While we must stress that this passage is really about Jesus, it is unavoidable that questions of our imitating Christ will need to be answered in light of it. It is also quite relevant to consider that Matthew, a new disciple of Christ, was likely the one who invited to the feast the only “friends” he had, namely the tax collectors and sinners. In this, even Matthew becomes a relevant example to us.

6. Association with Unbelievers Requires Wisdom

This historical example of Jesus cannot be used to contradict explicit exhortations to the church. It is true that most Christians are prone to err on the side of self-righteous arrogance and the gross hypocrisy of acting as if they are above others in worth or desert. Because of this it is also true that we must be exhorted to cultivate and act with genuine compassion for even the greatest of the godless, to actively counter all prejudice and legalistic tendencies, and to be willing to get our hands dirty as we eagerly reach out to the lost of every variety without exception. But reaching out is one thing, association is another. Association with those who do not love Christ requires great wisdom. And sadly, it is fashionably oversimplified.

God’s word explicitly instructs the church, “Do not be deceived: ‘Bad company ruins good morals’” (1 Corinthians 15:33). Other similar texts remind us of the seriousness with which Christians are to consider their relationship to unbelievers: “Do not be unequally yoked with unbelievers. For what partnership has righteousness with lawlessness? Or what fellowship has light with darkness? What accord has Christ with Belial? Or what portion does a believer share with an unbeliever?” (2 Corinthians 6:14–15; see also 6:16–7:1). “You adulterous people! Do you not know that friendship with the world is enmity with God? Therefore whoever wishes to be a friend of the world makes himself an enemy of God” (James 4:4). “If you were of the world, the world would love you as its own; but because you are not of the world, but I chose you out of the world, therefore the world hates you” (John 15:19). “Do not be conformed to this world, but be transformed by the renewal of your mind, that by testing you may discern what is the will of God, what is good and acceptable and perfect” (Romans 12:2). “For the grace of God has appeared, bringing salvation for all people, training us to renounce ungodliness and worldly passions, and to live self-controlled, upright, and godly lives in the present age” (Titus 2:11–12). “That you may be blameless and innocent, children of God without blemish in the midst of a crooked and twisted generation, among whom you shine as lights in the world, holding fast to the word of life, so that in the day of Christ I may be proud that I did not run in vain or labor in vain” (Philippians 2:15–16). “Your boasting is not good. Do you not know that a little leaven leavens the whole lump?” (1 Corinthians 5:6). “But sexual immorality and all impurity or covetousness must not even be named among you, as is proper among saints. Let there be no filthiness nor foolish talk nor crude joking, which are out of place, but instead let there be thanksgiving. For you may be sure of this, that everyone who is sexually immoral or impure, or who is covetous (that is, an idolater), has no inheritance in the kingdom of Christ and God. Let no one deceive you with empty words, for because of these things the wrath of God comes upon the sons of disobedience” (Ephesians 5:3–6). “Do not be deceived: God is not mocked, for whatever one sows, that will he also reap” (Galatians 6:7). “Religion that is pure and undefiled before God the Father is this: to visit orphans and widows in their affliction, and to keep oneself unstained from the world” (James 1:27).

Association requires great wisdom. Let us not allow sin to be minimized in the name of evangelism. Let us also not allow self-righteousness to be justified in the name of holiness. Both of these are great contradictions and this passage permits neither. Let us fear the Lord, humble ourselves before a mighty Savior, see our own need and celebrate the grace of God toward us, and reach out with compassion to the lost, doing all that we do to make much of Christ. Jude offers us an appropriate benediction to this thought: “keep yourselves in the love of God, waiting for the mercy of our Lord Jesus Christ that leads to eternal life. And have mercy on those who doubt; save others by snatching them out of the fire; to others show mercy with fear, hating even the garment stained by the flesh” (Jude 21–23).

7. Avoid Sinful Reasons, Not Sinful People

Jesus never sinned, yet He never avoided sinners. Instead, He came from a realm of perfect, untainted holiness to this sin-filled world in order to save sinners. The irony in the passage is tremendous. The Pharisees were too “pure” to enter a tax collector’s house, yet the Holy One did! Jesus said, “For I came not to call the righteous, but sinners” (Matthew 9:13). Consider the “defiling distance” that Christ condescended to save sinners (cf. Philippians 2:6-8) and consider the distance the Pharisees would not go. They were far more like Matthew than like Jesus, yet they were too good to enter under his roof. They would rather such sinners die in their sins than dare to reach out to them.

The heart of the matter is the matter of the heart. The real issue of avoiding or associating with those who do not love Christ is an issue that is concerned with motives. Applying the principle of being in the world but not of the world and yet earnestly reaching out to the world, we are to avoid the sinful reasons, not sinful people. We should not avoid sinners for the wrong reasons. Likewise, we should not associate with sinners for the wrong reasons. The key to avoiding both errors is avoiding sinful, deceitful, justifying, corrupt, compromising, man-centered reasons. May we be Christ-centered in our reasons.

While it may seem subtle at the surface, the difference between a God-centered and a man-centered use of this passage is significant. A subtle shift of the center can have a kaleidoscope effect on our understanding and application. May we celebrate the radiant message of Matthew 9:9-13, that Jesus came to save sinners, with passion that penetrates our world—to promote Christ for God’s glory and man’s joy.
For more teaching on Matthew 9:9-13, listen to “Jesus Came to Call Sinners”.