Why exactly did Jesus come into the world? Clearly He said in Matthew 9:13 that it was for sinners—those who know they have a terminal disease, those who are desperate, those who are hurting, those who are hungry, those who are broken, those whose lives are shattered. He came for sinners who know they are sinners.
“Lord save me from that wicked man, myself.” (quoted from MacArthur New Testament Commentary, Vol. 1 & 2)
Peter said it when he saw the glory of Jesus in Luke 5:8,
Depart from me, for I am a sinful man, O Lord.
And then Paul declared in 1 Timothy 1:15,
Christ Jesus came into the world to save sinners, of whom I am the foremost.
How often I have heard, how often I have said that my sin is simply too horrible. Why would Jesus call me, someone so very loathsome, to do His work? Yet Jesus said that He came “not to call the righteous, but sinners.” (Matthew 9:13) His call is on the most wretched of humanity, and what I love about the testimonies and accounts of the Bible is that these truths are absolutely demonstrated there.
Think about the disciples He first called in Peter and Andrew, the fishermen. If you’ve ever watched the popular television show on Discovery, “Deadliest Catch,” then you have a good idea of what kind of men these were. Fishing is notoriously one of the roughest and toughest professions known, and fishing on the Sea of Galilee required some seriously hard men. Picture the men on “Deadliest Catch” and you’ll get a pretty good picture of these men. Jesus walked right past all of the educated, well-mannered, well-dressed men of Capernaum and went straight up to the dirtiest, smelliest, and probably least educated men around and simply said, “Follow me.” (Matthew 4:18-19)
Jesus came to call sinners.
Most of us are unaware of the astounding move Jesus made when he said these few, simple words to Matthew, the tax collector. In Matthew’s own humble account, the brevity in his description is almost misleading. He wrote simply in Matthew 9:9,
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.
However, we know more of the specifics in Mark’s and Luke’s accounts. First, be sure you have the picture painted in your mind. Jesus had been teaching in most likely Peter’s house in Capernaum by the seashore. The meeting is over where Jesus had just healed the paralytic who has now gone home to his four friends. Then Jesus walked along the shore on the northern edge of the Sea of Galilee with His disciples following Him along with a multitude of people.
This is when Jesus happens on Matthew.
Most know that Matthew was a tax collector and so we know he wasn’t well-liked by the rest of his countrymen. However, what most people don’t know is that Matthew was categorically the vilest and most hated person in all of Capernaum. By all valuation of the time period and given Matthew’s vocation, he was the most wretched sinner in town.
And this is where Jesus stops.
You see, Matthew was a publican. These were people who served Rome. When Rome came in and took over Palestine, they wanted to exact taxes. Individuals who were living in the land of Palestine could buy franchises from the Roman government, which then gave them the right to operate the taxation system in a certain district or a certain town. When Matthew bought himself into that system, he revealed himself as a traitor to the cause of Israel. Nothing in the mind of a Jew was as heinous as being anti-nationalistic or anti-Jewish. However, Matthew had a franchise for taxation from Rome, so the Roman government required that he collect a certain amount of taxes. Anything he could collect over what they required he could keep. Tax collectors notoriously took bribes from the rich, extorted from the middle class and the poor, and they were hated.
Jewish hatred for the tax collectors was not only because it was considered anti-nationalistic, but it was also considered anti-religious. The Jews believed they shouldn’t pay anything except to God, so paying taxes to the government was wrong. Consequently, tax collectors weren’t allowed to attend synagogue. As a matter of fact, tax collectors were listed with unclean beasts of the Old Testament. They were in the same category as pigs.
In order to recognize further the extraordinary move Jesus made in this instance, we need to also know that there were two types of tax collectors. One type was the general tax collector. Their job was to take the regular taxes on property, income, and poll. This tax collector took these taxes and then generally added a surcharge onto it so that he could make his fortune. The second type of tax collector took taxes on everything else. They taxed everything that was bought and everything that was eaten; basically they taxed everything that was bought and sold. They taxed every road, every bridge, every harbor, every town….everything. Historians write that these guys could even invent taxes. They taxed the wheels on carts, for example. The more wheels a cart had, the more taxes one had to pay to own that cart. A two-wheeled cart was less expensive to own than a four-wheeled one; a three-legged burro was cheaper to have than a four-legged one. You get the picture. They taxed every letter received and sent, every package on the road or coming in from the sea.
The first kind of tax collector was despised. The second kind was more despised. The second kinds were the ones who sat at the intersection of roads which is exactly where Matthew was sitting when Jesus saw him. The second kind was known as a mokhes. Matthew was a mokhes, the most hated of the two types of tax collectors.
Now, bear with me. This gets even more interesting.
Of the mokhes, there were two sub categories. The first kind would hire someone to sit at the tables so that they could stay behind the scenes. They wanted to keep their hands clean and keep a good reputation. These were called the great mokhes.
Then there were the small mokhes; they did everything themselves, not wishing to share their bounty with anyone else. They sat at their own tables, caring little about their reputations so long as they could make as much money as possible.
Guess which one Matthew was? That’s right. Matthew was a small mokhes, the most hated of the tax collectors and the most hated of the most hated. Matthew was the most wretched man in all of Capernaum, and Jesus walked right up to his booth and simply said, “Follow me.”
And what did Matthew do? He got right up and followed Jesus. Biblical historian, Alfred Ettershime, said it wonderfully:
“He said not a word for his soul was in the speechless surprise of unexpected grace.” (quote taken from “Receiving the Sinner, Refusing the Righteous: Part One,” Grace to You)
Luke tells us in Luke 5:27-28,
After this he went out and saw a tax collector named Levi, sitting at the tax booth. And he said to him, “Follow me.” And leaving everything, he rose and followed him.
Matthew left everything. He would have known that to leave his table and follow Jesus meant that he was leaving everything. He couldn’t go back. Peter and Andrew and the other fishermen who followed Jesus would still be able to fish, but Matthew would never have his vocation or his riches again. He left everything.
After this, Luke went on to say that Matthew was so overwhelmed that he decided to throw a banquet—a banquet attended by the most awful people in the history of banquets. After all, the only people Matthew would know would be awful people! And Jesus is the honored guest.
This act is detestable to the Pharisees and scribes. The men in attendance were the lowest of the low, the vilest of the vile, anti-nationalistic traitors of society, and Jesus was reclining at the table with them! It was in response to the Pharisees' grumbling that Jesus declares His mission, a mission that should make all of us weep for joy and scream in delight. Jesus said,
I have not come to call the righteous, but sinners to repentance. (Luke 5:32)
We don’t have to be perfect. We don’t even have to be desirable! Jesus chose to love us before we were! He came for us, His children, while we were in our weak and godless states.
He came to Matthew and Peter and Andrew and me and you because He desired to do so. It has always been His will and His choice and not anything about us. How marvelous.