Matthew was an unlikely disciple; he was a tax collector. Tax collectors were among the most despised group of people in Jewish society of the time they were collecting taxes for the hated and pagan colonial ruler. As such they were seen as collaborators and traitors to their own people and to their religion.

Now Jesus invites one of these despised people to be his follower. It is an example of Jesus looking beyond the exterior and the stereotype to the potential of the real person inside. Immediately after this Jesus is seen sitting “in his house” having dinner with his disciples when they are joined by a number of tax collectors and other public sinners. It is not clear whether the ‘his’ refers to the house where Jesus was staying or Matthew’s house. In either event, it was bound to attract the notice of Jesus’ critics.

And indeed some Pharisees, seeing this, are shocked. They ask the disciples (not Jesus): “Why does your master eat with tax collectors and sinners?” If Jesus is a man of God and a teacher, how can he be seen in the company of people who are religiously unclean? To be in their company is to become contaminated and unclean also.

Overhearing them, Jesus replies: “It is not the healthy who need the doctor, but the sick.” And he continues, “Go and learn the meaning of the words, ‘What I want is mercy, not sacrifice’. And indeed I did not come to call the virtuous but sinners.” Jesus turns the tables on the Pharisees by looking at the situation from a completely different perspective.

The problem is not of Jesus becoming contaminated by the sinful and the unclean but rather their becoming healed by his presence and influence. The legally minded (the ritualists) are only interested in themselves; those governed by love (the merciful) think primarily of the needs of their brothers and sisters. There is no need for Jesus to spend time with the virtuous, with the already converted; it is those in spiritual and moral deprivation with whom he needs to spend his time.

The lesson of today’s reading is extremely relevant for our own day. When looking for potential followers of Christ where do we tend to look? How many times have we heard people wonder why God picked them as Christian leaders – as priests, religious or lay people? When we look at the 12 apostles, they were indeed a strange bunch. Full of faults, fragile in their faith but in the end they started something extraordinary.

Is it not true that a great deal of our pastoral energies in our churches are directed at those already converted? Is it also not true that those most in need of experiencing Christ’s love and healing may be found in places where we are hesitant to go? Perhaps we should have courage and look for people in such places…Christ will be with us when we go there.

‘Based on content copyright of Sacred Space, used with permission’