TRANSLATION MATTHEW 9:9
As Jesus went away from there, he saw a man called Matthew, seated in the taxation booth, and he said to him, “Follow me!” And he got up and followed him. Now when he was at table in Matthew’s house, – see this!- lots of tax- collectors and sinners came to dine with Jesus and his pupils. The Pharisees noted this and asked his pupils, “Why does your teacher eat with tax-collectors and sinners?” Jesus heard them and replied, “The healthy don’t need a physician, but the sick do. Go and learn what this means, ‘ I desire kindness and not sacrifice.’ For I have not come to call the righteous, but sinners.”
If you have not seen Caravaggio’s painting of the calling of Matthew, go on line and discover its astonishing power. He imagines the comfortable wealth of the tax officials, well- clothed and sheltered in contrast with Jesus and his followers, coming in from the street in bare feet. Jesus glance, however, permits no refusal.
It is easy for academic scholars to turn this into a story about righteousness and sin, but that would be a refusal to deal with the reality of tax-collection; that it involved deliberate collaboration with a conquering enemy – think of what the French did to collaborators with the Nazis- for reasons of personal gain. The irruption of Jesus into the booth must have seemed to Matthew like his worst nightmare, a hard-faced revolutionary come to bring him Jewish justice. Matthew of course doesn’t dramatise it like Caravaggio, but he knew the profound contradiction between Jesus’ ethic and tax -collection. He wants his reader to feel the incomparable force of Jesus’ command to follow, which rips Matthew out of his sinfulness and into the Rule of Heaven.
This reference to the name Matthew (in Mark, the name is Levi) along with another reference in Chapter 10, helped early commentators to support the attribution of the Gospel to Matthew the former tax- collector. There really is no evidence for this, especially if we accept a date of 85 CE or later for the writing of this gospel.
If forcefulness is the mark of Jesus’ call to Matthew, inclusiveness is the mark of his table fellowship. Eating together was a vital aspect of Jewish culture, excluding those who might damage your reputation or ritual purity, while including those for whom you would give your life. As Jesus would do for these. But we must not turn this acceptance of sinners into some cheap model of salvation. Jesus does not say to these sinners, believe in my cross; but rather, as with Matthew, follow me. He expects transformation. When he says that the righteous need no doctor he is not being ironic. Such people don’t need him, but the sick and sorry who gather with him at Matthew’s house, they need him because they need to change. Kindness/ mercy is not an end in itself, but the only possible way sinners can be rescued for the Rule of Heaven. The Pharisees’ holy separation is only a religious game.