Why Does Your Teacher Eat With Tax Collectors and Sinners?

Who among us does not need our heavenly physician’s healing touch?

If you have been watching “The Chosen” series on the life of Christ, you may have found the character of Matthew, the tax collector called to be one of Jesus’ twelve apostles, fascinating. The actor who plays the part reveals Matthew’s inner life and struggles very adeptly. He is brilliant, but often confused, yet it is clear that when Jesus said to him, “Follow me” he was, at some very deep level, ready to change his life.

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As a tax collector, we know that he would have been a very unpopular person among his fellow Jews. Tax collectors were ostracized from the community, they were considered apostates, unclean, sinners of the most venial kind. Yet, Jesus saw into Matthew’s heart and called him out of his tax booth and into a life he could never have imagined. In this sense, Matthew represents each and every one of us. His struggles are different only in kind from ours. At the moment that Jesus called him, the door of his heart cracked open just enough to let the light of Christ enter him, and he responded. We can believe that he did so with trepidation. But when he left his post, there would be no going back. He could not have known how much his life was going to change at that moment.

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Matthew is an object lesson for each and every one of us. Because of the life he had chosen and become habituated to, with its financial well-being, its creature comforts, and the ability to afford the better things in the life of his day, would have been very hard to turn away from easily. But these things had turned him away from his religion, making him an outcast in his own community. We can’t know, of course, what went on inside his own mind, the intense struggle that must have boiled in his conscience, but the quickness of his response to Jesus’ call to him seems to imply that he had been struggling mightily with his life choices and his own lack of joy and happiness for some time. Jesus’ heart knew and understood Matthew’s struggle and his need. Is Matthew not like us? And is not Jesus calling us out of our sinful ways, every moment of every day? How are we responding?

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When the Pharisees, who were already deeply troubled by Jesus and what he was doing and the crowds that followed him wherever he went, reacted with scorn when he called Matthew to be one of his followers. They pulled aside some of the disciples and asked them sneeringly, “Why does your teacher eat with tax collectors and sinners?” In their minds, this would have made Jesus unclean. Jesus hears them and says directly to them, “Those who are well do not need a physician, but the sick do.”

Let these words sink in for a while. For, like Matthew, we are all sinners and, therefore, our souls are sick. Who among us does not need our heavenly physician’s healing touch? This is central to our Christian understanding of the Incarnation, life, death and Resurrection of our Lord and Savior, Jesus Christ. We were (are) “sick” because of our habitual choices to turn away in small and great ways from God’s will for us.

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Let us listen again and again to the quiet whisper of the Spirit in our hearts, saying to us every day, “Follow me.” Jesus’ words at the end of this passage are instructive, as always. “I did not come for the righteous, but for sinners.” And let us shout for joy and give praise to Him for his unconditional and infinite and faithful love for us. Let us, like Matthew, open a crack in our hearts to hear Jesus’ call to us, “Follow me.” And let us say, “Yes, Lord. I want to know You and to learn to do Your will in my life, so that I may be healed and be able to live with You forever in heaven. Amen.

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