Easter not only gives a new purpose, but it also charts a course for a new way forward—especially with regard to forgiveness of sins. Matthew clustered together several stories of miracles in Matthew 8–9 (three sets of three miracles each). But interrupting those miracle stories are two sections dealing with discipleship. The interruption in Matthew 8 concerned the “would-be” followers (8:18-22). They only thought they could pay the price of discipleship. The interruption in Matthew 9 concerned the calling of the writer himself (Matthew/Levi) and the subsequent party he threw for Jesus and the ensuing controversy that resulted from that party.
During the early days of his Galilean ministry, Jesus delivered his famous Sermon on the Mount (Matthew 5–7). Sometime after that, he came to his own town (Capernaum). Jesus was preaching the Word to a packed house (Mark 2:2) when some men (four to be exact) brought their paralyzed friend to Jesus. Matthew made no mention of the roof demolition to get their friend to Jesus. For Matthew, the more important thing was the friends’ faith in Jesus and the new freedom the paralyzed man could experience.
Jesus spoke words of encouragement and freedom to this man. What could be better than hearing, “Take heart, son; your sins are forgiven” (sent away)? While the man’s companions no doubt wanted healing for their friend, there is no record of their disappointment about this forgiveness declaration. But the teachers of the law had different thoughts. They were convinced Jesus had blasphemed. Jesus saw through their evil thoughts.
To prove he had authority to forgive sins, Jesus performed a miracle on this man’s paralyzed body. One of the many purposes of Jesus’ miracles was to prove he was God’s Son, and, as such, had authority to forgive sins. The man went home in his new freedom of body and soul, and the crowd could do nothing but be amazed and praise God.
A local customs official sat near Capernaum collecting taxes for the Roman government. Perhaps he had even taxed the four fishermen who were now following Jesus (Matthew 4:18-22). Jesus came up to his tax booth and said, “Follow me.” Matthew (“gift of Yahweh”) left the tax booth (remembering to take his pen) and followed Jesus. Matthew found a new occupation.
But he did more than follow Jesus. Matthew threw a party for Jesus (Luke 5:29 says it was a “mega” feast). Of course, the only people who would be invited (or agree to come) to Matthew’s party were fellow tax collectors and sinners. If Jesus had been guilty of blasphemy before, now he was guilty by association. Jesus was too intimate with society’s ragamuffins.
Jesus gave a threefold defense to such criticism. First, he quoted a common proverb of the day: healthy people do not go to the doctor. Two things lie underneath his sarcastic humor—by implication Jesus is the doctor and the presumption of the scribes is that they are well. Second, he quoted a very significant prophetic text (Hosea 6:6—quoted also in Matthew 12:7). Since Matthew’s account of his call is the only one to mention this passage, it probably meant he understood his call to this new occupation as nothing other than the overflow of the mercy (chesed) of God. Finally, Jesus tied the call of Matthew to his mission. He did not come to call the presumptuous righteous but sinners.
We do not know when John the Baptist’s disciples came and asked Jesus this question, but it makes perfect sense in this context. It concerned the forms that religious practices take. Spiritual disciplines demand things like fasting. Jesus seemed to be into feasting. All religious practices will assume some form. But if those forms are not somewhat fluid, they will turn into rigid legalism.
Jesus’ defense took the form of three parables (the bridegroom, the patch, and the wineskin). All three metaphors have eschatological significance (Revelation 21:9-10; 7:14; 19:6-10; Matthew 26:29). A wedding is hardly a place to fast; it is a time to feast. The groom (Jesus) will be taken away (the words indicate a violent taking—a reference to the arrest in Gethsemane?). A new patch on an old garment does not work, and an old wineskin (that has already been stretched because of fermentation) cannot be used a second time or it will burst. The new way forward by Jesus had continuity with past forms but would need new forms to thrive.
Dr. Mark Scott