviour seemed righteous, but, inwardly, their hearts were far from God. Wolves in sheep’s clothing.
So deep down the Pharisees were just as sinful as the tax collectors. Jesus was saying that He came for those who realized and confessed their sinful natures, not for those who supposed they were righteous of their own accord, such as the Pharisees and scribes.
This just shows us again that we cannot save ourselves. It doesn’t matter if we have been born into a Christian family, are the CEO of a welfare organization or won the NOBEL peace prize for that matter. If we cannot become meek and admit our gravest “illness” to the Great Physician, we will never receive the Cure. Have you done this yet?
The calling of Matthew is a beautiful picture of repentance – when Jesus called him he instantly answered, leaving everything – making a 180° turn from sin to Jesus.
Dear brothers and sisters in Christ, let us remember that once we too “were dead in our transgressions and sins in which we once walked” (Ephesians 2:1). Heaven will not be a place full of self-righteous people, but a place full of repentant sinners.
Let us not become hypocrites, but rather follow in Jesus’s footsteps in these difficult times; bringing the Gospel of Peace to the sinful, weary and restless amidst the darkness of COVID-19.