Bible Book List
Matthew 9 - IVP New Testament Commentaries

Sinners Need a Physician

Whereas the preceding narrative introduces the notion that forgiveness is a primary focus of Jesus' mission (v. 9), this narrative carries that point further and uses Jesus' healing ministry as an acted parable of his most important mission: repairing our lives broken by sin (v. 12). Surrounding narratives also demonstrate that it is the broken, such as paralytics, blind people, lepers and those in mourning, who recognize their need for God's help.

Matthew here shows us that the morally and socially reprobate sometimes humble themselves more readily than religious people. Having often witnessed the fruit of sensitive personal evangelism on the streets, I fear that sometimes we spend too much time trying to convert a few resistant sinners in the church while neglecting more sinners afraid to set foot in a church. Sometimes the latter have developed less resistance to the gospel; sometimes they are outside the church precisely because of the words or behavior of some within the church.

Jesus Calls a Collaborator with the Enemy to Be His Disciple (9:9)

Jesus' call to follow was a call to be his disciple-a future teacher in training (4:19; 8:22; 10:38; 16:24; 19:21). But whereas Jesus warned a scribe who was a would-be follower about the cost (8:19-20), here he openly invites a despised tax gatherer to join his circle (compare 18:17)! The common people and nonaristocratic pietists despised tax gatherers as agents of the Romans and their aristocratic pawns (E. Sanders 1985:178), perhaps something like what the Dutch or French felt toward local collaborators with the Nazis or Africans felt toward slatees, African assistants to European slave traders.

The average Jewish person in ancient Palestine had several reasons to dislike tax gatherers. First, Palestine's local Jewish aristocracies undoubtedly arranged for this tax collection (E. Sanders 1990:46-47). Second, the Empire sometimes had to take precautions to keep tax gatherers from overcharging people (Lk 3:12-13; Carmon 1973:105, 226), which suggests that some tax gatherers did just that (Hoehner 1972:78; compare Philo Leg. Gai. 199); some also beat people to get their money (Philo Spec. Leg. 3.30; N. Lewis 1983:161-63). Further, nearly all scholars concur that taxes were exorbitant even without overcharges; in some parts of the Empire taxation was so oppressive that laborers fled their land, at times to the point that entire villages were depopulated (N. Lewis 1983:164-64).

Matthew's office would have made him locally prominent, possibly as a customs official. Customs officers demanded written declarations of travelers' possessions and searched baggage (Casson 1974:290-91). They may have collected some other government revenues as well (M. Stern 1974-1976:333). Some Jewish texts condemn customs officers as well as other tax gatherers (see Edersheim 1993:236), though some such officials appear to have become benefactors to local populations (Jos. War 2.287-88).

In the eyes of these Pharisees (v. 11), eating with sinners connoted approval of them; by contrast, a pious person normally preferred to eat with scholars (compare Jeremias 1966a:236). Some take sinners here to mean the `am ha'ares common people whom the Pharisees despised for their lack of adherence to Pharisaic food laws (as in Jeremias 1972:132; thus the quotation marks in the NIV); more scholars today lean toward the view that it means sinners in a more blatant sense.

Although we make exceptions today for former sinners if they are of prominent status, many churches are embarrassed to embrace a recovering drug addict or prostitute who comes seeking help. Likewise, Christians who struggled with homosexual or lesbian behavior in the past find this one of the few sins they dare confide to no one. Some churches are even reticent to allow an unemployed person or someone who was divorced in the distant past to train for a position of leadership. Even when our churches define sin and forgiveness the Bible's way, we sometimes define status in unbiblical ways.

Sinners Are Ready to Listen and Follow (9:9-10)

People's unpredictability keeps us depending on God's mandate to share the kingdom with all. Jesus, for his part, was ready to eat with people with whom many of his pious contemporaries would not associate. For Matthew to follow Jesus meant leaving behind a well-paying profession, yet even this costly repentance could not satisfy the religious elite. There are many people with whom most Christians today would not eat (for reasons of either spiritual or social incompatibility); the Pharisees went even further in having special rules governing with whom they would eat (as in ARN 31, 68; 32, 72B).

Religious People React (9:11)

The Jewish Scriptures clearly stated that one should not fellowship with sinners (Ps 1:1; 119:63; Prov 13:20; 14:7; 28:7), but these references warn against being influenced by sinners. Jesus is eating with sinners, but even though he is the one influencing them (9:9, 13; Lk 15:1), his ministry looks bad. Early Jewish literature indicates that, for all Judaism's emphasis on mercy and repentance, Jesus' act of actively pursuing sinners was virtually unheard of (Ladd 1974b:83); it is thus not surprising that it appeared scandalous.

This is not to play down the emphasis on repentance among Jesus' contemporaries. Jewish tradition already warned not to reproach one who had turned from sin (Sirach 8:5), but we are not always what our doctrine says we should be. I often see vibrant churches attracting young people with whom some older members (or even denominational officials) tend to be uncomfortable. Well-endowed churches reaching out to inner-city projects often encounter children with hygiene and discipline habits different from those to which their members are accustomed. At times some apparently pious members of our churches have the same spiritual depth and commitment of this passage's Pharisees.

Jesus' Mission Is for Those Who Acknowledge Their Sinfulness (9:12-13)

In an honor- and shame-based culture like the ancient Mediterranean, a public complaint such as the one the Pharisees had issued constituted a challenge. Quick repartee in the face of such a challenge would not only silence the challenge but shame the challengers (as in Diog. Laert. 6.2.33). Jesus shames his opponents with some traditional and biblical wisdom. Jewish teachers often exhorted hearers to "go and find," that is, search the Scripture for examples (as in Sipre Num. 76.2.1), or "go and learn," that is, understand the point of a given text (Sipre Num. 115.5.6). But when Jesus introduces his quote from Hosea with go and learn in the context of a response to a challenge, he is insultingly suggesting his interlocutors' ignorance of the point of Scripture; he implies that perhaps they have never even read Hosea (compare Mt 12:5; Ex. Rab. 21:6). Hosea addressed a people satisfied with their ritual but displeasing to God (Hos 8:2-3).

Jesus' response would have been clear enough. Other ancient teachers also used health as a metaphor for spiritual or moral wholeness and disease as a metaphor for vice or folly, seeing themselves as physicians of the soul (for example, Diog. Laert. 2.70; 6.1.4; ARN 23A). Writing after the spread of Christianity, Diogenes Laertius reports a much earlier philosopher who, "when he was censured for keeping company with evil men," responded, "Physicians are in attendance on their patients without getting the fever themselves" (Diog. Laert. 6.1.6, LCL 6-9).

Jesus came to call sinners-to invite them to God's final banquet (Mt 22:3, 14), a foretaste of which the present table fellowship with them may have represented. Jesus' demand for mercy is so critical that it recurs in 12:7 (see also 23:23). Many of Jesus' contemporaries who practiced sacrifice also emphasized the priority of mercy over physical sacrifice (as in Sirach 35:1-7; Prayer of Azariah 16-17). That Jesus' opponents agreed with his principle in theory yet invited his reprimand should force us who acknowledge his doctrine to survey our practice as well (compare Jer 2:35; 1 Jn 1:10).

After my conversion from a non-Christian background in high school, I witnessed to everyone I could, sometimes to drug users who were smoking marijuana in my presence. That kind of fellowship could have landed me in jail! But Jesus' example gave me courage to continue to engage all people with the gospel, regardless of their moral background; and some of them committed their lives to Christ. Yet I have learned that some apparently worshipful and Bible-centered churches do not welcome such persons-suggesting that ultimately Jesus who ate with sinners might not truly be welcome there either.

Previous commentary:
Jesus' Authority to Forgive Sins

Next commentary:
A Time for Everything

About this commentary:
IVP New Testament Commentaries are made available by the generosity of InterVarsity Press.