He “came not to call the righteous, but sinners”

By In In Remembrance On December 21, 2014

This article was originally published in Expository Files 21.12, December 2014. Read the original publication

As Jesus passed on from there, he saw a man called Matthew sitting at the tax booth, and he said to him, “Follow me.” And he rose and followed him. And as Jesus[b] reclined at table in the house, behold, many tax collectors and sinners came and were reclining with Jesus and his disciples. And when the Pharisees saw this, they said to his disciples, “Why does your teacher eat with tax collectors and sinners?” But when he heard it, he said, “Those who are well have no need of a physician, but those who are sick. Go and learn what this means, ‘I desire mercy, and not sacrifice.’ For I came not to call the righteous, but sinners.” – Matthew 9:9-13

Jesus was always looking for people. When traveling or walking, it wasn’t just to leave one place and arrive at another, take in the scenery or go to work. He saw people. He was looking for people; people who could be listeners and then followers, becoming citizens in His kingdom.

And so on this day, “As Jesus passed on from” the crowds after the healing of the paralytic man, “He saw a man called Matthew,” who was “sitting at the tax booth.”

Tax collectors in the time of Jesus were not part of the popular, celebrated benefactors or heroes of the community, to say the least. They were almost considered to be extortionist, the way some of them milked the system to their advantage, and to the disadvantage of the tax-payer. The Roman government received their due, the tax collector got his nice cut, but the poor tax payers were left drained. And they didn’t forget it when they saw these men.

“Revenue codes were as bewildering then as now and the average citizen was at the mercy of the tax agent to know how much he owed; dishonest publicans would overcharge and keep the surplus for themselves (Luke 3:13, 19:8). Not surprisingly, it was common for orthodox Jews to lump publicans in the same category with sinners and harlots (5:46; 9:10,21,31). Matthew’s call, therefore, again illustrates the hope Christ offered to outcasts (8:1).” [p.#172, The Gospel of Matthew, by Kenneth L. Chumbley].

Jesus, however, did not surrender to the “popularity contests” or common reputations. He would speak to anyone, even those widely considered to be unrighteous or unfair. After all, he came “not to call the righteous, but sinners.”

Matthew “arose and followed him.” We are not able to know everything that went on in Matthew’s head. Apparently, he knew enough about Jesus at this point, he was ready of heart to make the choice. It is likely they had a prior relationship, or at least Matthew knew of His coming.

Well, this initiative on the part of Jesus, combined with the right choice of Matthew – yielded good results with others: “And as Jesus reclined at table in the house, behold, many tax collectors and sinners came and were reclining with Jesus and his disciples.”

Remember, these are the people Jesus came to reach, to teach and to convert: Sinners! Here they are. Everything is as it should be. Jesus approached one man and now has a group of listeners. A group of the very people He came to save: Sinners!

What’s wrong with this? Well nothing, except Jesus – in this gathering – attracted the attention of His enemies, the Pharisees. They “saw this,” and said to the Lord’s disciples: “Why does your teacher eat with tax collectors and sinners?” The Pharisee mentality emerges clearly here. To them, association (“table fellowship”) was equated with guilt, even if the one who initiated the association is sinless! To them, the Master Teacher was automatically guilty, because the students before him were known as sinners. (How they ever imagined converting anyone is a strain. But then, perhaps they were just not that “evangelistic.”)

Jesus didn’t let their hypocritical judgment move Him from His mission, which was to be a spiritual physician, to heal sinners. Those, like the Pharisees, who operated under the self-deception that they were in good spiritual health, Jesus could not heal (until the conviction of sin hit them).

As this episode closes, Jesus leaves us with this: “I desire mercy, and not sacrifice. For I came not to call the righteous, but sinners.”

This quotes from Hosea 6:6. It was widely misunderstood among the Jews, who were obsessed with rituals like sacrifice. That is to say, the concept developed among them – that all one needs to do is, sacrifice the right animal, at the right time, in the right place. They didn’t get the purpose of God’s requirements to prepare them for the Cross, to change their hearts and remind them of their spiritual need. Ritual they got. Mercy, they didn’t.

Likewise, the Jewish leadership had little interests in the genuine development of their character, or helping sinners. What is colliding here is two very different mind-sets. Jesus has this rich interests in helping people out of sin and taking them to God. The Pharisees want to offer the sacrifices, make sure others offer them, and with the ritual done – keep separate from the sinners and consider them as swine with no appreciation for pearls. Mercy was overlooked or slighted, while men engaged in their rituals, traditions and separations from the unholy.

So it had been said long before Jesus – through the prophet – “I will have mercy, not sacrifice.” That meant, the kind of empty, ritualistic sacrifices they offered were of no value, without a heart that comprehended God’s mercy and reflected that mercy toward others.

Religionists who are long on routine sacrifice, but short on mercy are more interested in upholding sectarianism than in helping people. Jesus encountered that corrupt spirit. He spoke against it. Jesus came to call sinners to repentance. Matthew accepted that call. And we learn from this …

{1} Matthew’s response illustrates obedience to Christ without delay. There can be no doubt, Matthew’s response to Jesus was a choice that had attached to it, the reality of not going back! He left a lucrative profession, without any hope of returning to his old job if it didn’t work out. That may help us understand the commitment Jesus’ call requires. “…he arose and followed him.”

{2} “The form of discipleship that Jesus institutes is unexpected and shocking, because He breaks down barriers between social classes, overturns religious concepts of well-being, and abolishes slavish adherence to religious cultural traditions,” (p.#364, The NIV Application Commentary, Matthew, by Michael J. Wilkins).

{3} What Jesus said to Matthew remains the most urgent invitation in our time: “Follow Me.” This is more than just an acknowledgment of belief; more than just saying, “Lord, Lord,” (see Matt. 7:21-27). To follow Him is to leave sin, believing in Christ, repenting and being baptized – to walk in newness of life. The cost of following Jesus, for Matthew, was great. The cost should be gladly paid by us, leaving all to follow Him.

About the Author


Warren E. Berkley is a contributor to "The Expository Files," a monthly biblical newsletter focused on highlighting truths in specific scriptures. You can access their archives at

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