Summary: Should Christians keep company with sinners?
Keeping Bad Company
In this passage we are introduced by Matthew which is widely acclaimed at the writer of the Gospel of Matthew. In the other gospels, he is introduced as Levi. It was not uncommon for Jews to be called by more than one name. This is also true with people today who go by a name other than their given one.
Matthew is introduced as a ta collector. It is not known if he was contracted out to collect taxes for Herod or for Rome. At any rate, tax collectors were hated by the Jewish people, and for good reason. As they were contracted out by bid to collect taxes for a foreign power, their action was practically seen as an act of treason against Israel. They were no better than harlots or Gentiles in the eyes of the people. The tax collectors were allowed to keep everything they collected over what they pledged to rome and used strong arm tactics to shake money out of the people. And to make matters even worse, if Matthew was a Levite, then why was he collecting taxes for Rome rather than the Temple taxes and tithes for the Jewish people?
Matthew seems to have been the chief of the tax collectors and had either associates or others working for him. He was probably stationed along the main road looking for opportunity to collect taxes from those who passed by. Perhaps he ran what was the equivalent of a toll booth or a customs office. But on this day, Matthew’s life would change forever. This is because on higher than Herod or Caesar was about to employ him. This is the day Jesus came by.
Jesus simply says two words to Matthew, but they were life-transforming words. “Follow Me” he says. This was much more than a request to follow Jesus on Facebook, if Facebook had been available in Jesus’ day. Matthew may have been a bad Jew, but he know what Jesus was asking of him. Jesus may have been dressed as a Rabbi, in which case the connection was clear. It was the invitation of a Rabbi to have Matthew leave off his life and take up the life of a Rabbinic disciple. I doubt any other Rabbi in Israel would have ever asked this wretched tax collector that. Matthew takes up this unusual invitation, and like Peter and the other fishermen, he leaves everything behind to start a journey with the Rabbi called Yeshua. Little he could have imagined that this entailed, and where the journey would take him.
In the tradition of the call of the Lord to Abraham. Matthew leads aside everything good and bad in his life and starts a journey to a new land which is called for him by God. This is the call of every disciple. When Elisha the prophet was called, he burned the yoke of his oxen as fuel to roast the oxen. He calls his neighbors to a great feast to say farewell. Elisha burned his bridges behind him. Matthew would leave a table full of money and goes and calls a great feast and invites all his friends. As tax collectors had few friends other than tax collectors and courtesans who always hung around where they could make good money.
The interjection, “and Behold!” shows the startled reaction of Jesus’s disciples when they saw the banquet Jesus was coming to in His honor. A house full of tax collectors, prostitutes, and sycophants! None of his disciples seems to have asked Jesus why He was going to a banquet with such unclean sinners. We can only guess by the fact that later that some called Jesus a drunkard and a glutton what the feast might have been like. I do want to say at this point is that accusation does not mean guilt. The Pharisees saw Jesus and His disciples go into the feast, and they knew the reputation of such feasts well. How did they know? In Luke we hear the story of a woman who comes into Simon the Pharisees feast and washes Jesus feet with her tears and wipes his feet with her hair. Simon knew the woman. Just how did he know she was that kind of woman? And how did she have access to his house. I wonder.
There was a lot of rich food there and plenty of wine at a typical feast of this sort. Other perverse things happened at these banquets. Jesus was keeping table with very bad company. But while Jesus reclined at the table with this company, there is no reason to believe that Jesus acted in any inappropriate way. He lived a sinless life among sinners. But instead of the sinners defiling Jesus, the presence of Jesus serves to cleanse the unclean. Jesus was not one made unclean by the touch of a leper. Rather the leper was cleansed. And Matthew and his friends did not debauch Jesus. Rather a prodigal comes home. Matthew would no longer collect Gentile taxes. And he would not become a Jewish tax collector either. Instead of a collector, he becomes a giver. Through his hands, the gift of the gospel of Matthew was given. Matthew would go out freely spreading the Gospel as one of Jesus’ apostles.