Biblical Commentary
(Bible study)
Matthew 9:9-13, 18-26




In these chapters, Matthew assembles a collection of miracle stories designed to demonstrate that Jesus is, indeed, the Messiah, and that he works by God’s power. They also emphasize his commitment to restoring those who are in need of repentance and a new life.

Immediately prior to the call of Matthew, Jesus healed a paralytic (9:1-8). He inspired controversy by first saying, “Son, cheer up! Your sins are forgiven you” (v. 2), even though the man had neither confessed sins nor asked forgiveness. The scribes were offended at Jesus’ apparent blasphemy—his assumption of God’s prerogative to forgive sins. Jesus, however, validated his actions by healing the man.

That story leads naturally into this Sunday’s Gospel lesson, in which Jesus again offends Jewish leaders and performs dramatic healings that validate his ministry.


9As Jesus passed by from there, he saw a man called Matthew sitting at the tax collection office. He said to him, “Follow me.” He got up and followed him.

“As Jesus passed by from there.” This phrase serves as a transition from the story of the healing of the paralytic (9:2-8) to the story of the call of Matthew (9:9-13). Verse 9:1 spoke of Jesus coming “to his own town,” which Matthew earlier identified as Capernaum (4:13). Mark also locates the healing of the paralytic in Capernaum (Mark 2:1), and we can assume that the events of our Gospel lesson take place in that town. Capernaum is located astride the highway from Damascus to Jerusalem on the north shore of the Sea of Galilee, and is therefore a major commercial center.

Jesus “saw a man called Matthew sitting at the tax collection office” Since Capernaum is located on a major highway, Matthew may be serving as a customs agent, collecting duties on goods in transit. He does not ask to follow Jesus, nor does he repent or ask forgiveness. Jesus’ call to Matthew is as shocking as his earlier claim to forgive sins (9:2), and demonstrates that God loves and wants to redeem every person.

“Follow me.” Jesus calls Matthew in much the same way that he called Simon and Andrew (4:18-22). He tells them to follow, and they follow.

However, the call of Matthew differs from the call of the fishermen, because Matthew is a tax collector. Fishing is an honorable profession; tax collecting is not. The Romans contract with local people to collect taxes, and the collectors extort excess taxes for personal profit, enriching themselves at the expense of their fellow citizens. They are thus held in great contempt, are barred from the synagogue, and are considered the moral equivalent of robbers and murderers (Barclay, 337-338).

“He got up and followed him.” To follow Jesus, Matthew must abandon his lucrative job, knowing that he can never regain it. By so doing, he also cuts himself off from his old network of friends. To obey Jesus’ command, therefore, requires Matthew’s absolute commitment. It is a remarkable act of faith.

Mark 2:14 and Luke 5:27 give the tax collector’s name as Levi, while this Gospel says that it is Matthew. We do not know if they are the same person, but it seems likely that they are. In lists of apostles’ names, we find Matthew but not Levi (Matthew 10:2-4; Mark 3:16-19; Luke 6:14-16; Acts 1:13).

Early Christians suggested that this Matthew is the writer of this Gospel, but that seems unlikely. The author relies heavily on the Gospel of Mark—more so than would an eyewitness to Jesus’ ministry. Also, this Gospel was probably written around 80-85 A.D., which would make a contemporary of Jesus a very old man.


10It happened as he sat in the house, behold, many tax collectors and sinners came and sat down with Jesus and his disciples. 11When the Pharisees saw it, they said to his disciples, “Why does your teacher eat with tax collectors and sinners?”

12When Jesus heard it, he said to them, “Those who are healthy have no need for a physician, but those who are sick do. 13But you go and learn what this means: ‘I desire mercy, and not sacrifice,’ for I came not to call the righteous, but sinners to repentance.”

“It happened as he sat in the house” (v. 10a). Luke places the dinner in Levi’s house (Luke 5:29), but Matthew describes it only as “the house.” The “many tax collectors and sinners” that are present seem to confirm that it is Matthew’s house, because they would constitute a natural guest list for the newly converted tax collector. It seems likely that, in a spirit of joy, Matthew invites Jesus and all his friends to a great feast at his house.

“Why does your teacher eat with tax collectors and sinners?” (v. 11b). The Pharisees are offended. Sharing a meal, especially in a public setting, implies acceptance—even approval. The Pharisees complain to the disciples rather than to Jesus. Perhaps they are afraid to engage Jesus directly—or more probably they have chosen not to enter the house and are reduced to asking their question of disciples who are within reach.

“Sinners” could mean nearly anything, but in this context probably refers to people who fail to observe Jewish food laws, concerns for ritual purity, and the like.

Jesus, however, overhears the question and responds, “Those who are healthy have no need for a physician, but those who are sick do. But you go and learn what this means: ‘I desire mercy, and not sacrifice,’ for I came not to call the righteous, but sinners to repentance” (vv. 12-13). The Incarnation is for the benefit of those who need it. The irony is that the Pharisees need the Incarnation as much as anyone, but their religious pride causes them to miss it.

The Pharisees might have responded very differently to this dinner. They too champion hospitality–but only to the righteous poor. They also champion distancing oneself from sinners.

The Old Testament emphasized that Israelites must separate themselves from pagan tribes. The Talmud taught, “Associate not with the wicked man, even if thou canst learn from him.” Psalm 1 blesses those who “do not take the path that sinners tread, or sit in the seat of scoffers.” The Psalmist asks for vindication, because “I hate the assembly of evildoers, and will not sit with the wicked” (Psalm 26:5). Paul says, “Don’t be unequally yoked with unbelievers” (2 Corinthians 6:14).

There is much wisdom here. Bad company corrupts! One bad apple spoils the barrel! Bad company is the devil’s net! You can’t run with dogs without getting fleas! These old proverbs reflect the truth that the company we keep makes a difference in our lives.

My wife and I teach our children to choose their friends carefully—not for social standing but for character. However, it is also true that our son has had a positive influence on two boys of questionable character—so much so that we believe that God sent us to those two places, in part, to help those boys. It is not easy to know when to avoid evildoers and when to mingle with them for the sake of the kingdom.

In preaching this text, we will do well to remember that the Pharisees have a point about evildoers. Their concern is not without merit. They are upholding wisdom that has been gained painfully through the centuries. They do not want evil companions, and they do not honor evil people with their presence.

It is only as we keep this perspective that Jesus’ actions take on real force. Jesus reaches out to the lost at great personal risk (actions like this will cost him his life, after all), in the hope of saving people who do not seem worth saving. We should be glad for that! Otherwise, who could hope to be saved!

“But you go and learn what this means: ‘I desire mercy, and not sacrifice'” (v. 13a). The Pharisees’ question to the disciples (v. 11) constituted an indirect challenge to Jesus. Jesus responds by telling them to “go and learn,” implying that their understanding of scripture is defective—that they have failed to plumb the depths of the prophets.

The quotation is from Hosea 6:6. “I desire mercy, and not sacrifice” is a Jewish idiom meaning, “I desire mercy more than sacrifice.” The word sacrifice here stands for obedience to Torah law–the ultimate sign of one’s devotion to God. However, Jesus quotes the prophet Hosea to note that God prefers mercy to a slavish devotion to the requirement for sacrifices.

In his appeal for mercy, Jesus highlights God’s love for the undeserving. Ritual purity, while important, is less important than love of God and love of neighbor.

“for I came not to call the righteous, but sinners to repentance” (v. 13b). These are categories that Pharisees use righteous and sinners as categories to pigeonhole people. Pharisees number themselves among the righteous, of course, and that is how most people see them. They are sinners too, but cannot see that, because they “tithe mint, dill, and cumin” observing the law even in its smallest details (23:23). The problem is that they neglect “the weightier matters of the law: justice, mercy, and faith” (23:23).

The verse from Hosea highlights the fact that temple sacrifice requires less of the person than does mercy. Sacrifice can be done routinely—even mechanically—with no involvement of the heart. A person can sacrifice at the temple in a perfunctory manner that has little effect on day-to-day life. Mercy, however, quickly becomes an affair of the heart, involving a human face—a human story.

Elsewhere in this Gospel, Jesus will say, “You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, with all your soul, and with all your mind.’ This is the first and great commandment. A second likewise is this, ‘You shall love your neighbor as yourself.’ The whole law and the prophets depend on these two commandments” (22:37-40). Sacrifice is a way of expressing devotion to God—of keeping the first great commandment. Mercy is a way of expressing both love of neighbor and devotion to God—of keeping both great commandments.

The fact that Christians are no longer subject to the Jewish sacrificial system does not make us immune from Pharisaic error. P.T. Forsyth warns, “It is possible to be so active in the service of Christ as to forget to love him.” It is certainly possible to be so active in the service of Christ as to forget to love our neighbor.


18While he told these things to them, behold, a ruler came and worshiped him, saying, “My daughter has just died, but come and lay your hand on her, and she will live.”

19Jesus got up and followed him, as did his disciples. 20Behold, a woman who had an issue of blood for twelve years came behind him, and touched the fringe (Greek: kraspedou) of his garment; 21for she said within herself, “If I just touch his garment, I will be made well.”

22But Jesus, turning around and seeing her, said, “Daughter, cheer up! (Greek: tharseo—have courage). Your faith has made you well” (Greek: sesoken—from sozo—the word for “saved”). And the woman was made well from that hour (esothe—from sozo—”saved”).

23When Jesus came into the ruler’s house, and saw the flute players, and the crowd in noisy disorder, 24he said to them, “Make room, because the girl isn’t dead, but sleeping.”

They were ridiculing him. 25But when the crowd was put out, he entered in, took her by the hand, and the girl arose (Greek: egerthe—arose—the word for resurrection). 26The report of this went out into all that land.

These are two of a group of four healing stories. The other two involve the healing of a blind man (vv. 18-31) and the healing of a man who is both mute and demon-possessed (vv. 32-34). Then “Jesus went about all the cities and the villages, teaching in their synagogues, and preaching the Good News of the Kingdom, and healing every disease and every sickness among the people” (v. 35).

These verses tell a story within a story—the story of a woman with a hemorrhage set inside the story of a little girl who died. Mark 5:21-43 and Luke 8:40-56 tell the story in greater detail, telling us the father’s name, Jairus, and that he is a leader of the synagogue. Matthew does not name the man, and tells us only that he is a leader. In Mark and Luke, the daughter is at the point of death rather than dead, as Matthew has it.

These variations give these accounts a different shape and impact. In Mark and Luke, the woman with the hemorrhage interrupts Jesus’ journey to the home of a child who might die before he arrives, creating an urgency that is not present in Matthew’s account. In Matthew’s account, the girl is already dead, so there is no hurry. Also, in Matthew the father confesses a resurrection faith, “My daughter has just died; but come and lay your hand on her, and she will live.” Note that the word “hand” is singular. The father believes that even Jesus’ slightest touch will restore life to his daughter.

The stories of the little girl and the woman have interesting parallels:

• Both are called “daughter” (9:18, 22).

• Both are restored after people (the woman and the father) seek Jesus’ help.

• The woman has been ill for twelve years, and the little girl is twelve years old.

• Both the woman and the little girl have been cut off from normal society by their physical condition. Jewish law prohibits touching a woman who is bleeding, and it also prohibits touching a corpse. Jesus, however, ignores such strictures to bring healing to both parties.

• Both stories involve females. Women are not highly regarded and have few rights. Parents want sons—not daughters. Just as Jesus showed mercy to lowly sinners in verses 9-13, so he also shows mercy to lowly females in verses 18-26. The fact that the father throws himself at Jesus’ feet for the sake of his daughter says something very positive about him.

But there are also differences between the stories. The father is a man of high standing in the community, and the woman is unclean—an outcast. The man approaches Jesus boldly, and the woman approaches him timidly.

“behold, a ruler came and worshiped him” (v. 18a). A leader of the synagogue might have been, in other circumstances, Jesus’ opponent. By this time, religious leaders have begun to brand Jesus as a heretic. However, at the death of his daughter, this father is ready to reach out to anyone who offers hope. In his grief, he prays that this young prophet can reverse the tragedy of his daughter’s death. In his desperation, he is willing to kneel before Jesus (vs. 18) to appeal for his help. In his extremity, he is willing to believe beyond belief. Our most terrible circumstances often lead us to God’s grace.

“My daughter has just died, but come and lay your hand on her, and she will live” (v. 18b). The father exhibits great faith as he approaches Jesus. He acknowledges that his daughter is dead, but believes that Jesus has the power to restore her life. Matthew has not yet recounted a resurrection story, so the father’s expectations go far beyond anything that anyone has yet experienced.

“Jesus got up and followed him, as did his disciples” (v. 19). In verse 9, Jesus called Matthew to follow, and Matthew “got up and followed him.” Now Jesus gets up and follows this father.

“Behold, a woman who had an issue of blood for twelve years came behind him, and touched the fringe (kraspedou) of his garment” (v. 20). Thus begins the story inside a story—the story of a desperate woman set inside the story of a desperate father.

This woman’s problem has persisted for twelve years. It is a spiritual and social problem as well as a medical problem. Her bleeding renders her unclean, requiring her to separate herself from the rest of society (Leviticus 15:19-33). She cannot attend the synagogue or participate in religious rituals. If she touches another person, her touch renders that person unclean. If she is married, her husband is not allowed to have sexual relations with her and would likely have divorced her on that account. She must live as a leper would—on the fringes of society, shut out, looking in from the outside. It is hard to imagine how lonely and vile she must feel.

The woman approaches Jesus timidly. Her condition is part of the reason. She has grown accustomed to separating herself from other people. For twelve years, she has taken care lest she accidentally touch someone and spread her contamination. After twelve years of living separately, it would be difficult to approach another person—the taboo associated with touching would be overwhelming. The fact that she is a woman makes it even more difficult. Women have little status, and live in the background. Women do not approach strange men or talk to them. They certainly do not touch them (Hare, 106).

“If I just touch his garment, I will be made well” (v. 21). In an act of desperation, she determines to touch Jesus’ clothing in the hope that even that small contact will restore her health. She comes up behind him, preserving her anonymity and maintaining her secret, and touches the fringe (kraspedou) of his cloak. Kraspedou can mean simply a hem or border, but it can also refer to a tassel or tallith worn by Jewish men to remind them of God’s commandments (Numbers 15:37-39; Deuteronomy 22:12)—and to identify them as observant Jews.

Later in this Gospel Jesus will criticize the Pharisees for wearing long tallith to call attention to their piety (23:5), but it is nevertheless appropriate to wear the tallith for its intended purpose. If Jesus is wearing tallith here, it tells us something of his respect for the law. Jewish tradition prohibited women from touching the tallith of a man other than a member of their family (Sweet, 39). This woman, however, is desperate enough to ignore such rules. Her situation is desperate. Her hope is desperate. Nothing else has helped. Jesus is surely her last hope, so she will not be deterred.

“But Jesus, turning around and seeing her” (v. 22a). Jesus sees her. We must wonder how long it has been since someone has really seen this woman—how long since anyone has looked her in the eye. People are accustomed to avoiding her—to passing by on the other side—to protecting themselves against her contamination. But Jesus sees her.

“Daughter, cheer up! (tharseo—have courage). Your faith has made you well” (sesoken—from sozo—the word for “saved”) (v. 22b). Jesus does not trumpet his action here, but credits the woman for her faith. His public acknowledgement of her healing is the first step toward restoring her to a normal role in society.

“And the woman was made well from that hour” (esothe—from sozo—”saved”) (v. 22c). The healing takes place, not at the woman’s touch, but at the word of Jesus. In this Gospel, the word of Jesus has power. It conveys healing. The use of the word sozo suggests a miracle that goes beyond physical healing. Jesus’ touch has “saved” her.

“When Jesus came into the ruler’s house” (v. 23a). Now we return to the story of the father and the little girl. When Jesus arrives at the leader’s house, the funeral is in progress. Flute players are playing and the crowd is making a commotion. Custom requires that, for a funeral, “even the poorest in Israel should hire not less than two flutes and one wailing woman” (Ketuboth 4:4).

“Make room, because the girl isn’t dead, but sleeping” (v. 24). If Jesus were interested in public acclaim, he would invite the crowd into the room. Instead, he is sensitive to the little girl’s need to awaken in a quiet room. The crowd laughs at Jesus, because they know that the girl is dead and presume that he is about to make a fool of himself. Ironically, their laughter confirms the girl’s death.

“But when the crowd was put out, he entered in, took her by the hand” (v. 25a). By touching a dead body, Jesus renders himself ritually unclean—although he is already unclean by virtue of being touched by the bleeding woman.

“and the girl arose (egerthe—arose—the word for resurrection) (v. 25b). This story is highly reminiscent of the restoration of life to a child by Elijah (1 Kings 17:17-24) and the restoration of life to another child by Elijah’s disciple, Elisha (2 Kings 4:32-37). We can be sure that this crowd, well schooled in the scriptures, would make the connection between this incident and those stories. They would understand that Elijah and Elisha acted by the power of God. Jesus obviously does the same.

“The report of this went out into all that land” (v. 26). The word of such a healing/resurrection would spread like wildfire!

SCRIPTURE QUOTATIONS are from the World English Bible (WEB), a public domain (no copyright) modern English translation of the Holy Bible. The World English Bible is based on the American Standard Version (ASV) of the Bible, the Biblia Hebraica Stutgartensa Old Testament, and the Greek Majority Text New Testament. The ASV, which is also in the public domain due to expired copyrights, was a very good translation, but included many archaic words (hast, shineth, etc.), which the WEB has updated.


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Copyright 2009, Richard Niell Donovan