Matthew, the author of this Gospel, makes a short cameo appearance here and reveals that Jesus called him straight out of a tax booth to be his disciple. This is no minor revelation. The tax collectors, as you may already know, were Jews commissioned by the Roman government to collect taxes from fellow Jews using whatever means possible. The Roman government would offer tax collecting jobs to the highest bidders, and whatever amount the tax collector took above and beyond the required taxes he could pocket for himself. The whole system was set up for abuse. Tax collectors were hated not only for being greedy extortioners but, worse, they worked for a powerful Gentile oppressor. They were traitors to their own community, the people of God.
When Jesus calls Matthew out of his tax booth, we might be wondering why he does not first lay down certain conditions about discipleship, or coerce him into making promises about reforming his life. "Don't you know what you'll have to give up to follow me? Are you serious about cleaning up your act?" But notice how unnecessary all that is, because for Matthew the act of following Jesus is leaving behind his old life. As soon as Jesus says, "Follow me!" Matthew obeys by abandoning his tax booth.
But shouldn't Matthew at least get the old cost-of-discipleship lecture about "foxes have holes and the birds have nests, but the Son of Man has nowhere to lay his head"? Or, "let the dead bury their own dead"? A scheming crook like him deserves the same hard-nosed treatment the others got, doesn't he? Maybe it wasn't necessary to tell a tax collector like Matthew how lonely and ostracized he would be from family and friends if he followed Jesus. He was already lonely and ostracized because of his wickedness and guilt. A man like him would have nothing to lose and everything to gain by following Jesus. The cost would seem like the lightest burden compared to the precious gift of being loved by Jesus and given a clean conscience. Matthew sees right away the value of what he is being offered, and Jesus doesn't need to laboriously spell things out for him as he does with most people. Maybe that's why Jesus likes hanging out with sinners like Matthew. It's a lot less work.
Well, why stop there? Matthew goes out and invites all his tax collecting friends to meet Jesus, and they bring along their friends of similar reputation, and pretty soon there's a dinner party in full swing with Jesus as the honored guest. The Pharisees, of course, are offended. I suppose it would be like Jesus befriending an abortion doctor, who then invites his abortion doctor friends to meet Jesus too, and they show up at the house with their gay and lesbian friends. That might ruffle a few feathers. But Jesus feels at home with this crowd. He has come to speak the language healing and wholeness and forgiveness, words that make sense to people who are in tune with their own sickness, brokenness and guilt.
And yet the point isn't that these people are worse sinners than the rest. Rather, due to public scorn for their particular sins they have been targeted and abused, and thus have been brought to a more humble awareness of their need. So when Jesus says to the Pharisees, "It is not the healthy who need a physician but those who are sick . . . I did not come to call the righteous but sinners," he speaks somewhat ironically. He is using the Pharisees' own categories of dividing people into the healthy and the sick, the righteous and the sinners. If the Pharisees insist they are healthy, then they have no need of a physician, right? Why take offense that the physician goes to the very people whom the Pharisees would agree are sick?
The story illustrates a fundamental principle to keep in mind when relating to Jesus. The only sin that will keep Jesus away from you is the sin of thinking you are doing too well to need him. The more you feel your need of him, the closer he draws to you, but the more you scorn neediness in yourself and others, the more distant he will become. Greed, lust, selfishness, uncleanness, moral weakness, unfaithfulness, cowardice, laziness, and generally irritating behavior--none of this can ever be your undoing before Jesus, as long as you confess it before him. It's the refusal to confess that will undo you. That's the only real difference between the tax collector and the Pharisee in this story. One has had the benefit of human hatred to make him see his need, while the other has had the curse of human praise to blind him to his.