Soon after calling Matthew to follow Him, Jesus ate a meal with “many tax collectors and sinners” in Matthew’s house (Mark 2:15). Matthew had been a tax collector, and these “sinners” were his friends and acquaintances who were now spending time with Jesus. Matthew wanted to introduce people in his social circle to Jesus. The scribes and the Pharisees, who despised tax collectors, complained, but Jesus’ actions in spending time with sinners were in perfect accordance with His mission to seek and to save the lost (Luke 19:10).
In Jesus’ day, rabbis and other spiritual leaders enjoyed widespread respect and were held in high esteem in Jewish society. Almost everyone looked up to the Pharisees. They were strict adherents to the Law, they were the guardians of tradition, and they were the exemplars of piety. In their vaulted position, they avoided those whom they deemed “sinners”—those who did not follow their system of rules. Pharisees and the other religious class of Jesus’ day would definitely not have socialized with tax collectors, who were infamous for embezzlement and their cooperation with the hated Romans.
Jesus chose to eat with sinners because they needed to know that repentance and forgiveness were available. As Jesus’ ministry grew, so did His popularity among the social outcasts of society. Once Matthew was part of His inner circle, Jesus naturally had more contact with the pariahs of His society. Spending time with the tax collectors and sinners was only natural, since He had “not come to call the righteous, but sinners” (Mark 2:17). If Jesus was to reach the lost, He must have some contact with them. He went to where the need was because “it is not the healthy who need a doctor, but the sick” (Luke 5:31).
Sitting at Matthew’s feast, Jesus broke societal taboos and condemned the Pharisees’ legalistic system of attaining righteousness. The fact that Jesus ate with sinners shows that He looked beyond culture to people’s hearts. Whereas the Pharisees disregarded people because of their past behavior, Jesus saw their spiritual need.
All through Jesus’ ministry, He reached out to those who needed Him. He conversed with a despised Samaritan woman at a well—surprising even His disciples (John 4:27). He forgives an immoral woman in Luke 7, He helps a Syro-Phoenician woman in Mark 7, He touches a leper in Luke 5, and He enters Zacchaeus’s house and dines with him in Luke 19. Again and again, Jesus touched the untouchable and loved the unlovely.
Jesus came to save sinners. Tradition, cultural bans, and the frowns of a few do not matter when a soul’s eternal destiny is on the line. “God did not send his Son into the world to condemn the world, but to save the world through him” (John 3:17).
Jesus saw individuals, not just their labels. He had compassion and sought to meet the needs around Him. In sharing the word of God, Jesus ate with sinners and spent time with them. Seeing all of this, sinners were no doubt inspired to know Him better. They recognized Jesus as a righteous man, a man of God—the miracles He performed bore witness to that—and they saw His compassion and sincerity.
Jesus didn’t let social status or cultural norms dictate His relationships with people. As the Good Shepherd, He sought the lost sheep wherever they had strayed. When Matthew hosted the dinner party, Jesus accepted the invitation. It was a wonderful opportunity to share the good news of the kingdom with those who most needed to hear (see Matthew 4:23). He was criticized for His actions by the self-righteous legalists of His day, but criticism did not deter Him.
Unlike the Pharisees, Jesus didn’t require people to change before coming to Him. He sought them out, met them where they were, and extended grace to them in their circumstances. Change would come to those who accepted Christ, but it would be from the inside out. The kindness of God leads sinners to repentance (Romans 2:4), and Jesus was full of kindness.
Jesus showed us that we shouldn’t let cultural norms dictate whom we evangelize. The sick need a physician. Lost sheep need a shepherd. Are we praying to the Lord of the harvest to send laborers into the field (Luke 10:2)? Are we willing to go ourselves?