Mat 9:9 And when Jesus passed on from thence, he saw a man sitting in the custom house, named Matthew; and he saith to him: Follow me. And he arose up and followed him.
“When Jesus passed on from thence,” i.e., where He cured the paralytic, towards the sea side, as St. Mark states (2:13).
“Sitting in the custom-house.” Most likely, a table or booth where the tolls for merchandize, exports and imports, were received. This was, likely, on the borders of the lake, on which the boats plied hither and thither.
“Named Matthew.” The other Evangelists, Mark (2:14), Luke (5:27), call him “Levi,” out of consideration for St. Matthew, “Levi” being a name less known in connexion with the odious occupation of publican or tax gatherer. He calls himself, out of humility, “Matthew,” the name by which he was more commonly known as publican. Hence, from the same feeling of humility, in giving the name of the Apostles, he calls himself “Matthew the publican” (10:3). He may have had both names, a thing not unusual among the Jews; or, perhaps, his name, before his call, was Levi, and our Lord may have given him that of Matthew. Under this latter name, he was more commonly known since his call to the Apostleship.
“And He said to him: Follow me.” Shows the goodness and clemency of our Redeemer, who, having called poor ignorant fishermen already, now disdains not to call one whose profession was a by-word of reproach among the Jews.
“Followed Him,” promptly obeyed the Divine call, having either witnessed or heard of the many splendid and undoubted miracles performed by our Divine Redeemer. St. Jerome (hic) remarks also, that a certain effulgence and majesty of occult divinity shone in the face of our Redeemer, capable of attracting all who came in contact with Him, as the magnet attracts steel.
Mat 9:10 And it came to pass as he was sitting at meat in the house, behold many publicans and sinners came, and sat down with Jesus and his disciples.
“In the house,” Matthew’s house (Mark 2; Luke 5:29). The Evangelist does not expressly declare this, out of a feeling of humility, as it was calculated to exalt him, to have the privilege of entertaining our Lord at his house, hence he expressly refers to what tended to lower him, viz., the occupation of “publican” (verse 9). “Many publicans.” Matthew’s former associates. “Sinners.” Either Jews who led loose, dissolute lives, regardless of the law of Moses, and lived after Gentile fashion, and possibly were excommunicated and cast out of the synagogue; or Pagans, who may have been stopping at Capharnaum. These “came,” either at Matthew’s invitation, or of their own accord, attracted by our Lord’s power, and influenced by Matthew’s example.
“And sat down with Jesus,” &c. St. Mark (2:15), speaking of our Lord’s disciples, adds, “for they were many, who also followed Him,” to the house of Matthew. St. Luke, speaking of St. Matthew, says (v. 28) “And leaving all things, he rose up and followed Him.” How he could have done this consistently with his having entertained our Lord afterwards, as is recorded here, at his house, is explained differently by different commentators. Some say, “leaving all,” must be said by anticipation, of the period, when, having settled his affairs, shortly after his call, he gave up all. In the interim, he entertained our Lord at his house. Others understand it of his having, at once, given up all his occupations, as publican, and having, in heart and mind, renounced promptly all his possessions; and having been granted some time by our Lord, to arrange his temporal affairs, he in the meantime received our Lord, at the banquet referred to here.
Mat 9:11 And the Pharisees seeing it, said to his disciples: Why doth your master eat with publicans and sinners?
“The Pharisees seeing it,” becoming aware of it. For, it is clear, they themselves were not present. “Said to His disciples,” took some opportunity of speaking. not to our Lord Himself, whose crushing replies and animadversions they dreaded; but, “to His disciples,” whom they believed to be incapable of repelling the charge made. They were actuated by envy and malevolence; and hence, instead of remonstrating with our Lord Himself, which they would have done, if charity were their motive, they make His conduct a subject of reproach with His disciples, from the malicious motive of estranging them from Him.
“Why doth your Master?” St. Luke has (5:30), “Why do you eat?” But both Evangelists give a full account of what was said, viz., “Why do you and your Master eat with publicans and sinners?” The Pharisees, from an affectation of superior sanctity, disdained to associate with sinners, thinking that, as they contracted legal defilement by contact with anything unclean, so to touch anything handled by sinners would be a profanation. It was not from any moral feeling of dread, that by associating with sinners they might imitate their wicked morals, and be defiled, as one who touches pitch is defiled thereby; nor from a fear of emboldening them to persevere in their wicked course; but, from a feeling of self-complacent superior sanctity, they refused to associate with sinners. Hence, the reply of our Redeemer in the following verse.
“With publicans and sinners.” “Publican” (in Greek, τελωνης) was, among the Romans, a person who farmed the public revenues. The publicans were usually Roman knights, “the principal men of dignity in their several countries, occupying a middle rank between the senators and the people” (Josephus Antiq. xii. 4). There were two orders of them, the Mancipes, and the Socii. The former, who were generally of the equestrian order, and far superior to the latter, both in rank and character, are referred to in terms of great respect by Cicero (Orat. pro Plancio. 9); he calls them, “Flos equitum Romanorum, ornamentum civitatis, firmamentum Reipublicæ.” Zacheus was probably of this class. He is called by St. Luke, “a prince of the publicans” (19:2). The latter class, or inferior collectors, who were under the others, were regarded, both by Jews and heathens, with aversion and contempt. They were held in particular aversion by the Jews (Matt. 18:17), who had great reluctance in paying taxes to the Romans, and regarded the publicans as the hated instruments of perpetuating subjection to them. And, although the office of publican, if exercised within proper limits, was not of itself sinful (Luke 3:13), still the lower class of publicans, being noted for rapine and extortion, and oppression of the people by illegal exactions, to which they were strongly tempted by a share in the profits resulting from farming the revenues collected, were odious to all, and regarded in the light of robbers. They were excluded among the Jews from the synagogue, public prayers, and the magistracy. (Lightfoot, Hor. Heb.; Matth. 18; Grotius ad Matth. 18) Theocrytus being formerly questioned, said, “Among the beasts of the forest, the most savage were the lion and the bear; and among the beasts of the city, the Publican and Parasite” (Theocrytus apiod Muson.; vide Calmet c. v. Matth.; Kitto, Cyclopædia). To this latter class Matthew belonged, and to this class reference is made here.
Mat 9:12 But Jesus hearing it, said: They that are in health need not a physician, but they that are ill.
“Hearing it,” from His disciples, to whom these malevolent men addressed themselves; or, the words may mean, having come to the knowledge of it from His own infinite omniscience. “Said,” on some befitting opportunity.
“They that are in health, need not a physician,” to effect their cure. They may need him for other purposes; for instance, to preserve their health, and cure their daily infirmities. This is particularly true in the spiritual application of this adage. For, it is owing to the grace of Christ, that we are made just and preserved in justice. “But they that are ill.” Our Redeemer refutes the malevolence of the Pharisees by a common adage. He is the spiritual Physician of souls. The publicans and sinners are spiritually sick; while the Pharisees, in their own opinion, enjoyed spiritual health. Hence, our Redeemer’s mode of acting, far from being liable to censure, was, on the contrary, a subject of praise, since He associated with sinners—without danger of being infected by them, as pitch infects those who touch it, or of encouraging them to persevere in wickedness—for the charitable purpose only of curing them, and from no motive of self-indulgence; and He insinuates that the Pharisees being, in their own estimation, just, needed not Him, as the spiritual Physician of souls, to associate with them. The words, “need not a physician,” convey, that our Redeemer’s sole object in conversing with sinners was, to heal their spiritual maladies.
Mat 9:13 Go then and learn what this meaneth, I will have mercy and not sacrifice. For I am not come to call the just, but sinners.
He next confutes them from the SS. Scriptures, of which they boasted to be perfect masters. He, as it were, sends back to school—to the school of their own law—these learned and boastful doctors. “Go, then, and learn,” not only speculatively, but in practice also, the meaning of the following words: “I will have mercy, and not sacrifice,” a Hebraism, denoting a preference for one thing beyond another. I prefer mercy to sacrifice. Hence, in Osee, it is added, “and the knowledge of God more than holocausts,” thus intimating, it was a preference for one before another, rather than the positive rejection of any that was meant. Hence, the words, “and not sacrifice,” are rather comparatively than absolutely negative. The reading here, “I will have mercy,” is, according to the Septuagint (ελεος θελω), in the present. St. Jerome renders it in Osee (6:6), in the past, “volui misericordiam,” “I desired mercy.” “Mercy” denotes the exercise of beneficence towards those in distress. The relief of our neighbours’ spiritual wants, and the removal of spiritual misery, are the chief works of beneficence. “Sacrifice” embraces the external acts of Divine worship prescribed by God Himself, of which acts sacrifice is the principal; and it was only for external acts of worship the Pharisees had any zeal. In preferring mercy to sacrifice, our Lord speaks of the sacrifices of those who neglected the exercise of mercy, whom He here silently taxes with inhumanity. Not that mercy, which is the exercise of charity towards our neighbour, is more exalted than sacrifice or religion, which is the exercise of charity towards God; but the former is more necessary. God stands not in need of sacrifice, as our neighbour needs mercy. Hence, the man devoid of mercy can never present an acceptable sacrifice. “He does not love his neighbour, whom he sees, how can he love God, whom he sees not?” (1 John 4:20) The words, then, mean: “If you disregard my teaching, go, and learn from yourselves the meaning of the words of the Prophet; and, then, cease to reproach me for the exercise of that mercy, to which God gives a preference before sacrifice, or external worship, which you prize so highly.”
“For I am not come,” &c. In these words is assigned an additional reason why our Redeemer conversed and sat down to meat with sinners, derived from the nature of the office He came to discharge (or, perhaps, it may be, with still greater probability, said that these words are but a more clear exposition and application of the words, v. 12, “they that are in health,” &c. He here calls those “sinners,” whom in v. 12 He termed “sick”). The words mean, “My chief object or purpose in coming into this world was to call sinners to repentance.” “For all have sinned, and do need the glory of God.” (Rom. 3) Although our Lord found on earth some just men on His coming, such as Zachary, Elizabeth (Luke 1), Nathanael, and others; just, however, in virtue of the graces derived from His future merits; and although our Lord came to save them, to render them more perfect, and confirm them in justice, still, He did not come to convert them, which the word, “call,” means. The words, “to penance,” are added in St. Luke (5:31), and they are found in the ordinary Greek of St. Matthew and St. Luke, and although not found in several MSS. versions and Latin Fathers, they are still admitted by several respectable critics.
Some (among the rest St. Chrysostom, Hom. 31; St. Jerome, Matth. 9, &c.), hold, that our Lord ironically alludes to the Pharisees in the word, “Just,” as if He said, I am not come to those who are “just” in their own estimation, and need no Saviour or spiritual physician; since, it would be folly in a physician to approach those who acknowledged not their diseases, and boasted of being well in health. The words may also mean, that such is God’s goodness and mercy, that if there were one hundred men on earth, and only one of them unjust, He would leave the ninety-nine just, and seek the unjust one, and submit to death on his account (Maldonatus). The words, “to penance,” determine the meaning of the passage. They do not determine what our Saviour would do if all were just, whether He would come or not, if there were no sinners to be saved on earth.