Matthew 9:9-13

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.

10 And as Jesus reclined at table in the house, behold, many tax collectors and sinners came and were reclining with Jesus and his disciples. 11 And when the Pharisees saw this, they said to his disciples, “Why does your teacher eat with tax collectors and sinners?” 12 But when he heard it, he said, “Those who are well have no need of a physician, but those who are sick. 13 Go and learn what this means: ‘I desire mercy, and not sacrifice.’ For I came not to call the righteous, but sinners.” [1] [A very subtle dis of the temple/sacrificial system.]

There are few statements in the Apostle’s Creed that are controversial. It’s true some Christians debate its theology. Did Christ really descend into hell? Others argue about its terminology. Some people question the use of the word “catholic,” as in, “the holy catholic church.” The word simply means universal (as in the entire church of the Lord Jesus Christ). Yet whatever minor disagreements there may be over these statements or others, there is no division at all over the statement, “I believe… in the forgiveness of sins.”

No Christian is uncomfortable with that declaration because every Christian recognizes that this small affirmation is a huge part of our Christian faith. Near the beginning of our Lord’s ministry, when he taught his disciples to pray what we refer to as “the Lord’s Prayer,” forgiveness is at the center. And at the end of his earthly life, during the Last Supper, Jesus took the cup and said to his disciples, “this is my blood of the covenant, which is poured out for many for the forgiveness of sins” (26:28).

Even while pouring out his own precious blood, Jesus cried out, “Father, forgive them, for they know not what they do” (Luke 23:34). After the resurrection, Jesus appeared to his disciples, and opened “their minds to understand the scriptures.” He said to them, “Thus it is written, that the Christ should suffer and on the third day rise from the dead, and that repentance and forgiveness of sins should be proclaimed in his name to all nations, beginning from Jerusalem” (Luke 24:45-47). I believe, and I hope you believe, in the forgiveness of sins, for this is the heart and soul of Christ’s lifesaving mission.

In our passage last week we learned that Jesus has the authority to forgive sins. This morning, we will learn how he uses that authority. We will learn how he uses that authority to sovereignly call sinners. In Matthew’s conversion we will learn two truths. First, that Christ’s call is absolutely sovereign. Second, that Christ’s call is for sinners.


Maybe you are a fan of murder mysteries. They center on the fine art of observation. When the famous detective arrives at the crime scene, they always observe what is most obvious because they know that is often what can and will be used to solve the mystery. They seized on the clue everyone else overlooked because it was so obvious. In the same way, when we arrive at this first verse of our text, we should make some careful observations of the obvious. We should recognize that what is ordinary may in fact be extraordinary.

Look again at verse 9:

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.

An obvious question to ask would be: “Why Matthew?” Why did Jesus approach this man? In Mark’s account of this event he writes that there was a large crowd following Jesus. In our scene, then, Jesus is being mobbed by a crowd showing great interest in him. But he approaches the one man in town who seems to show no interest at all. That man is sitting and working at his tax booth.

It’s not that Matthew didn’t know anything about Jesus. As a tax collector whose booth was likely set up right on the shore of the sea of Galilee, he was in a position to know more than most people about what was going on in town. If he had not met Jesus face-to-face already, he certainly had heard about him. Everybody in Capernaum had at least heard of Jesus.

And yet Matthew sits. He appears uninterested in Christ and his ministry. He seems not even a little curious like the crowd or the scribes, some of whom traveled a great distance to see Jesus in action and to judge for themselves. Matthew doesn’t even budge to see this increasingly famous rabbi, this new prophet, this miracle worker. Matthew may be Jewish in name. His given name is Levi, named after one of Jacob’s sons. But Matthew shows no interest in this “King of the Jews.”

Why? We suspect it is because, like most tax collectors of his time, he bows the knee to the god of money. He is a 1st-century version of today’s Wall Street workaholic who is always sitting behind his desk striving to make that next bundle of money on that next big deal. Also, he knows he is completely unwelcome in any religious circle. Why should he be interested in those who have nothing but contempt for him?

So of all the men, women, and children that day surrounding Jesus, you would think Jesus would show interest in someone in the crowd. Instead he goes straight toward Matthew, the one man who is not going to him. It is strange that Jesus goes to Matthew and then he specifically says to Matthew, and to no one in the crowd, “Follow me” (9:9a). But it is even more striking that Matthew actually responds positively!

The second part of verse 9 tells us that Matthew got up and followed Jesus. Luke 5:28 adds that Matthew “left everything behind” (NASB). Most of you know this story. Many of you learned it in Sunday school. But imagine if you didn’t know it. What if this was the first time you had ever encountered this story? Wouldn’t you be shocked when you read that this too-busy tax collector, with one simple call, will leave his lucrative occupation to follow this controversial itinerant preacher who has nowhere to lay his head?

Why did Jesus call and why did Matthew follow? What do these odd happenings teach us? What can we learn from Christ’s unpredictable selection of Matthew and Matthew’s unexpected response? We are to learn that Christ’s call to salvation is completely sovereign! In order to realize that is what is happening here, we need light from the rest of scripture to shine upon this verse. We must recognize that Matthew was called by God’s irresistible grace. Paul wrote that God “set me apart before I was born, and … called me by his grace, 16[He] was pleased to reveal his Son to me….”[2]

What happened to Matthew is what happened to James, John, Peter, Andrew, Paul, you, me, and every Christian who has ever come to follow Christ. It is what Paul writes of in 2nd Corinthians 4:6: “For God, who said, “Let light shine out of darkness,” has shone in our hearts to give the light of the knowledge of the glory of God in the face of Jesus Christ.[3] God who brings light out of darkness at creation gives the light of his glory to dark and chaotic hearts mired in sin at re-creation (the moment of our calling and regeneration).

As Matthew looked into the face of Jesus Christ and heard his command, he experienced the irresistibly powerful call of God, a God who “saved us and called us to a holy calling, not because of our works but because of his own purpose and grace, which he gave us in Christ Jesus before the ages began” (2 Timothy 1:9). Christ’s call to salvation is sovereign. It is specific and effectual. It is nothing like your call to your family on Sunday mornings, “Come on! Let’s get going. We’re going to be late!

Christ’s call is met with immediate, willing obedience. Matthew did not answer back, “I’m hurrying. I’ll be there in a minute. Let me finish this transaction and get a bite to eat first.” No. To the leper Jesus simply said, “Be clean,” and he was immediately clean. To the paralytic he said, “Rise,” and the man got up immediately and walked away. And to Matthew Jesus says, “Follow me,” and Matthew immediately follows. God is exercising his free will to call whom he pleases.

This is as much of a miracle as any miracle we have seen in chapters 8 and 9. In fact, as Jonathan Edwards noted, the work of God in the conversion of one soul is a more glorious work of God than the creation of the whole material world.[4]  Think about the upside-down nature of this miracle. If you were building a movement, would you want one of the most despised members of society to join your inner circle? James Boice notes three things about Matthew:

  1. He was politically unacceptable. As a collector of taxes he was one who had collaborated with the occupying authorities. That was enough to ostracize him. But in addition, tax collectors often grew rich by extorting more than was owed, and they were hated for it. William Barclay reports the existence of three main statutory taxes: (1) a ground tax of one-tenth of the grain and one-fifth of fruit and grapes, (2) an income tax of 1 percent of a person’s income, and (3) a poll tax imposed on all males fourteen to sixty-five, and every female twelve to sixty-five. In addition, however, the collectors grew rich by overcharging many other taxes. A duty tax of 2.5 percent to 12.5 percent was levied on all imported and exported goods. There were taxes for using main roads and for crossing bridges, for entering market towns or using harbors. Pack animals were taxed, as were the wheels and axles of carts. Capernaum was a town where major roads came together. Therefore, Matthew was at the junction to levy taxes on goods that passed by.
  2. He was religiously unacceptable. He was considered unclean. Jewish law barred tax collectors from all synagogue services on the basis of Leviticus 20:5, which required orthodox Jews to cut off anyone who was guilty of “prostituting [himself] to Moloch.” Tax collectors were not even allowed to witness in a court of law.
  3. He was socially unacceptable. Religious people spoke of those who failed to keep every petty detail of the law as the ‘am ha’arets (“people of the land”). The orthodox were forbidden to go on a journey with them, do business with them, give them anything, receive anything from them, have them as guests or be guests in their homes. Matthew was one of these.[5]

Surprisingly, Matthew was exactly the kind of person that Jesus came to save. Matthew was one of the last, the lost, the least, the little, and the dead. We miss the point here if we see Matthew’s conversion as an act of his own self-will or as if his conversion happened as an act of random kindness (he was just the right guy in the right place at the right time). Verse 9 does not allow for such an understanding. Instead, it shows us the radical character of Christ’s call. He is like a King summoning a slave to become an heir. His call is graciously sovereign. God has all the power and all the right to exercise his free will to save those whom it pleases him to save.

Think about that truth for a moment. If Christ can and does call an uninterested and undeserved sinner like Matthew, then there is hope that no one we know is too far removed from the sovereign call of Christ. If God exercises his free will to call a person, we can trust that individual will respond. That should encourage us and give us hope.

If Matthew can get up from his table, we should never despair over those people in our lives who seem farthest from the Kingdom of God. Their disinterest in God is not a valid indication of God’s disinterest in them. Every soul you know, no matter their reputation for unrighteousness and the refusal of religion, is only one call away from following Christ. So pray to the Lord of the harvest. Pray for Christ’s call upon their lives.

Matthew received the gospel for the same reason that we received the gospel – because God worked sovereignly and powerfully through his Word and through his Holy Spirit, calling all of us to Christ. He exercised his free will to choose us, call us, regenerate our hearts, and grant us trust into him.


Maybe someday we will have electronic bibles that highlight the main point of the text. Perhaps they’re already on the market. But if you do not have a self-highlighting Bible, I suggest you underline, star, circle, or highlight the end of verse 13. Christ says, “I came not to call the righteous, but sinners.” Jesus came to call sinners. That is the main point of this passage. It should be in giant red letters. Matthew was easily one of the most hated men in Hebrew society and yet God exercised his own free will to call Matthew.

Tax collectors were viewed as religious and political traitors, trained extortionists, and thugs among the highest criminal element. Ancient rabbinical writings lumped tax collectors together with thieves and murderers. They were officially excommunicated from the synagogue, the temple, and respectable society. Don’t feel sorry for Matthew, he freely chose that occupation. He gladly accepted social and moral exile from the religious of Israel because the paycheck was sweet.

As Matthew tells us his own story, he wants us to know that Jesus approached and called an outcast, someone despised and cut off. God called yet another person considered unfit to enter the temple. The story is not so much about how Matthew was converted. It is about who was converted. This casino boss, mobster, thug got saved! Picture Jesus gathering his first four disciples (James, John, Peter, and Andrew) and telling them he had decided to increase their number.

Think of what that imaginary conversation would look like and what the other disciples would expect. They might expect him to add one of the scribes visiting from Jerusalem. They might expect him to add a worthy candidate from the crowd of followers. Imagine how shocked they would have been if Jesus had consulted them first! Imagine their stunned silence if Jesus would have said I’m going to call this greedy, godless guy down at the tax office.

If Peter had advance notice of Jesus’ decision, he likely would have pulled Jesus aside and warned him that picking Matthew would wreck his cause. No matter what Jesus’ cause was, having a tax collector with him in public would surely ruin it. I doubt the disciples had any more advanced notice of what Jesus planned than the crowds. But it’s not hard for us to imagine what they thought when this tax collector left his desk and joined himself to Jesus. No doubt they were just being practical. How often do modern evangelistic campaigns think that if they have a famous Christian athlete, musician, business executive, or intellectual share their testimony, our culture will be won to Christ?

Thankfully, Jesus was never pragmatic in his ministry. If he wanted to impress others, especially the movers and shakers of his society, he never would have shown interest in Matthew, a most unfavorable candidate for his cause. But Jesus was not interested in the big names or the religious elite. He was and is interested in sinners from every walk of life, especially those sinners with whom no self-righteous person would dare associate. We see that in verses 10 through 13:

10 And as Jesus reclined at table in the house, behold, many tax collectors and sinners came and were reclining with Jesus and his disciples. 11 And when the Pharisees saw this, they said to his disciples, “Why does your teacher eat with tax collectors and sinners?” 12 But when he heard it, he said, “Those who are well have no need of a physician, but those who are sick. 13 Go and learn what this means: ‘I desire mercy, and not sacrifice.’ For I came not to call the righteous, but sinners.”

Jesus did not come to call those who think they are good enough, or even those who think they might need a little bit of work to be good enough, he came to call the last, the lost, the least, the little, and the dead! He doesn’t call people who live within the sound of the church bells. He pulls people off of the path of hell. He only raises The Walking Dead.

The word “sinners” shows up three times in these four verses. To us this looks like a dinner party. But Jesus is actually running a rescue shop one foot away from the gates of hell. He is at a tax collector’s house eating with tax collectors and gentiles and known sinners. He is reclining and eating with the outcasts, with those who were known for flagrantly breaking the moral law of God as well as being utterly disinterested in the scribal traditions.

Ancient Jews sat at a table to eat their meals just like you and me. But for formal dinners and large banquets they usually reclined on low cushions or carpets. Probably because nobody kept that many chairs in their house. Diners would lie down with their heads facing the table and their feet extending outward from it. So here is the Lord Jesus Christ, the holy God of the universe, reclining with the reprehensible, dining with the detestable, communicating with the unclean, socializing with the scum of society.

The Messiah of Israel is sharing the most intimate social custom in Jewish society with unclean Jews and gentiles, bestowing upon them fellowship with God. It even appears that Jesus’ merciful and forgiving nature attracted not a few of the dinner guests. Mark adds to this story that “there were many who followed him” (Mark 2:15). Yet to the scribes, Jesus must surely be a sinner since he associated with them. For them, having anything to do with those who did not keep the rules of Israel meant that you approved of the rule breakers. If you lie down with dogs, you will wake up with fleas.

But the worst sinners often make the ripest candidates for God’s mercy because, unlike those who presumed themselves righteous, the sinner knows his need and longs for a cure. Christ stands (or reclines) close to those who know they are far from him. Why? Because that’s why he came to earth. He came to call sinners, not after they have shown interest in him or cleaned up their act, but while they are still 10 miles deep in their sins.

The apostle Paul sums it up quite well in 1st Timothy 1:15: “The saying is trustworthy and deserving of full acceptance, that Christ Jesus came into the world to save sinners.” He came to save sinners! Yes, he was a prophet and teacher. Yes, he was a miracle-worker. Yes, He is a King. Yes, he was and is the perfect moral example of how we should live our lives. But if that is everything Jesus was and is, then there would be no hope for us fallen creatures suffering from a fatal disease, dying physically and spiritually from the plague of sin. Jesus was and is a Savior for sinners. He is a Savior who loves us so much that he came down to give us God’s medicine for our eternal relief, the forgiveness of sins.

The angels and the believers who have now passed on into glory, free from sin’s presence and power, consider the forgiveness of sins to be such a marvelous thing they cannot stop singing about it. Listen to the scene John describes in Revelation chapter 5:

Then I saw in the right hand of him who was seated on the throne a scroll written within and on the back, sealed with seven seals. And I saw a mighty angel proclaiming with a loud voice, “Who is worthy to open the scroll and break its seals?” And no one in heaven or on earth or under the earth was able to open the scroll or to look into it, and I began to weep loudly because no one was found worthy to open the scroll or to look into it. And one of the elders said to me, “Weep no more; behold, the Lion of the tribe of Judah, the Root of David, has conquered, so that he can open the scroll and its seven seals.”

And between the throne and the four living creatures and among the elders I saw a Lamb standing, as though it had been slain, with seven horns and with seven eyes, which are the seven spirits of God sent out into all the earth. And he went and took the scroll from the right hand of him who was seated on the throne. And when he had taken the scroll, the four living creatures and the twenty-four elders fell down before the Lamb, each holding a harp, and golden bowls full of incense, which are the prayers of the saints. And they sang a new song, saying,

“Worthy are you to take the scroll and to open its seals, for you were slain, and by your blood you ransomed people for God from every tribe and language and people and nation, 10 and you have made them a kingdom and priests to our God, and they shall reign on the earth.” [6]


[1] The Holy Bible: English Standard Version (Wheaton, IL: Crossway Bibles, 2016), Mt 9:9–13.

[2] The Holy Bible: English Standard Version (Wheaton, IL: Crossway Bibles, 2016), Ga 1:15–16.

[3] The Holy Bible: English Standard Version (Wheaton, IL: Crossway Bibles, 2016), 2 Co 4:6.

[4] O’Donnell, Douglas Sean. Matthew: All Authority in Heaven and on Earth (Preaching the Word) (pp. 241-242). Crossway. Kindle Edition.

[5] James Montgomery Boice, The Gospel of Matthew (Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Books, 2001), 149.

[6] The Holy Bible: English Standard Version (Wheaton, IL: Crossway Bibles, 2016), Re 5:1–10.