9 As Jesus was walking along, he saw a man called Matthew sitting at the tax booth; and he said to him, ‘Follow me.’ And he got up and followed him. 10 And as he sat at dinner in the house, many tax-collectors and sinners came and were sitting with him and his disciples. 11 When the Pharisees saw this, they said to his disciples, ‘Why does your teacher eat with tax-collectors and sinners?’ 12 But when he heard this, he said, ‘Those who are well have no need of a physician, but those who are sick. 13 Go and learn what this means, “I desire mercy, not sacrifice.” For I have come to call not the righteous but sinners.’
Many of us don't see a doctor unless we're visibly sick. We don't see a dentist unless we have a toothache. We don't find a therapist unless we feel batshit crazy (I'm saying this as someone diagnosed with chronic depression—I'm allowed to say crazy because that's how I feel many days). And in the case of Jesus, we don't look for a savior unless we're aware of our need to be saved—saved both from something and for something. As usual, the Pharisees don't get it. Once again, they see Jesus doing what Jesus does best—loving people where they are—and it doesn't make sense to them.
Jesus has a thing for outcasts. Throughout the gospels, we see him drawn to and connecting with the types of people who were often left stranded in society, isolated and abandoned. In today's story, it's Matthew, the tax collector. In today's culture, Matthew could be a high-ranking CEO, an IRS auditor, a crack dealer, a sex worker, a queer person. In liberal circles, he would be the conservative, and in conservative circles, he could be the liberal. Among atheists, he could be the Christian, and among Christians, he could be the Muslim. In Israel he'd be the Palestinian. In the white suburbs of Chicago, he could be the young African-American man. You get the picture, right? Matthew is unwanted and most likely unloved, or at least in the eyes of his peers, unloveable.
It's interesting that Matthew doesn't give us more of his own story here (presuming that the tax collector Matthew in this passage is the author of the Gospel that shares the same name). He's a blip in his own story of Jesus. Maybe this is because of some internalized shame and remorse he feels for his own past. Maybe he wanted to make sure the focus was on the character of Jesus instead of it being on him as the writer. Yet despite his past, he musters up the courage to share a piece of his story. It's important for us to know that Jesus called him, the scum of the earth, the lowest of the low. It's important because it tells us a bit about who Jesus is and how Jesus operates in his world, in his context.
Jesus never sits at the cool kids table. He doesn't bump fists with the religious and social elite (as much as he butts heads with them). He goes straight for the pimple-faced kid sitting in the corner with his brown bag lunch and his head held low. He goes straight for the bench holding the girl who wears long sleeves to cover up the scars that are evidence of years of self-injury. He stands watch outside the bathroom where his trans friend has just gone into, making sure she doesn't get bullied by her cisgendered peers. He walks in with the first person of color to be ushered into a racially integrated school.
He stands with the outcast. He loves the unloveable. He embraces the untouchable. This is how Jesus works. This is who Jesus is. And even if we only hear a sentence from each of these people about their encounter with Love Incarnate, Matthew is telling us that even a single sentence is enough. When we recognize Jesus standing with the outcast, we're faced with a choice. There's a line drawn in the sand, and we can either stand on the side with the powerful and the privileged, or we can stand on the side with the weak, the vulnerable, the voiceless, and the powerless. But there is to be no question of which side Jesus stands on. In a battle of power, Jesus sides with the underdog.
One day, there won't be a line in the sand. There won't be powerful and powerless. There won't be loved and unloved, touched and untouchable. This doesn't mean there won't be diversity. It means the exact opposite. It means that rather than striving towards sameness, towards boring, mundane uniformity, we will recognize that difference is a beautiful thing, something to be cherished instead of exploited. We'll find ourselves wanting to be with the outcasts, not because it's hip or cool, but because it's right. Because it's where love finds its way out of the rock and into the world as an ever-flowing, unceasing stream. We'll stand with the outcasts because we will have realized that it's where we belong. We'll stand with the outcasts because we're them, and they're us.