13 He went out again beside the sea, and all the crowd was coming to him, and he was teaching them. 14 And as he passed by, he saw Levi the son of Alphaeus sitting at the tax booth, and he said to him, “Follow me.” And he rose and followed him.
15 And as he reclined at table in his house, many tax collectors and sinners were reclining with Jesus and his disciples, for there were many who followed him. 16 And the scribes of the Pharisees, when they saw that he was eating with sinners and tax collectors, said to his disciples, “Why does he eat with tax collectors and sinners?” 17 And when Jesus heard it, he said to them, “Those who are well have no need of a physician, but those who are sick. I came not to call the righteous, but sinners.” (Matthew 9: 13-17)
The Roman Empire’s practice was to recruit tax collectors from among the people they had conquered. These natives worked for the hated oppressor. It was common practice for tax collectors to demand more from their countrymen than was actually due in order to line their own pockets. Tax collectors, in general, were known for their greed and lack of conscience, so they were thought of as the lowest form of humanity.
Not only did Jesus speak to such a vile sinner, but he invited Matthew, a tax collector, to become one of his closest followers. Implied here is the ultimate in forgiveness and unconditional acceptance. Don’t you imagine that Matthew’s conscience must have been in torment for him to accept the Master’s invitation to spiritual cleansing and restoration, giving up the wealth and privilege of his position? Again the Messiah-King manifested the compelling authority of his word—turning the worst of sinners into disciples.
Finally, Jesus clarified his “physician” analogy by saying, for I have not come to call the righteous, but sinners. Again, we can read some sarcasm and irony into his use of the word righteous when referring to the Pharisees. They were not truly righteous, but they saw themselves as such. Thus they were not willing to accept his forgiveness and respond to his call. The sinners, on the other hand, were aware of their sin (Matt. 5:3, “poor in spirit”) and hungered for forgiveness. They responded to his call to true discipleship. Jesus’ disciples were not perfect, but they accepted his forgiveness with humility and moved on toward maturity.
People are hungry for true forgiveness. Jesus still calls those who see their need to follow him. Just think, there are some people with whom you may come into contact today or this week that are despised and rejected. Let’s remember that God takes delight in showing compassion on such people – and He will flow through you and me to do it, if we will allow him to!