While He was reclining at the table in the house, many tax collectors and sinners came as guests to eat with Jesus and His disciples. When the Pharisees saw this, they asked His disciples, “Why does your Teacher eat with tax collectors and sinners?” (Matthew 9:10-11)
For the last several weeks we’ve looked at the call of Matthew, the Jewish tax collector who left his financial security and his responsibilities to follow Jesus. Matthew’s call is dramatic: he literally got up from his desk and walked away, never to look back.
But the next two verses inform us that in fact, Matthew didn’t instantly and completely sever ties with his old life.
In fact, he almost did the opposite: he called up all the people he’d known in his old life and invited them over to meet Jesus.
Matthew’s Friends, The “Sinners”
In Matthew 9:10, “the house” where Jesus sat down to dinner is Matthew’s house (we know this both from the context and from the gospel of Luke, where it’s identified outright). So the people gathered there are Matthew’s guests: his friends, his co-workers, his social circle.
As we saw in an earlier post, Matthew’s job as a tax collector made him an outsider in his own society. He had willingly chosen to profit off Rome’s oppression of his people, and understandably, the only people who approved of such a choice were other people making similar choices.
So it’s not surprising that Matthew’s friends are more “tax collectors and sinners.” The word “sinners” is used in the gospels to denote a specific group of people, not just “sinful humanity” in general, but we don’t know exactly who they were. It’s likely they were non-law-observant Jews, Jewish people who did not tithe, sacrifice, or observe the rites of purity that were meant to set God’s people apart.
They may have included prostitutes or professional mistresses, but it’s unlikely that Matthew’s friends were poor. They are more likely to have been wealthy people perceived as oppressors and backstabbers — Jews who had abandoned their people to benefit from Rome.
In any case, Matthew’s friends were not the sort of people religious teachers would generally welcome or associate with. In fact, association with them was seen as personally tainting and may have been viewed as undermining Israel’s tenuous covenant with God.
But Matthew, who had just experienced the call and acceptance of Jesus in his own life, immediately turned around and extended it to others just like him.
Rather than drop his friends, he invites them to come with him on this new journey. He summons them to dinner and introduces them to Jesus. And amazingly enough, some of them come.
The Scandal of Fellowship
Jesus, of course, also accepts the invitation. He’s willing to eat with these people, and that’s a scandal.
Even in our culture, eating with someone implies sharing not just food but something deeper. There is generosity in serving a meal, humility in receiving one, and fellowship — or identification with one another — in eating together.
Even strangers around a table become something more: for the duration of a meal, we are friends, colleagues, family.
That’s why the Pharisees were scandalized when Jesus ate with sinners. He was extending grace to them, acceptance, open arms — before they had repented or changed anything about their lives.
He was associating, identifying himself with, sinners. That of course was at the core of his whole mission, but not many people understood that yet.
God at the Table
It’s common to hear this story interpreted to mean that Jesus spent most of his time hanging out with the guys at the local pub, guzzling beer and telling jokes, or focused his efforts on reaching the poor and marginalized.
That’s really not an accurate picture.
But here in the heart of Matthew we see the heart of God: to share the table with those who are far from him, and more so, to share himself. To enter fully into human life, and here on the ground with us, to give us heaven.
Jesus accepted Matthew’s generosity and humbled himself to receive the food of sinners. At the same time, he gave them the heavenly food of himself: his time, his spirit, his kingdom message, his love.
As he gave himself to them, he also identified with them. For an afternoon, he allowed himself to be seen as one of them, sharing fellowship with them. This was an identification he would carry all the way to the cross, eventually dying for their sins.
Whether they would identify with him, as Matthew was publicly doing, was up to them.
Where Are You in the Story?
One ancient method of Scripture reading calls us to locate ourselves in the stories of the gospel — identifying with a specific character or characters so we can be better impacted by them. It’s a fruitful practice here.
Are you a “sinner” — one who is far from God and struggling to believe the Lord could accept or eat with you? Will you recognize his humility and willingness to fellowship with you where you are, before you’ve gotten clean, before you’re worthy in your own eyes to receive his love?
Are you a Matthew — willing to extend the calling of God to your friends, coworkers, family, social networks? Can you believe that God loves them enough to come and share a meal with them, and that you can facilitate that connection?
Are you in the place of Jesus — full of the Holy Spirit, a minister of the gospel of reconciliation, able to extend grace, fellowship, and the call of God to others?
When God comes to us, he always enters our low estate to give us gifts from heaven. He comes into our lowly lives to call us to higher ones. He eats our bread so he can offer his body and blood — himself, broken and given for us, so that we can be saved and fed, purified and made whole.
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This is Part 118 in a series on the Gospel of Matthew, which you can access here. Unless otherwise marked, quotes are from the Holman Christian Standard Bible.
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