Gospel Reading: Mt 9:9-13
As Jesus passed by, he saw a man named Matthew sitting at the customs post. He said to him, “Follow me.” And he got up and followed him. While he was at table in his house, many tax collectors and sinners came and sat with Jesus and his disciples. The Pharisees saw this and said to his disciples, “Why does your teacher eat with tax collectors and sinners?” He heard this and said, “Those who are well do not need a physician, but the sick do. Go and learn the meaning of the words, I desire mercy, not sacrifice. I did not come to call the righteous but sinners.”
Matthew is a tax collector. In the first century Roman-occupied Palestine, one probably does not utter the words “tax collector” without spitting. Tax collectors, or publicans as they are sometimes called, are contract workers for the Roman government. They are personally responsible for paying the taxes due from their area, but they are permitted to gather those taxes by gouging as much extra from the citizenry as they can manage. Opportunities for graft, extortion, and theft are almost unlimited, and people simply assume that every tax collector is corrupt.
Hence, Jesus’ calling a tax collector as a disciple is equivalent today to his associating with a person of shady character, resulting in doubts cast about the character of Jesus himself. The Pharisees, no doubt offended by this sight of Jesus in the midst of the social rabble, interrogate Jesus’ disciples about it. Why does their teacher allow his table to be sullied by such unrighteous people?
Jesus overhears their question and responds in three ways: with a proverb, with a quotation from the prophets, and with a statement about the nature of his ministry (cf vv 12-13).
“Restore to me the gladness of your salvation… I will teach the wicked your ways, that sinners may return to you” (Ps 51:14-15).
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