June 9, 2002 -- THIRD SUNDAY AFTER PENTECOST -- Proper 5
Matthew 9:9-13, Color: Green
The Call of Matthew
9 As Jesus was walking along, he saw a man called Matthew sitting at the tax booth; and he said to him, "Follow me." And he got up and followed him.
10 And as he sat at dinner in the house, many tax collectors and sinners came and were sitting with him and his disciples. 11When the Pharisees saw this, they said to his disciples, "Why does your teacher eat with tax collectors and sinners?" 12But when he heard this, he said, "Those who are well have no need of a physician, but those who are sick. 13Go and learn what this means, ’I desire mercy, not sacrifice.’ For I have come to call not the righteous but sinners."
Title: “Jesus came to meet people where they were.”
A tax collector, named Matthew accepts Jesus’ invitation to become his disciple and at a dinner celebrating his acceptance Jesus makes an important statement about the difference between a Pharisee and a disciple.
Matthew inserts a story about his own call to be a disciple of Jesus and what happened at a dinner he gave for Jesus and his other disciples. When certain Pharisees got wind of the dinner, they criticized Jesus for hanging out with sinners and tax collectors, that is, disreputable people. Jesus’ answer, which he drew from Hosea 6: 6, from the first reading for today, makes it clear that by “discipleship” Jesus means something radically different from what the typical Pharisee would consider acceptable. Jesus, indeed, came to call sinners, that is, those in need of salvation, not the “reputable,” that is, those who, erroneously, think they can save themselves by being reputable.
All three Synoptic gospels have a story about the call of the tax collector. Mark and Luke call him “Levi;” only Matthew identifies him as “Matthew,” traditionally considered the author of this gospel. All three place this story after the healing of the paralytic, so we can presume that it is the same story, only with a different name for the main character. It was not uncommon for men to have two names in those days. Often, a man would have a Semitic name, like Simon, and a Greek name, like Peter. “Matthew” is Greek and “Levi” is Semitic.
In verse nine, “saw a man called Matthew sitting at the tax booth.” Jesus went on his way after healing the paralytic and happened upon Matthew while he was at work, in his tollbooth, collecting taxes. As with fishermen, Jesus calls his disciples while they are at work, living their routine lives. The taxes in question would be customs duties on goods passing through on the great road from Syria to Egypt or possibly at a tool booth near the lake on goods coming across the lake. Tax collectors were typically among the most hated of people, especially in Palestine. In the Roman system and Rome occupied Palestine at this time, the office of tax collection was awarded to the highest bidder. The winner of this right would employ others to do the actual work of collecting taxes. Thus, Matthew might well have been a middle level employee, rather than a rich man in his own right. However, he and any tax collector could become rich through extortion. It was permissible to charge a certain amount over and above the tax required in order to receive compensation. That’s how the tax collector got paid. Of course, a cut of that would go to the chief tax collector in the area. A vicious circle developed. The more the tax collectors collected, the more they were hated, and the more they were hated the more they collected. Being Jews working for the occupying government made them traitors and being Jews coming into contact with Gentiles, merchants from around the world, and other sinners, made them religiously and ceremonially, unclean. Thus, tax collectors had three strikes against them even before they came to bat.