Tax collectors are among the most reviled people in Jesus’ day because of the corruption associated with the office. Customs duties on goods transported through Galilee are among the taxes collected, and it is likely that Matthew, whom we meet in today’s passage (Matt. 9:9), gathers these fees. In his work he collects a set amount for Herod Antipas, the ruler of Galilee, who in turn sends it to Rome. Matthew is free to assess the value of the goods carried through his region and, like other collectors, demands a tax higher than what the government requires and keeps the difference for himself. This offers ample opportunity for unjust taxation, giving the people reason to hate tax collectors.
Galilee also views the tax collectors as traitors, for they are representatives of Rome’s oppressive government. Matthew goes by the name Levi, making it likely that he is a Levite (Luke 5:27–28). According to the Pharisees, this would make his collusion with Rome much worse because God set apart the Levites for Himself (Num. 8:5–22), not service to the pagans. In any case, the Pharisees are upset when Jesus calls Matthew as His disciple and then dines with him and other sinners (Matt. 9:10–11; Luke 5:29–30). Eating a meal with someone in the first century shows relational intimacy, and our Savior reveals His love for tax collectors and others deemed beyond forgiveness when He dines with them.
Christ responds to the Pharisees’ objections by telling them to “go and learn” Scripture, specifically Hosea 6:6 (Matt. 9:12–13a). This is ironic because the Pharisees, of all people, should know the Bible, which says our Creator is eager to forgive the repentant (Ps. 86:15). Jesus has come to effect this pardon of sinners; the righteous have no need of His work (Matt. 9:13b). Of course, in saying this, Jesus is not asserting that the Pharisees are righteous in themselves. All men are sinners (Ps. 14:2–3), and only those who recognize their spiritual poverty can even begin to understand what righteousness really means (Matt. 5:3, 6). In effect Jesus is saying, “Pharisees, you of all people should know that the Messiah comes to save sinners, and, in fact, you would also see your desperate need for forgiveness if you knew the Scriptures as well as you claim.”
We are all recovering Pharisees who must get over our tendency to frown only upon certain sins. John Calvin comments that we must “never think it strange that he should gather to salvation those who have been the worst of men, and who have been covered with a mass of crimes.” Our churches must welcome repentant abusers, repentant homosexuals, and others often seen as beyond God’s forgiveness. We deserve His pardon no more than they do.
For further study:
The Bible in a year: