Think back to grade school when you sat with your friends in the lunchroom. Maybe at first, you sat with a stranger who became your best friend. Groups that ate together daily tended to homogenize. No one wanted to be seen sitting with unpopular or ‘weird’ kids. Drama formed around who sat with who. This concept is extremely similar to a cultural element of the Bible that modern readers often miss: table fellowship.

The Bible exists as both a theological document and a record of the all-powerful God meeting humanity within their own context. This means original readers didn’t need extra study tools while we are left playing catch-up. Let’s take a look at how this important concept of table fellowship comes up in the story of Jesus eating with sinners at Matthew’s house in Matt 9:9-13, Mark 2:13-17, and Luke 5:27-32.

To aid our studies, we’ll be using the NKJV Study Pack, a collection of hand-picked Bible study tools.

Here is a quick summary of events:

  • Jesus sees Matthew (AKA Levi), a tax collector, sitting in his tax office. Jesus tells him to get up and “Follow Me”, which Matthew does. (Matt 9:9; Mark 2:14; Luke 5:27-28)
  • Matthew throws a feast for Jesus at his house. Tax collectors, sinners, and the disciples attend. (Matt 9:10; Mark 2:15; Luke 5:29)
  • The scribes and Pharisees (who were also there) question the disciples about Jesus eating with tax collectors and sinners (Matt 9:11; Mark 2:16; Luke 5:30)
  • Jesus hears their questioning and answers them directly, telling them, “Those who are well have no need of a physician, but those who are sick. For I did not come to call the righteous, but sinners, to repentance”.
  • Matthew’s Gospel adds, “But go and learn what this means, “I desire mercy and not sacrifice”. (Matt 9:12-13; Mark 2:17; Luke 5:31-32).

Upon first glance, this passage might not seem to terribly confusing. Here, Jesus ministers to tax collectors and sinners by dining with them. The Pharisees criticize Him and He gives a rebuke. Before looking at what the study tools have to say, let’s ask some questions about this passage.

  • What is the significance of Levi/Matthew’s profession of tax collector?
  • Why did Jesus dine with Levi/Matthew?
  • How come it was so scandalous to eat with tax collectors and sinners?
  • Why does Jesus talk about doctors and the sick?

Tax Collectors

Matthew was Jewish, but he collected taxes for Rome. The Jews hated tax collectors. They had a reputation for taking more than they needed in order to add to their own wealth. Licensed collectors often hired minor officials called publicans to do the actual work of collecting tolls. The publicans extracted their own wages by charging a fraction more than their employer required. Matthew was a publican who collected tolls on the road between Damascus and Acco; his booth was located just outside the city of Capernaum. The tariffs were small by themselves (often less than 3 percent) but drove up the cost of goods because they were multiplied by all the borders they passed through. He also collected taxes from fishermen who worked along the Sea of Galilee and boatmen who brought their goods from cities on the other side of the lake.

Most people in the Roman Empire did not like tax collectors; Jewish people viewed them as traitors. For assessment purposes, tax collectors could search anything except the person of a Roman lady; any property not properly declared was subject to seizure. In Egypt, tax collectors were sometimes so brutal that they were known to beat up aged women in an attempt to learn where their tax-owing relatives were hiding. Ancient documents reveal that when harvests were bad, on occasion an entire village, hearing that a tax collector was coming, would leave town and start a village somewhere else. People sometimes paid tax collectors bribes to prevent even higher fees.

What’s the deal with these sinners?

Shortly after becoming a follower of Jesus, Matthew gave a reception in his home to some of his former business colleagues and other associates so they could meet his new Master. Later rabbis sometimes contrasted Pharisees, as the godliest Judeans one would normally meet, with tax collectors, as the most ungodly one would normally meet. Pharisees did not approve of eating with sinners, making Jesus’ behavior perplexing to them.

“Sinners” was a general term covering persons who were not allowed to act as judges or witnesses because of their moral unreliability. The Talmud enumerates them as dice players, pigeon racers, usurers, dealers in produce from the Sabbatical year, robbers, herdsmen, customs officials, and tax collectors. It is probable that the sinners whom Matthew invited were so called, not on the ground of their being notoriously bad characters, but because they were not in the habit of studying and practicing ‘the tradition of the elders’.

What’s so bad about eating with sinners?

In ancient Israel the table was a place where spiritual points were taught and where fellowship occurred. The term “dinner” often connotes a banquet (a festive meal where people reclined), which was probably in Jesus’ honor. Eating with someone established a covenant relationship of friendship, which normally also signified approval. In one ancient story, two warriors stopped fighting each other when they discovered that their fathers had shared a meal! The issue of eating with sinners was sensitive in Judaism since some believed that eating with such company conveyed an acceptance of that person’s sin. Jesus preferred pursuing relationships that might lead sinners to God rather than “quarantining” Himself from such people (see 1 Cor. 5:9–13).

Jesus’ Response

“Those who are well have no need of a physician, but those who are sick. But go and learn what this means: ‘I desire mercy and not sacrifice.’ For I did not come to call the righteous, but sinners, to repentance.”

Matthew 9:12b-13, NKJV

The sick

Jesus replies that as a doctor sought the sick for treatment, so His place was with the sinners He had come to save, despite artificial conventions.

Ancient writers often used sickness and physicians as moral or intellectual analogies. Jesus was not saying that the Pharisees and scribes had no need of spiritual healing. Instead He was saying that only those who know their spiritual need can be treated. The self-righteous Pharisees would not come for aid, and in their own eyes, did not need a doctor. In this passage, repentance is pictured as a patient who recognizes that illness is present and that only Jesus, the Great Physician, can treat it.

Mercy, not sacrifice

Jewish teachers sometimes exhorted their hearers to “go and learn,” but Jesus’ words might seem more insulting here.

Jesus quoted Hos. 6:6 to make the point that God is more interested in a person’s loyal love than in the observance of external rituals. Jesus refers ironically to the Pharisees as “the righteous”. They were not righteous; that was only how they perceived themselves because of their pious and scrupulous law-keeping (Phil. 3:6). But Jesus explained, quoting from the familiar words of an OT prophet, that God had already judged sacrifices without mercy as worthless. Those who valued ritual sacrifices above compassion toward others missed God’s heart (Hos. 6:6). In principle Pharisees, valued mercy—but none would have embraced sinners as Jesus did. He did not condone the activities of sinners, but required repentance—a change of mind that recognizes Jesus Christ as the only Savior.

The takeaway

Eating with sinners can be tough sometimes. It’s easier to stay in our own lane and tune everyone else out. In this story, Jesus set the example for us by breaking social norms and looking past Matthew’s sin. Matthew was among the most-hated, yet Jesus cared more about his soul. Even if you don’t have an opportunity to eat with someone who has been cast out by society (or by themselves), what can you do to recognize others’ humanity and love them where they’re at?


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