Jesus receives sinners
And when the Pharisees saw it, they said unto his disciples, Why eateth your Master with publicans and sinners? Matthew 9:11
Jesus receives sinners. In no case was this more publicly and clearly displayed than in the calling of Matthew. We are told that “as Jesus passed forth from thence, he saw a man, named Matthew, sitting at the receipt of custom: and he saith unto him, Follow me. And he arose, and followed him” (ver. 9). Matthew was a tax-collector located in Capernaum. However, you need to understand that this was a profession that no self-respecting Jew would have held. Tax-collecting was done for and in the name of the Roman Empire, which imposed heavy and burdensome taxes upon those whom they conquered. So for Matthew to take such a job was to become a traitor to his Jewish identity. In fact, this was so odious to other Jews that tax-collectors were excluded from the synagogue, their testimony could not be accepted in a court of law, and they were considered as ceremonially defiled and unclean. One commentator has noted that although touching a leper was bad enough, that would have been not nearly as shocking as it must have been to see Jesus walk up to Matthew’s tax booth and call him to follow him.
But if it was bad enough to work for one’s enemies, the way tax-collectors conducted their business was even worse. Their position was a franchise that they bought into. Basically, the Romans let men bid for this position, and who won the bid was determined by who they believed could collect the most taxes. Each tax-collector was then given a quota, but whatever they collected above and beyond the quota was theirs. This of course led to rampant corruption on the part of the tax-collectors who used their position to line their pockets with the money of their fellow countrymen. We see an example of this in Zacchaeus, another tax-collector that Jesus befriended (cf. Luke 19:1-10). When he met Jesus, and his life was changed, he said, “Lord, the half of my goods I give to the poor; and if I have taken anything from any man by false accusation, I restore him fourfold” (ver. 8). We don’t know if Matthew himself had taken advantage of others in this way, but certainly his position put him in the category of a thief and a liar in the eyes of the respectable.
So Matthew was a sinner. But he was not just a sinner. There are respectable sinners and there are notorious sinners. Matthew was one of the latter. And he hung out with other undesirable characters. Because of his job, the only friends Matthew could have made would have been others who also had been pushed to the fringes of society.
This shocked the Pharisees. “Pharisee” means “separated one,” and they prided themselves on being separate from those who were sinful and ceremonially unclean. Remember the Pharisee’s prayer in Luke 18? “God, I thank thee, that I am not as other men are, extortioners, unjust, adulterers, or even as this publican [tax-collector]” (Luke 18:11). They just couldn’t believe that God would even look on such people. But in that story, our Lord went on to compare the prayer of the Pharisee with the prayer of a tax-collector who felt the burden of his sin and who could only smite his breast and beg God to have mercy on him, a sinner (ver. 13). Remember the conclusion of the story: “I tell you, this man [the publican] went down to his house justified rather than the other: for every one that exalteth himself shall be abased; and he that humbleth himself shall be exalted” (ver. 14). God justifies and saves sinners.
I think that our Lord loved to highlight this fact by intentionally calling those who the religious would have thought unredeemable. It is not just true that God forgives sins. It is also true that God forgives the worst of sinners of their sins. He shows mercy to outcasts like Matthew. He redeems persecutors like Paul. And he does this to prove to you and me that he will forgive our sins too, when we follow his Son. The apostle Paul put it like this: “This is a faithful saying, and worthy of all acceptation, that Christ Jesus came into the world to save sinners; of whom I am chief. Howbeit for this cause I obtained mercy, that in me first Jesus Christ might show all longsuffering, for a pattern to them which should hereafter believe on him to life everlasting” (1 Tim. 1:15-16).
What is also amazing about this is not only does he forgive sins, but he desires the fellowship of those whose sins are forgiven. By this time no doubt Matthew had heard of Jesus. He had probably seen his miracles and heard his teaching. Perhaps his life had already begun to change. But as he sat there at his tax booth, he probably would never have entertained the notion that Jesus would ever want to have him as one of his close disciples. And yet that is exactly what happened.
Our Lord is still calling Matthews to follow him. If you think that you are not worthy to follow him because you have messed up so badly in the past, that does not disqualify you. Because Jesus did not come to call the righteous, but sinners to repentance. We don’t bring anything to the table. We don’t bring any qualifications. We simply bring ourselves to be changed by the grace of Jesus Christ.
But this not only says something about how God looks at sinners, it also by implication says something about how we should look at sinners. Yes, God delights in showing mercy (cf. Micah 7:18). But if God delights in showing mercy, then so should we. This is why Jesus told the Pharisees, “But go ye and learn what that meaneth, I will have mercy and not sacrifice” (ver. 13). This is a quotation from Hosea 6:6. What Jesus is saying is that though the Pharisees made such a big deal about ceremonial purity and sacrifices and external religious performances, what God really wants from us is mercy. He wants us to reach out to sinners, not to comfort them in their sins but to encourage them to part with their sins for Christ. He wants us to recognize that the only difference between us and the worst sinner is the grace of God. And if we feel that, then we are going to show mercy. We will reach out to sinners, like Jesus, instead of holding them at arms’ length, like the Pharisees.
Calvin makes an interesting observation that the reason why Matthew associated with the dissolute was because no one else would be his friend. The religious culture of his day basically pushed him into the shadows. He explains that “when the publicans saw themselves cast off as ungodly and detestable persons, they sought consolation in the society of those who did not despise them on account of the bad and disgraceful reputation which they shared along with them. Meanwhile, they mixed with adulterers, drunkards, and such characters; whose crimes they would have detested, and whom they would not have resembled, had not the public hatred and detestation driven them to that necessity.” It makes me wonder if the church is guilty of that. Do people ever avoid the church for the society of sinners because we refuse, like Christ, to receive sinners? Are we in some sense aiding and abetting the work of the Devil by pushing the Matthews of the world into the necessity of mixing with the openly wicked? It is a question worth pondering.
 R. C. Sproul, Mark (St Andrews Expositional Commentary), p. 45.