Like Sheep without a Shepherd – Matthew 9:35-38

Jesus sees the crowds following him and describes as “sheep without a shepherd” (9:35-36). Matthew uses this saying to introduce the Discipleship Discourse (Matthew 10). The application of this passage is difficult since many churches have used “the harvest is plentiful” as a Missions conference theme but few take the instructions in 10:5-15 seriously as a model for doing Christian mission. In addition, Jesus is quite clear this is a limited mission to the Jewish towns and villages of Galilee. He specifically tells them to avoid Gentiles and go only to the lost sheep of the house of Israel.

Sheep without a shepherd

In Mark 6:34 has the “sheep without a shepherd” line to introduce the feeding of the 5000. The mission of the twelve is in Mark 6:6b-13, 30. Luke 10:1-2 uses the harvest to introduce the instructions for the mission of the seventy-two. Matthew has relocated this saying as an introduction to a section on preparing the disciples for their mission to Galilee (Matthew 10).

Jesus has compassion on the crowds. The verb (σπλαγχνίζομαι) refers to a strong feeling of pity or sympathy. The word is related to the noun for viscera, the innermost part of a person. One feels their emotions in their stomach, so the verb becomes a metaphor for deeply felt emotions. In the Gospels, the word is only used for Jesus’s compassion on suffering, with the exception of Matthew 18:23-25 (the master’s compassion on the unmerciful servant), Luke 10:33 (the good Samaritan has compassion in the injured men) and Luke 15:20 (the reaction of the father to the prodigal’s return). In Matthew’s Gospel, Jesus’s compassion is always directed towards physical need (14:14, a healing; 15:32, food for the 4000; 20:34, a blind man)

Since they are like sheep without a shepherd, the people are “harassed and helpless.” In the context, the phrase is an apt description of a lost sheep. Sheep are not well equipped to care for themselves and those who wander off from the flock becomes prey.

Harassed (σκύλλω) has the sense of troubling or annoying someone (in Luke 8:49, “do not trouble the teacher”). But there is violence implied by the word, it is sometimes used literally for “flay” or “skin” and in the passive voice it can refer to being torn or lacerated (BrillDAG).  “Helpless” (perf pass ptcp from ῥιπτέω), literally to be thrown down, the perfect passive participle is used for throwing oneself down on the ground, prostrating oneself.  The verb is used for exposing an unwanted infant (BDAG). The verb does not necessary imply violence, although “discarded” captures the thought, the people are tossed aside as if they have no value (Brown and Roberts, Matthew, 97).

Who is harassing the people? It is possible this harassment refers to general life under the Romans, the metaphor of a “sheep without a shepherd” makes this an allusion to the leadership of Israel. The harassed and helpless people are like “sheep without a shepherd,” a phrase which evokes the prophetic critique of the leaders of Israel and Judah.

The phrase may be drawn from Numbers 27:17. In that context, Moses realizes that when he dies there will be no one to lead Israel in the wilderness, they will be like sheep scattered in the wilderness without a shepherd. The Lord then appoints Joshua, a man with the spirit of leadership, to succeed Moses.

In Matthew, Jesus (the new Moses) appoints his twelve disciples to continue his mission throughout Galilee. As the chapter develops, this call to discipleship extends beyond the immediate context of Matthew 10 to disciples at the time the Gospel was written.

There are several passages in the Old Testament describing Israel’s leaders as “bad shepherds.” In Ezekiel 34 the shepherds do not take care of their flock and they are scattered as if they have no shepherd (34:5). The solution is to appoint a new, good shepherd who will rescue the sheep from the wild animals who harass them and care for them. Ezekiel is looking forward to an eschatological shepherd-king who will rule of Israel in peace and prosperity (34:25-31). In Micah 3 the leaders of Israel and Judah are like shepherds who butcher their flock and eat them (3:1-3), rather than care for them as they should (3:4-12). Perhaps most significant is Jeremiah 50:6, God’s people are lost sheep because their leaders have led them astray and their enemies have devoured them.

The crowds following Jesus are oppressed and downtrodden because they do not have good shepherds. In Matthew 10 Jesus will send out his chosen twelve disciples on a mission to the lost sheep of the house of Israel.  There is nothing wrong with the application of this passage made in Missions conferences, we ought to pray to God for him to send workers into the fields ripe for harvest. But in Matthew, that “mission field” is specifically the villages in the region of Galilee.

Jesus Casts out a Mute Spirit – Matthew 9:32-34

Matthew 9:32-34 briefly narrates a second miracle, Jesus helps a demon oppressed man (9:32). Davies and Allison call this an “exceedingly concise and comparatively unremarkable pronouncement story” (Matthew, 2:138). The miracle is not point of this short paragraph, but the contrasting reaction to Jesus by the crowd and the Pharisees.

Jesus drives out demons

In fact, there is not much to the story and the substance of the story is repeated in 12:22-23. When Jesus heals a demon oppressed deaf-mute, the people are amazed and wonder if Jesus is the son of David. The importance is in the parallel with the two blind men in the previous story. The blind and the deaf will see and hear in the coming eschatological age. Deafness and the inability to speak is associated with demonic oppression. Jesus does not cure the deafness but casts out the demon which is preventing the man from hearing and speaking.

More important than the miracle itself is the reactions to Jesus set up the conflict stories in Matthew 11-12. The crowds marveled, nothing like this has ever happened in Israel.

Since this is a summary statement, the reaction of the people refers to all of the miracles collected in these two chapters, just as they were amazed at the end of the Sermon on the Mount. Because Jesus taught with authority the people were amazed (7:28-29). Now Jesus has demonstrated his authority of creation, sickness, sin, demons and even death, so the people once again react with amazement.

Matthew’s point is  the miracles Jesus did go beyond the miracles of Elijah or Elisha because he is the expected, messianic Son of David. In fact, all of the stories collected in Matthew 8-9 support this claim.

The Pharisees disagree: Jesus is casting out demons by the power of the prince of demons. Just as the reaction of the crowd sums up chapters 8-9, the reaction of the Pharisees anticipates much of what will happen in chapters 10-12. In 10:25 Jesus says “If they have called the master of the house Beelzebul, how much more will they malign those of his household.”

In Second Temple Judaism, Beelzebul was the prince or ruler of demons, see Testament of Solomon 3:1-6.

T. Solomon 3:6 Then I interrogated him and said, “Tell me, who are you?” The demon said, “I am Beelzeboul, the ruler of the demons.” I demanded that without interruption he sit next to me and explain the manifestations of the demons. Then he promised to bring to me all the unclean spirits bound. Again, I glorified the God of heaven and earth, continually giving thanks to him.

In 2 Kings 1:2 Baal-zebub (Beelzebul in the LXX) is the god of Ekron. Baal means lord, zebub may mean “flies,” so the name may refer to the “Lord of the Flies.” It is possible the name means “lord of dung), zebel can mean dung, as in the re-spelling of the name Jezebel (Albright says this is rejected by any competent scholar). Others suggest zbl is a prince, so the name would mean “baal the prince” (Theodore J. Lewis, “Beelzebul,” ABD:1:639). In any case, the name refers to a powerful enemy of God and is more or less equivalent to Satan.

This line is a summary of the response to Jesus Matthew will develop over the next three chapters, leading to the decisive break between Jesus and the Pharisees and the beginning of the use of parables in Matthew 13.

The Son of David Heals the Blind – Matthew 9:27-31

In Matthew 8-9 Jesus demonstrated his authority over creation, demons, sin and sickness, and even over the power of death. As people see Jesus’s self-revelation, they have to make some kind of a decision: who is Jesus? Two blind men in Matthew 9:27-31 declare he is the Son of David and “spread his fame” and the crowd marvels. Yet the Pharisees are not yest convinced he is the Messiah and begin to accuse him of being in league with the devil himself (Matthew 9:34).

Christ heals two blind men

Two blind men call on Jesus as the Son of David.  Why do they call Jesus the “son of David”? Matthew told us Jesus was the son of David in the very first line of the book. Starting in 9:27, the reader learns this is not merely descent in the line of David, but the Son of David who will rule as king in the eschatological kingdom (2 Sam 7:11-16). From this point on in Matthew, Jesus is called the “Son of David” several more times (12:23; 15:22; 20:30-31; 22:42). The first century B.C. text Psalms of Solomon describes the messiah as the son of David:

Psalms of Solomon 17:21 See, Lord, and raise up for them their king, the son of David, to rule over your servant Israel in the time known to you, O God.

According to Isaiah 35:5-6, the messiah would open the eyes of the blind and the ear of the deaf (cf., Isa 29:18; 42:7-16). The opening and closing of the eyes and ears is an important theme Isaiah 6, a text Jesus will pick up in Matthew 12 in response to the Pharisees who accuse him of casting out demons by the power of Beelzebub.

Isaiah 35:5–6 (ESV) Then the eyes of the blind shall be opened, and the ears of the deaf unstopped; 6 then shall the lame man leap like a deer, and the tongue of the mute sing for joy. For waters break forth in the wilderness, and streams in the desert.

When Jesus answers the disciples of John the Baptist in Matthew 11:5: “the blind receive their sight and the lame walk, lepers are cleansed and the deaf hear, and the dead are raised up, and the poor have good news preached to them.”

Rather than asking to be healed, the blind men ask Jesus to have mercy on them. Mercy (ἐλεέω) refers to having compassion for someone in need or to feel pity for them. This is usually expressed in a concrete action, such as almsgiving (the cognate noun ἐλεημοσύνη). In verse 27 the two blind men do not ask Jesus to heal them, but to have mercy. Since they are blind, they cannot take care of themselves and were likely reduced to begging. It is entirely possible these men call on Jesus for alms, some tangible gift of mercy rather than actual healing.

Blindness is associated with the judgment of God on sin in the Old Testament. For example, the men of Sodom are struck blind by the angels (Gen 19:11). In Exodus 4:11, in response to Moses complaint that he cannot speak, God himself says “Then the Lord said to him, “Who has made man’s mouth? Who makes him mute, or deaf, or seeing, or blind? Is it not I, the Lord?”

Leviticus 21:20 includes blindness in a list of illnesses that prevent a person from going up to the temple to worship.  David prohibits the blind from entering the sanctuary (2 Sam 5:8). In the first century B.C., the coming messianic age will prohibit the blind, deaf and lame from participation in the final battle (1QSa 2:3-11; 1QM 7:4-5).

Jesus asks the men if they believe he is able to do this, and they express faith. This is the only place in Matthew where Jesus asks a person if they believe before they are healed.

Jesus touches their eyes. For most healings, Jesus does not need to touch the person, but for restoring sight he often touches the eyes (the part of the body that needs to be healed). This section of began with Jesus touching a leper (8:3), he touched Peter’s mother-in-law’s hand (8:15) and the dead girl (9:25).

Jesus gives them a “stern warning”: see that knows one knows about it. Like the warning to the leper at the beginning of the section (8:4), Jesus warns the men not to talk about this miracle. Why does Jesus warn them in this way?

Is Jesus frustrated with the blind men? The verb ἐμβριμάομαι is sometimes an expression of anger or displeasure (BDAG), or even a sever scolding (BrillDAG). It has the connotation of indignation. The word is used for the attitude of the disciple objects to the woman using the expensive perfume to anoint Jesus’s feet (Mark 14:5). But this is also the word John used to describe Jesus’s emotions when he arrived at Lazarus’s tomb (John 11:38, but there is the possibility of anger or frustration).

As usual, the formerly blind men disregard Jesus’s command to be silent and “spread his fame throughout that district.” There is no way to contain the news that the son of David restored their sight!

That Jesus’s fame spreads throughout the region recalls Matthew’s summary statement in 4:24. The result is larger crowds seeking healing. It is not unlikely Jesus asks the healed men to stay silent so that the crowds do not get out of control. The large crowds draw the attention of Pharisees and other Jewish leaders who see Jesus as a messianic movement.

Jesus Raises the Dead – Matthew 9:18-26

In Matthew 9:18-26 Jesus raises a young girl from the dead and heals a woman with a flow of blood. These miracle stories immediately follow Jesus’s response to the Pharisees and Disciples of John who question his practice of eating with “sinners” like the tax collector Matthew. In fact, these two miracles illustrate Jesus’s teaching that it is not the time for mourning, but celebrating.

Raising Jairus's Daughter (Ilya Repin; 1871)

As expected, Matthew greatly reduces Mark 5:21-43. Luke 8:40-56 is also shorter than Mark, but many of the details dropped in Matthew remain. The child is dying in Mark 5:23, but in Matthew 9:18 she has just died. Matthew drops the name of the man and simplifies his title. With respect to the woman, Matthew reduces the description by omitting what she had spent on doctors. She does not touch Jesus, he speaks to her when he sees her. This allows Matthew to omit the troubling line about Jesus feeling his power go out if him and the question “who touched me?” Since the daughter is already dead, no one tells the man his daughter just died, and mourners are reduced. He does not take Peter, James and John into the room with him, nor does he speak to the girl (the Aramaic words are dropped) and he does not give strict orders not to talk about the miracle or tell her parents to give her something to eat. Mark reports the girl is twelve years old; Luke includes this detail but moves it to the request for healing.

John Nolland thinks this is the first of three miracles illustrating the three metaphors in the previous section (Matthew, 394). Jesus does not mourn at funerals; he raises the dead (taking the two women in 9:18-26 as both dead women). The next two (healing the blind and casting out a demon) are less clearly connected to the patch and new wine metaphors.

Going back to 9:6, Jesus healed the paralyzed man so that the teachers of the Law would know he has authority to forgive sin. This is followed by calling Matthew as a disciple and sharing a meal in Matthew’s home. That meal generates two more reactions, first from the Pharisees and then from the disciples of John. To the Pharisees Jesus says, “I did not come to call the righteous, but sinners” and to the disciples of John he response with three metaphors (a bridegroom, patched clothing, and new wine in old wineskins).

In Matthew 9:18-19, A man asks Jesus to raise his daughter. The man is identified as a ruler (ἄρχων), in Mark 5:23 he is a synagogue ruler (ἀρχισυνάγωγος in Mark, ἄρχων τῆς συναγωγῆς in Luke). In Mark and Luke his name is given as Jarius.

A synagogue ruler is the person in charge of the daily operation of a synagogue. He is not a priest or a rabbi. In Matthew, Jesus has not left Capernaum (8:5 he enters Capernaum and in 8:14 he went to Peter’s house and he is in “the house” in 9:1 where he forgives the paralytic’s sin), so the man is in charge of the synagogue in Capernaum. Undoubtedly this leader knew Jesus and perhaps witnessed his healing of the man with the withered hand (Mark 3:1-6). He would certainly have known Jesus’s reputation as a healer and exercised.

In this case it is remarkable because the man is the leader of the synagogue, usually the religious establishment is somehow against Jesus. It is possible however the ruler of the synagogue in Capernaum was not part of the religious aristocracy or a Pharisee. Think of him as a custodian of a small country church. It is unlikely denominational leaders will know hm at all. This may explain Matthew’s reduction of his title from synagogue leader to just a leader, with no reference to the synagogue. Although an archon could be a lord or prince, it can refer to anyone who has some administrative authority.

The man knelt before Jesus and says his daughter has just died. He expresses faith that if Jesus is able to lay his hand upon her, she will live. Kneeling (προσκυνέω) is often associated with worship. In Matthew the verb appears 13 times, three times in the story of the wise men, who worship Jesus as a child; twice in the temptation story. In 14:33 the disciples worship Jesus after he walks on water and calms the sea. The word appears twice in Matthew 28:9, 17 for people who realize Jesus has been raised from the dead and they worship him.  In every other case Matthew uses the word to describe someone who coming to Jesus with a special request (healing, in 9:2, 9:18; a servant in a parable, 18:26; James and John’s mother, 20:20).

The man expresses remarkable faith. In Matthew, the people who express faith in Jesus are usually outsiders (lepers, centurions, unclean women). This is another hint the man is not from a high social status.

By the time Jesus arrives at the ruler’s home, the professional mourners have already arrived: flute players and the crowd making a commotion (Matthew 9:23-26). The verb θορυβέω refers to making a fuss, shouting or other chaotic activity. The place is in an uproar!

As the leader of the synagogue, he would have been expected to hire several professional mourners to wail and sing appropriate laments. Matthew mentions flute players (αὐλητής), this refers to reed-flutes typically used for mourning the dead.

Jeremiah 48:36 describes the mournful sound of flutes played for the dead. Josephus mentions professional mourners with flutes or pipes: “a great many hired mourners, with their pipes, who should begin the melancholy ditties for them” (JW 3.437). Rabbi Judah said, “Even the poorest man in Israel should not hire fewer than two flutes and one professional wailing woman” (m.Ketuboth 4:4).

The mourners mock Jesus when he tells them she is not dead, but only sleeping (v. 24). These mourners know their business, and the girl is clearly dead. When Jesus declares that she is not dead but rather only sleeping these mourners laugh at Jesus!  Jesus is telling them their behavior is not appropriate because she is not dead (like a mourner at a wedding in 9:15).

The resurrection is simple: Jesus takes the girl’s hand and she got up (v. 25). Mark includes the Aramaic phrase Talitha cumi, meaning “little girl, rise up.” Since the Pharisees suspect Jesus is casting out demons by the power of the Devil (Matt 9:34), the Aramaic could have been dropped so that Jesus does not appear to be using a “magic word.”

As with other miracles in Matthew 8-9, it is impossible to keep this quiet. News spread throughout the region that Jesus had raised a girl form the dead.

What Did Jesus Mean by “Old and New Wineskins”? – Matthew 9:16-17

Jesus is the guest of honor at a festive meal at Matthew’s home and he shares food with tax collectors and “sinners.” The Pharisees question his choice of table partners (Matt 9:10-11) and John the Baptist’s disciples question him on the practice of fasting (Matt 9:14). In response to the question about fasting, Jesus offers three analogies explaining his practice of sharing food with “sinners.”

The first analogy is that Jesus is like a bridegroom and fasting is inappropriate at a wedding. The second and third analogies, patching cloth, old and new wineskin, have a slightly different nuance. Putting new, still fermenting wine in an old dried out leather wine skin will destroy both the skin and the wine. “The fermenting wine was stored either in earthenware jugs that could hold up to ten gallons or in leather skins” (Donahue, 108; here is a photograph by Ferrill Jenkins of a Bedouin skin for churning). If the new wine is placed an old skin, then the skins would naturally burst.

Likewise, patching an old cloak with a new piece of cloth that has not been preshrunk will likely result in tearing, and perhaps ruining the old cloak. It is inappropriate for a person to patch clothing or store wine in these ways, the result will ruin the clothing, the wine and the wineskin. Likewise, one who mourns at a wedding celebration ruins the celebration.

What is the old and new in these analogies? What is the old thing that has been replaced by a new thing?  

The new wineskins saying has often been taken to mean that Christianity is superior to Judaism and will replace it. For example, R. C. Sproul says “The bridegroom in the Old Testament is God and the bride is Israel. But in the New Testament, the bridegroom is the Son of God and the bride is His church” (Mark, 47). This supersessionist reading is not what Jesus is saying.

First, the contrast is not between Jesus and the Pharisees. The disciples of John the Baptist are also questioning Jesus on fasting. The point of the metaphor is not replacement of old things with new, but rather appropriate behavior when the bridegroom is present (Gundry, Mark, 138).

Second, the image of new wine is suggested by the context of a feast at the beginning of a new age. When Hosea describes the restoration of the marriage of Israel, the wife is given vineyards (2:16-17 [ET14-15]) and the Lord will cause the earth to produce grain and תִּירוֹש, “new wine.” New wine is associated with the eschatological age in Joel 2:24 and is the wine served in the messianic banquet in 1QSa.The noun תִּירוֹש was used in 1QSa because this is the wine set aside for the priests in the first fruits offering (for the details, see Long, Jesus the Bridegroom, 160).

Third, in both metaphors everything is ruined, both the old and the new. It is not the case that new wine is somehow preserved when it bursts the old wineskin. It to spills all over the ground in this ruined! The clothing is ruined when it is inappropriately patched. If this is an allegorical description of the state of the church during Matthew’s day, then it is difficult to see how the new wine of the Christian church has destroyed the old Jewish wineskin yet somehow was preserved.

In summary, in the bridegroom saying in Matthew 9:16-17 Jesus describes his practice of open fellowship as like a wedding banquet and himself the bridegroom. Jesus emphasizes the joy of feasting in contrast to gloom of fasting based the New Covenant (Jer 33:11). The people participating in this joyous meal are celebrating the restoration of Israel’s marriage at the end of the Exile (Jesus the Bridegroom,197).

Why Does Jesus Call Himself a Bridegroom? – Matthew 9:15

In response to a question from the disciples of John the Baptist, Jesus explains why he does not fast by comparing himself to a bridegroom and his ministry to a wedding banquet. Later in this passage he will use the metaphor of patched clothing and new wine in old wineskins. But here I want to focus on the first metaphor, that Jesus is like a bridegroom.

wedding feast of the Lamb

The first analogy for Jesus’s ministry is a wedding celebration. Later in Matthew Jesus will say the Kingdom of Heaven is like a king who makes a wedding banquet for his son, comparing the invitation to come to a wedding celebration to his invitation to the Jews to follow him and celebrate the presence of the Kingdom (Matt 22:1-12). Another parable uses the long delay of the arrival of the bridegroom as a warning to keep alert before the return of Jesus (Matt 25:1-14). Here in Matthew 9, Jesus compares himself to the bridegroom and the people he is currently celebrate with are the guests at a meal which is in some ways like a wedding banquet.

Wedding banquets in the first century were the opposite of a fast. A family might invite the whole village to a festive meal with plenty of food, music, dancing and wine. Like the celebration in the parable of the Prodigal Son, when a father gave a wedding banquet, he would provide food and drink for the community, perhaps even celebrating for seven days. Consider the amount of wine consumed at the wedding at Cana (John 2).

The Old Testament often uses a marriage metaphor to describe God’s relationship with his people. Beginning with Hosea, this marriage ended in separation or divorce because of the infidelity of the wife, Israel. The eschatological age will be a time when the marriage between God and Israel will be renewed. The unfaithful wife will be restored to her former position because her sins have been forgiven and the marriage covenant has been renewed.

The marriage ended in disaster because Israel was an unfaithful spouse. But in the eschatological age, God will restore Israel to her former position and create a new covenant with them. God in fact does a miracle by restoring the faithless bride to her virgin state and re-wedding her in the coming age. It is therefore not implausible that Jesus stands in this prophetic tradition when describes the eschatological age as a wedding celebration and himself as the bridegroom.

The book of Revelation picks up the theme of the eschatological age as a banquet, albeit the “great supper of God” is the slaughter of the nations (19:17-19, cf., Ezek 38-39). Revelation 21:1-4 the New Jerusalem is described as “a beautiful bride fully dressed for her husband.”

If Jesus is the like a bridegroom, then his ministry is like a wedding celebration. If this is the case, then it is inappropriate to fast. Commenting on the Markan parallel, Anderson argues Jesus is merely making a contrast between his disciples (who are feasting) and the disciples of John (who are fasting) (Mark, 107).  Cranfield suggests the disciples of John the Baptist are fasting because of the recent death of John. This would explain the contrast between wedding and funeral imagery in the saying without assigning the saying to the later church (Mark, 111).

But as Gundry comments, this trivializes the issue since the main problem is regular fasts, not an occasional fast in at the time of a death (Mark, 135). Far more can be said about the background to the bridegroom metaphor (this was my PhD topic, see the right sidebar for a link to my book on the topic). In Matthew 9,

The people participating in this joyous meal are celebrating the restoration of Israel’s marriage at the end of the Exile (Jesus the Bridegroom,197).

Why Doesn’t Jesus Fast? – Matthew 9:14

After Jesus called the tax collector Matthew to follow him, Matthew hosted a meal in honor of Jesus (Matt 9:10-11). Jesus is eating with people the Pharisees considered “sinners,” prompting a Pharisee to ask about Jesus’s practice of eating with potentially unclean people (Matt 9:11-13). But this meal prompts a second question from some of John the Baptist’s disciples. The meal seems to have fallen on a day the Pharisees and John’s disciples fasted, yet Jesus and his disciples are feasting!

Jesus Feasting with Sinners

The story appears in Mark 2:18-22 and Luke 5:33-37. One significant difference in Matthew is the question comes from the disciples of John; in Mark it comes from “some people” after the observation that the Pharisees and disciples of John were fasting. Unlike Mark, Matthew does not mention both John’s disciples and the Pharisees were fasting.

John’s disciples ask about the common spiritual practice of fasting. Other than the Day of Atonement, the Law does not mention required fast days. Fasting was associated with mourning for the dead. David fasting after his son died (2 Sam 12:17-23). Fasting is often associated with prayer. Daniel fasts while praying and seeking the Lord’s will (6:18; 9:3; 10:1-3;  cf., Neh 1:4-10). Fasting and prayer are often linked in the Psalms (35:13; 109:21-24). Fasting is often associated with repentance. In Jonah 3:4-9 the people of Nineveh fast after hearing Jonah’s announcement of God’s judgment. In Esther the Jews fast when they hear of Haman’s threats (4:3) and then feast in celebration of God saving the people from Haman (9:25-32).

These reasons for fasting are also found in the literature of the Second Temple period. For example, Tobit 12:8 associates fasting and prayer (although almsgiving is better). In The Testament of Joseph 3.4-6 Joseph claims to have fasted for seven years when his master was gone and he needed strength to resist Potiphar’s wife.

Tobit 12:8 Prayer with fasting is good, but better than both is almsgiving with righteousness.

Testament of Joseph 3.4 For those seven years I fasted, and yet seemed to the Egyptians like someone who was living luxuriously, for those who fast for the sake of God receive graciousness of countenance.5 If my master was absent, I drank no wine; for three-day periods I would take no food but give it to the poor and the ill. 6 I would awaken early and pray to the Lord, weeping over the Egyptian woman of Memphis because she annoyed me exceedingly and relentlessly.

Based on Daniel’s fasting, some Second Temple texts imply fasting is necessary before an encounter with God. For example, in the Apocalypse of Abraham 9.7-10 Abraham is told to abstain from food cooked by fire and wine and from anointing himself for 40 days. After this period God will reveal what judgments are coming on the evil of the human race.

By the first century the Jewish practice of fasting was well-known. “Fasting like a Jew” was proverbial in the Roman world of the first century (Suet. Aug. 76). The Pharisees fasted on Mondays and Thursdays. Didache 8:1commands Christians to fast on Wednesdays and Fridays to avoid looking like the hypocrites, the Pharisees. In Matthew 23 Jesus calls the Pharisees hypocrites for many of their practices, although he does not mention fasting. In Luke 18:12 the Pharisee boasts of his righteous practice of fasting twice a week.

Although he fasted for forty days prior to his public ministry, Jesus seems to distance himself frequent fasting even though the practice was considered a pious spiritual practice in the Judaism of his day. This is consistent with his practice of the Sabbath. He certainly kept the Sabbath but challenged the traditions of the Pharisees. With respect to fasting, undoubtedly, he would have fasted on the Day of Atonement. But it does not appear he would have fasted twice a week like the Pharisees.

Early Jewish Christianity continued to practice fasting as a spiritual discipline despite the fact Jesus did not teach his disciples to fast (Didache 8:). The bridegroom saying in Matthew 9:15 explains why Jesus’s disciples returned to fasting after the resurrection.

Jesus’s answer does not address the issue of Christian fasting or feasting. The Sermon on the Mount assumes his followers will fast at times, but he re-defines how they ought to practice the spiritual discipline (Matt 6:16-18).


Bibliography: David Seal and Kelly A. Whitcomb, “Fasting,” ed. John D. Barry et al., The Lexham Bible Dictionary (Bellingham, WA: Lexham Press, 2016); John Muddiman, “Fast, Fasting,” ed. David Noel Freedman, The Anchor Bible Dictionary (New York: Doubleday, 1992), 2:774-76.

Who are the Sinners Who Eat with Jesus? – Matthew 9:10

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.

Jesus Eating with Sinners

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.

Jesus Calls Matthew to Follow Him – Matthew 9:9

Matthew is sitting at a tax booth, and he seems to be friends with other tax collectors. A τελώνιον (telōnion) refers to a tax office, or as BDAG suggests, “toll-collection operation.” In Matthew 10:3 he is called a tax-collector (τελώνης, telōnēs).

Matthew icon

The noun does not refer to an employee of a Roman equivalent to the IRS, but rather to a “tax-farmer.” A person bids on a contract to collect taxes in a particular area, then collect whatever they could from the people and pays the Romans what he bid and pockets the rest. “The prevailing system of tax collection afforded a collector many opportunities to exercise greed and unfairness. Hence tax collectors were particularly hated and despised as a class” (s.v. τελώνης, BDAG).

In a similar situation, Zacchaeus is a tax collector and is described by those who grumbled against Jesus as a “sinner.” Zacchaeus confessed to defrauding people and promised to make restitution (Luke 19:1-10).

Matthew may not have been a tax farmer, but rather an employee in a tax office. His role is not clear, it could be something innocent (an account, a counter), or something more blame-worth (an enforcer?). In either case, anyone working for the Romans would be suspicious, perhaps even disloyalty to Jewish nationalism.

Tax collectors are never particularly popular in any society, but Jews who worked for the Romans to collect taxes and tolls were considered to be traitors since they collected money for the occupying forces. Not all taxes are bad (people tend to like nice roads and national parks, for example). Roman taxes did pay for some level of stability in the region and provided valuable infrastructure all people enjoyed. But because of the practice of tax-farming, tax collectors “were despised as greedy, self-serving, and parasitic” (Hagner, Matthew, 238).

However, like Americans who “do not want their taxes to pay for…” whatever they do not like politically, the Jewish people assumed their money was being rounded up and sent to Rome to pay for pagan temples or other sinful activities.

In addition to the political aspects of tax collecting for the Romans, a tax collector would be in constant contact with gentiles and therefore in a state of ceremonial uncleanliness. Like the leper (8:1), the centurion (8:5-13), (perhaps) Peter’s mother-in-law (8:14-15), the demon possessed men in the cemetery (8:28-34) and the paralyzed man (9:1-8), the woman with the flow of blood (9:18-22) and perhaps even the blond and mute men (9:27-31), Matthew is in a state of uncleanliness which would keep him from entering the Temple courts or sharing fellowship with the Pharisees.

Jesus simply commands Matthew to follow him and he immediately “rose and followed” Jesus. This is the same way he called the first disciples (Matt 4:13-22). The fishermen were going about their business and Jesus called them to follow without any indication they had heard Jesus preaching prior to the call. John 1:35-42 implies the early disciples were followers of John the Baptist prior to following Jesus.

It is one thing to heal a person who is ceremonially unclean, but now Jesus is calling an unclean person to be one of his disciples. When his new disciple reaches out to his social circle, the Pharisees will become indignant and will question his disciples about this practice.

This is a clear example of Jesus’s practice of eating with people who are on the fringe of what it means to be Jewish, at least from the perspective of the Pharisees.

Is Matthew the same as Levi? Matthew 9:9

The parallel story in Mark 2:14-22 and Luke 5:27-38 agree Jesus called Levi the to leave his tax booth and follow him. Virtually every detail is the same except the name and the citation of Hosea 6:6. Why does Matthew 9:9 have Matthew and not Levi?

Jesus calls Matthew Giovanni Paolo Panini

The name Matthew is Μαθθαῖος (or Ματθαῖος) in Aramaic it is either מתי or מתא. The name is likely an abbreviation of Mattaniah or Mattithiah (2 Kgs 24:17; Neh 8:4) which means “gift of Yahweh.” The name Matthew is therefore not related to the Greek noun translated disciple (μαθητής). Mark calls Levi “the son of Alphaeus” complicating this issue since in Matthew 10:3, Matthew is “the tax collector” and James is the “the son of Alphaeus.” Luke 5:27 has Levi but not Alphaeus, perhaps to avoid confusion (Dulling, 619). If this was not confusing enough, there are a variety of textual variants which try to sort out the problem.

I agree with Hagner (WBC, 238) that is most likely Matthew and Levi are the same person. Like Joseph the Levite who was also called Barnabas (Acts 4:36), Matthew may have had two names (France, Matthew, 352). There are a number of people in the New Testament with two names; Simon bar Jonah is also called Cephas (on Aramaic) or Peter (in Greek). Some scholars suggest Levi was his pre-conversion name. After following Jesus, he was known as Matthew (similar to Saul/Paul in Acts; Hagner, Matthew, 238; Turner, Matthew, 12)

If Matthew is indeed the author of the first Gospel, then this he made this editorial change himself. The main problem with this view is there is no name-change story, either canonical or non-canonical.

There are several other less-likely suggestions. First, Levi may not be a name, Albright and Mann suggested Matthew was a Levite (Albright and Mann, Matthew, clxxviii). Second, some suggest there were two different tax collectors called by Jesus, the author of the fourth Gospel used the name “Matthew” since that was the name he knew (Davies and Allison, Matthew, 99). Third, the use of Matthew in 9:9 is the author’s self-identification. Fourth, the author of the first gospel may have replaced Levi with Matthew for theological reasons.

Regardless of whether the name is Levi or Matthew, when Jesus calls the tax collector as a disciple, he demonstrates the kind of mercy God requires. This stands in contrast to the Pharisees, who question Jesus when he eats with “sinners” (9:10-13) and the disciples of John who wonder why Jesus is eating at all (9:14-17).

Bibliography: Dennis C. Duling, “Matthew (Disciple),” ed. David Noel Freedman, The Anchor Bible Dictionary (New York: Doubleday, 1992), 619; J. G. Bashaw, “Matthew the Apostle,” ed. John D. Barry et al., The Lexham Bible Dictionary (Bellingham, WA: Lexham Press, 2016).