14 As He passed by, He saw Levi the son of Alphaeus sitting in the tax booth, and He said to him, “Follow Me!” And he got up and followed Him.
15 And it happened that He was reclining at the table in his house, and many tax collectors and sinners were dining with Jesus and His disciples; for there were many of them, and they were following Him. 16 When the scribes of the Pharisees saw that He was eating with the sinners and tax collectors, they said to His disciples, “Why is He eating and drinking with tax collectors and sinners?” 17 And hearing this, Jesus *said to them, “It is not those who are healthy who need a physician, but those who are sick; I did not come to call the righteous, but sinners.” (NASB)
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In verse 13, the Greek verbs are in an imperfect tense, which describes a past, continuous action. The verbs translated into English as "were coming" and "was teaching" are actually ἤρχετο and ἐδίδασκεν, respectively. The imperfect tense of these verbs really lends a great deal to the mental picture we should have when understanding this verse. Being a child of the movies and television, I hear the narrator voice-over here. That deep male voice saying, "and all the people [kept] coming to Him, and He [kept] teaching them." This is not just one incident; it happened over and over. In the movies, we'd probably see several clips edited together, giving the viewer the sense that many incidents were being witnessed over a great deal of time.
In verse 14, we have two sentences summing up the calling of Levi [Matthew] to follow Jesus. Two things that I am drawn to right away in this: (1) Matthew was a tax collector, and (2) he simply got up and started following Jesus.
The first: From what I've studied so far about 1st century Jewish culture (just through my studies of the New Testament - I'm not out gathering an overly detailed education in Jewish culture), I can understand that this "tax collector" goes far beyond our association to the IRS agent. In this modern day, while we may not want to get that personal call from the IRS, we do not shun and spit on government employees in public (at least not I'm aware of, there may be exceptions). Yet, in 1st century Israel, they would have regarded tax collectors as practically worse than a traitor and thief. These publicans, as the word is translated from the Greek (τελωνων), were Jewish citizens employed by the occupying Roman government to collect taxes and tolls from the people. Not only did they despise being taxed as much then as we do now, there was the manner of attitude in which the tax or toll was gathered. It was not an uncommon practice then to collect more than what the law required, as a means of providing for their own "salary". It wasn't just enough to cover their cost of living either, most tax collectors were also identified in a crowd by their lavish clothes and opulent lifestyle. They were, in effect, fleecing their own people, and doing it all for the enemy, while lining their own pockets. For Jesus to call a tax collector to become a disciple, well, it was probably not a popular decision with Simon, Andrew, James, and John.
Second: Matthew just got up and started following. He left behind his career, his life, and started following Jesus. Why? What's happening here? There's got to be more to this story. The Gospel of Luke give us a little more. "And leaving everything (καταλιπων), he rose and followed him." (Luke 5:28) καταλιπων means "to leave, forsake, abandon". He didn't just "follow" when he wasn't doing anything else. Levi (Matthew) didn't just "friend" Jesus on Facebook; just add him as something else to his life. He gave it all up to follow Him. What would this even look like today? When I was converted, when I knew that I wanted to follow Jesus, would I describe that decision as "having forsaken all that I knew, I followed Him"? Would you?
Let's continue on to the next three verses.
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Verse 15 opens with "And as he reclined at table in his house..." Whose house? Luke 5:29 tells us that it is Levi's house.
And Levi made him a great feast in his house, and there was a large company of tax collectors and others reclining at table with them. (Luke 5:29)
It seems that Matthew is throwing a party. He's been called by Jesus, freed from his life as a tax collector. Perhaps this is not too dissimilar from the lunches/parties to which we invite our friends and family in celebration of important events in our life. I'm picturing that it was not too common for a great teacher to ask a tax collector into his intimate group of followers. Matthew had surely heard of Jesus, and probably was quite familiar with His teachings and His miraculous healing powers. To be called by Him would be a very big deal!
Now, I find this bit remarkable: "... and there was a large company of tax collectors and other reclining at the table with them". He invited a large number of his friends and associates. Think about that for a minute. Matthew's "crowd" was not the type to have concerned themselves with religious things. Remember, Jewish society placed them in the same category with thieves and murderers. This was not the crowd that would just automatically say, "Congratulations! That's great that you're giving up your career, your life and all that you own, and following a great religious teacher!" They must have thought he was out of his mind. Yet, Matthew has them all over for a feast. His "old crowd" and his "new crowd", at the same party.
How many of us today, when we came to a saving faith in Christ Jesus, called all of our friends and family, and invited to them to a big party with a bunch of fellow believers from our local church? Instead, how many of us have the attitude that the scribes had? Basically, their response was, "Why are you associating with the scum of society?"
In my spiritual infancy, I remember struggling with 1 Corinthians 15:33, "Do not be deceived: Bad company ruins good morals." It was tempting to remove myself entirely from any thing or person that did not appear to be submitted to Christ as Lord. I was unable to discern the difference between what it means to be a light in the darkness and living in the darkness. No one would suggest that because Jesus associated and ate with "sinners and tax collectors" that He lived like them. But I was still learning, and can now see that it is one of the ditches that many people fall into when sincerely trying to live as Jesus calls them. In effect we are hiding our light under a basket. The other ditch would be to live as if Jesus did not give us a commandment. It would be to live in the darkness, living as to not be distinguished from it. Again, it just comes back to keeping Christ as our example. He was not stained by sin, yet He lived amongst it.
It is in verse 17 that Jesus addresses this, and more.
“It is not those who are healthy who need a physician, but those who are sick; I did not come to call the righteous, but sinners.”
It makes sense, right? The analogy is like having the cure for cancer, but never being around anyone with cancer. What would be the point? But what would be even more tragic would be having the cure, and moving into the oncology department of the local hospital, and all of the patients adamantly exclaiming that they are not sick and do not need a cure. Jesus left His throne, came down to Earth to live amongst us, and we refused to acknowledge our decrepit state. Jesus came to call the sick (sinners). He did not come to those that already thought themselves healthy (righteous). And therein is the tragedy... they thought more of themselves than they should have. We all do.
God's Word tell us:
God looks down from heaven on the children of man to see if there are any who understand, who seek after God.
They have all fallen away; together they have become corrupt; there is none who does good, not even one. (Psalm 53:2)