We have already seen the beginning of opposition in the story of the healing of the paralytic in Matthew chapter 9. The teachers of the law objected when Jesus forgave the paralyzed man of his sins, claiming that only God can forgive sins. They accused Him of blasphemy. In the continuation of the story of Matthew’s conversion and in the discussion about fasting that follows in verses 14–17, two more criticisms emerge.
First, Jesus was criticized for associating with “tax collectors and ‘sinners.’” This was an attack on His morals, for the obvious implication was that if He associated with low types, He must be like them. He was with “sinners” because He liked and wished to share in their sin.
Jesus responded to this criticism with an illustration and a quotation from the Old Testament. The illustration was drawn from medicine. “It is not the healthy who need a doctor,” He said, “but the sick.” Today when people are sick, they usually go to a doctor or to a hospital. In Jesus’ day there were no hospitals or doctors’ offices. Doctors went to the patients. They actually made house calls. Jesus drew on this common pattern to explain that He was a doctor of the soul and that, if He were to help those who were sick in soul, He had to go where they were. This does not mean His critics were spiritually healthy, as the continuing conversation shows. They were actually as paralyzed by their sin as the paralytic and as unclean as the despised tax collector. But it does mean that Jesus was correct to act as He was acting. In fact, if the Pharisees were the spiritual leaders of the people as they claimed they were, they should have been trying to reach and save the lost, as He was.
Jesus also challenged them to reexamine their actions by looking at Hosea 6.6. Hosea had been attacking the false, formal religion of his day, saying that the people professed to follow God because they were going through the outward acts of religion, while actually their hearts were far from Him. He quotes God as saying, “For I desire steadfast love, and not sacrifice, and knowledge of God rather than burnt offerings.”
This verse must have been a favorite with Jesus, for He cites it again in 12.7. In that passage, as well as here in verse thirteen, Jesus is saying that if the leaders of the people were really right with God, they would show mercy to the lost and seek to call them to repentance and faith, as Jesus was.
This is where this conversation ends, for Jesus concludes by saying, “I came not to call the righteous, but sinners.” The “call” in this verse is to repentance and faith in Jesus as the Savior.
A second criticism accused Jesus of not being properly pious. This conversation was initiated by the disciples of John the Baptist and probably occurred at a later time rather than at Matthew’s dinner. Matthew includes it here because it is another example of the charges that were being lodged at Jesus by His enemies. It had to do with fasting. “We fast, and so do the Pharisees,” they objected. “Why don’t you?”
The question gains special poignancy by being placed next to the account of Matthew’s dinner. At the very time when Matthew, his friends, and Jesus were feasting in Matthew’s house, the Pharisees and the disciples of John the Baptist were fasting – and seemed to be unhappy about it. Jesus replied that He had come to His own as a bridegroom coming to His bride and that it was not right to practice fasting at a wedding. Besides, He said, what I am bringing is quite new, like a piece of new cloth or new wine, and anything as new as this simply cannot be imposed on old forms. New cloth stitched to old cloth will tear it when the new cloth shrinks, and new, fermenting wine will burst old wineskins.
The picture of a bridegroom coming to his bride looks forward ultimately to the great marriage supper in heaven. But first Jesus will go to the cross and die, which is what the mention of future fasting in verse fifteen predicts and the rest of the Gospel carefully records.
The imagery of marriage is used frequently in Scripture. A marriage was the single greatest celebration and social event of the biblical world. Wedding preparations and celebrations in ancient times were even more elaborate and involved than those of today and also lasted longer. They consisted of three distinct stages. First was the betrothal, or engagement. This was an arrangement by both sets of parents contracting the marriage of their children. It was legally binding and could only be broken by a divorce. A betrothal contract was often signed long before the children reached the marriageable age of thirteen or fourteen. Since a marriage represented the union of two families, it was natural for the parents to be involved. And there were years of preparation for the time of marriage, as the boy prepared for his bride. The second stage of a wedding was the presentation, a time of festivities just before the actual ceremony. Those festivities could last up to a week or more, depending on the economic and social status of the bride and groom. The third and most significant stage of a wedding was the actual ceremony, during which the vows were exchanged. At the end of the presentation festivities, the groom and his attendants would go to the bride’s house and take her and her bridesmaids to the ceremony. After the ceremony would come a final meal, followed by the consummation of the marriage. The final union of the Bridegroom and the bride is marked by a great supper.