Today’s Gospel has two parts, each of them significant in its own way.
First of all, it is a ‘vocation’ story.
As he has done before, Jesus calls Matthew (or Levi, in some accounts) to become his disciple, and Matthew obeys promptly. It was strange that Jesus should have called Matthew because the man was a tax collector or ‘publican’, that is, someone who collaborated with the Romans in oppressing his own people by extorting tax money from them. Good Jews, Pharisees among them, dissociated themselves from such as these.
Why does Jesus choose such unlikely people to become his disciples ? When we select candidates for a task, we usually scrutinize their intellectual background and their human qualities. But Jesus thinks differently: it’s not how worthy we are which prompts his decision. Rather it is his decision which makes us worthy! We see this in Matthew: once the Lord chooses him, he doesn’t negotiate or procrastinate, he follows him immediately. And then, in a show of generosity, he gives a farewell banquet to all his old cronies.
This brings us to the second part of the story: Matthew’s banquet and the reactions to it.
As a farewell gesture, Matthew throws a party and invites his old friends. Jesus and his disciples go too. The friends are crooks, as Matthew used to be, and to see Jesus, the good rabbi, mixing about with “people like these” brings frowns of disapproval to the good Pharisees around. “How come your Teacher eats with tax-collectors and sinners ?” How often have we not heard the same ? “Be careful whom you mix about with! Stay away from that kind !” Often, the root of such remarks is not concern, but snobbery.
Jesus takes his critics head on. He quotes the prophet Hosea: “I require mercy, not sacrifice.” The Pharisees prided themselves on their observance of the law, and in doing so, thought no end of themselves and despised others. But God is not deceived. God wants an attitude of understanding and forgiveness from us towards our fellow human beings – “mercy” – rather than our pride in how good we are. A generous and merciful disposition is more important than showing off in making a sacrifice
As Jesus says explicitly, I came to save sinners, not winners. Who would have ever selected Matthew? But Jesus chose him to become an apostle, and later, the first one to write the story of his life.