After calling Matthew to follow him, Jesus “reclined at the table in the house.” Since Jesus is the guest of honor at a festive meal shared with other tax collectors and “sinners,” the Pharisees question Jesus’s disciples about sharing food with these sorts of people.
In Matthew 9;10 it is simply “the house,” probably referring to Peter’s house, but Mark has “his house,” making it at least possible this occurs at Matthew’s house. Luke 5:29 makes it clear the meal took place at Levi’s house. The usual way of reading this story is Matthew was so overwhelmed with Jesus that he hosted a rich banquet in his home and invited all his friends to come and hear Jesus. In this scenario, Jesus is the guest of honor at a festive meal in the home of a Jewish man who was hated “as greedy, self-serving, and parasitic.” If Matthew intended the reader to understand this as Peter’s house in Capernaum, then Jesus is the host of this meal rather than Matthew. This is significant because Jesus is opening his home to tax-collectors and sinners and sharing his food with them. This is the main reason the Pharisees question the disciples.
What makes these people sinners? In the Law one could be in a state of sinfulness without committing what Christians consider sins. Nolland suggests these are “unsavory types” who life on the edges of respectable society (Matthew, 386). However, if Matthew was indeed a tax-farmer, then he may have earned a reputation “as greedy, self-serving, and parasitic.” Even if he was just a worker in a toll both, he was in constant contact with the Romans and would have been unclean by contact.
Like Zacchaeus in Luke 19, a tax collector meets Jesus, follows him and then Jesus shares a meal with him.
The Pharisees ask about Jesus’s practice of sharing food with sinners (Matthew 9:11). The Pharisees would not enter the house of a tax collector nor share food with him because they are unclean.
In the previous story the scribes questioned Jesus’s authority to forgive sin. Here it is the Pharisees who wonder how Jesus can eat with people who are obviously still in their sins. From Jesus’s perspective, they are not sinful anymore because he has forgiven them. From the perspective of the Pharisees, they are still sinful because they are still tax collectors and other “unsavory types.”
By way of analogy, if a scary looking biker with tattoos and piercings (probably named “Porkchop”) accepts Christ as savior and comes to church for the first time, people might look at him, judge his outer appearance and assume he is still in his sins. Since the Pharisees see Jesus eating with some people and know they are sinners, these people are known by sight at people on the fringe of society. This might be as simple as “oh look, there is Matthew, the tax collector,” or it might be the case the people look like sinners to the proper Pharisee.
Since Jesus seems to be eating with a number of people he is possibly in the courtyard of the house. The little homes in Capernaum would not have formal dining rooms like a Roman villa (or a modern home); even if Matthew was a wealthy tax farmer (which he probably was not), his home would still not be that large. The only way for a crowd to eat together is to gather outdoors.
Perhaps some disciples were not eating with Jesus and were on the fringe of the gathering listening to Jesus. Maybe two or three Pharisees see the gathering and see Jesus as the honored guest among a group of people they consider to be sinners and wonder how Jesus could eat with such people.
The question assumes Jesus would behave like a Pharisee with respect to food traditions. For the Pharisee, contact with an unclean person would communicate that uncleanliness. If the sinner touched the food, then the food itself would be considered unclean. In their defense, they were trying to obey the commands God gave through Moses and were willing to think through every possible situation that might render them unclean. This is no different than Christians asking questions about what God would think of any new situation (can a Christian go to the movies?)
In the ancient world, to share the table with another person made statement about yourself and about your guest. People wanted to share a meal with someone who was at least in the same social circle; to be invited to a meal by an elite citizen was indeed an honor. On the other hand, there is no way an elite citizen would invite people from the lower classes to share a meal with them. A Pharisee would only eat with people they were sure were ceremonially clean, and the people Jesus is eating with are clearly are not even close!
As with the inner thoughts of the scribes in the previous story, Jesus hears what the Pharisees are discussing with his disciples and responds directly to them.