As Jesus passed on from there, He saw a man called Matthew sitting at the tax office; and He said to him, “Follow Me.” And he rose and followed Him. And as He sat at table in the house, behold, many tax collectors and sinners came and sat down 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, (to repentance).”

Matthew 9:9-13

Earlier in this series we met Zacchaeus, a tax collector. And we mentioned that tax collectors were pariahs in the society at the time of Jesus. They were Jewish and worked for the Romans. The Romans hated them because they were Jewish. And the Jews hated them because they worked for the Romans. Further, the tax collectors made arbitrary assessments on what people’s taxes should be, often going into homes and taking property when people couldn’t afford to pay with money. There were heavy fines for being late, and for some there was imprisonment, which effectively became a life sentence, because one couldn’t get out of prison until the debt was paid and there was no way to pay a debt off while in prison. This was a harsh and brutal system of taxation.

Matthew was also a tax collector. We read the story of his call in Matthew 9:9-13. One day Jesus stopped by the tax office and saw Matthew and simply said “Follow Me.” (Matthew 9:9) And that was enough for Matthew to stop what he was doing, walk out of the tax office and essentially change his whole life in one moment. We don’t know much about Matthew’s background before this moment. Perhaps he had heard of Jesus, perhaps he had heard that there was a small group of disciples. So that when Jesus stopped by and asked him to follow, he felt honored and ready to go. We also don’t know how Matthew was initially received by the other disciples. (The Bible doesn’t talk a lot about the relationships between the disciples save for a few instances such as when James and John ask Jesus to place them at His right and left hands for eternity and the other disciples become indignant about this. Mark 10:35-43) The integration of a lowlife tax collector into the small group of twelve disciples no doubt had its challenges. Matthew stepped away from familiar and secure territory into the great unknown simply because Jesus called him.

Matthew went on to preach in Judea and eventually Ethiopia. He authored one of the four Gospels. He was eventually martyred for his faith. Seeing Matthew in the tax office, one would not have thought him a candidate for discipleship let alone sainthood, but that’s exactly what happened. This is what can happen when we follow God’s call. God calls everyone.

The call of Matthew is immediately followed by a scene depicting Jesus sitting at a table in a house surrounded by tax collectors and sinners. This must have upset the social scene as both Jews and Romans would have been annoyed with this. If Jesus was converting the tax collectors, who would collect the taxes for the Romans? Jesus was sitting with those who were judged “sinners” by the Pharisees. He was giving refuge to those they had scorned. The Pharisees asked Jesus why was He eating with such people. Jesus heard it and said, “Those who are well have no need of a physician, but those who are sick.” (Matthew 9:12) To put it another way, those who are “sick” need a physician. They don’t need to be ridiculed or ignored, which is what the temple elite were doing. They were making divisions on who they deemed “righteous” and who they deemed a “sinner.” Those who were deemed “sinners” were ostracized. Jesus, Whom we call the “healer of our souls and bodies” in our liturgical services, was drawn to those who were sick, whether it was a physical illness or a spiritual one.

Jesus continued, “Go and learn what this means, ‘I desire mercy and not sacrifice.’” Anyone can make a sacrifice of money. Not everyone can sacrifice giving up a grudge. Jesus was saying that He desired forgiveness and mercy over other kinds of sacrifices. That it was harder to offer mercy than to offer money.

The last verse quoted above has two words omitted in several Bible translations. Jesus says in Matthew 9:13, “For I came not to call the righteous, but sinners, to repentance.”  In many translations, the words “to repentance” have been omitted. It is critical to note that Jesus did not just come to call sinners to follow Him, and remain as they are. He called them, as they are, but He called them to repent, to be different than they are.

The call of Matthew is the call to all of us: Follow. But it is also a call to follow Jesus to repentance, not just to say we are followers who remain as we are, who do not change anything about our lives as a consequence of being followers.

If you are sitting in the tax office, as Matthew was, as a social pariah, God wants you. If you are cheating and defrauding people, as Matthew undoubtedly was, God wants you to repent and follow. He doesn’t just want you to follow, He wants you to repent and follow. He wants you to know that you are special and that He still wants you, even with your checkered past. He wants you to repent, change, and follow.

I’ve never heard a doctor criticize a patient for coming into the office when one is sick. To the contrary, I’ve heard the doctor thank people for coming in. Many of us, including me, have had the experience of going to a doctor with something we thought might be serious that ends up being a nothing (thankfully). In these instances, I’ve never had the doctor say I wasted his or her time. Rather, they say it’s better to be safe than sorry. The church is supposed to be like a spiritual hospital. It is glad to see patients. Even patients in serious spiritual condition. Maybe these are even our favorite patients, because we don’t want to see anyone die spiritually, just like the hospitals don’t want to see anyone die physically. Hospital exist to treat people who are sick. And churches exist to treat people who are spiritually sick. If one presents himself or herself to a doctor and says, “I’m totally healthy,” the doctor won’t be able to do anything for them. It is only when we present ourselves to the doctor and disclose our illness, or let the doctor examine us for illness that we can be healed. Similarly, if we present ourselves to Christ as being “sinless”, then there is nothing that Christ or the Church is going to be able to do for us. It is only when we present ourselves in repentance, or with need for spiritual healing or spiritual examination that the Church can minister to us.

God has called each of us, even in our sinfulness. God does not expect us to approach without sin, because He knows that is impossible. It is the broken and humble heart that God will accept as a sacrifice. Matthew walked away from a career of dishonesty to become one of Jesus’ twelve Apostles. God called Matthew, and like manner, He calls each of us, to step away from sinful ways and to turn to Him in repentance that leads to joy, purpose, and ultimately salvation.

Have mercy on me, O God. Have mercy on me.
I have sinned, O Savior, have mercy on me. Awaken my mind and turn me back; accept me in repentance and take pity on me as I cry: I have sinned against You, save me; I have done evil, have mercy on me.
(Canon of St. Andrew of Crete, Ode Eight, Trans. by Fr. Seraphim Dedes)

God has called each of us. God wants each of us.


Fr. Stavros Akrotirianakis

Fr. Stavros N. Akrotirianakis is the Proistamenos of St. John Greek Orthodox Church in Tampa, FL. Fr. contributes the Prayer Team Ministry, a daily reflection, which began in February 2015. The Prayer Team now has its own dedicated website! Fr. Stavros has produced multiple books, you can view here:


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