14.  As He passed by, He saw Levi the son of Alphaeus sitting at the tax office.  And He said to him, “Follow Me.”  So he arose and followed Him.

This Levi was also named Matthew, and is the author of the book by the same name.  It might be that Levi was his former name, and that he took the name “Matthew,” which means “the gift of God,” after this encounter with the Lord.

Tax collectors were outcasts in Israel.  The religious leaders held such power over the people that men could be excommunicated from the community of Israel at a word from these powerful men.  Once cut off from the community, a man or woman was in dire straights.  Any thought of business or earning a living was gone, for no one would patronize someone who was excommunicated.  The Pharisees called all excommunicated people “sinners,” as if they themselves were not sinners as well!  But to be a sinner meant utter ruin.  Beggarhood was the only recourse of such, with two grisly alternatives.  For a woman, her alternative was to become a prostitute.  No one cared if a prostitute was a “sinner,” so she could earn a living—often a lucrative one, in fact—in this way.  But only if she was willing to give up her integrity!  And only if she was blessed with the beauty to do so.  The men, on the other hand, could turn to tax collecting for the Romans.  Since collecting taxes was considered a traitor’s job, only those who had been cast out of the community already were usually willing to do it.  This job was also very lucrative, but it came at the cost of being a traitor to your own nation.  How Levi came to be considered a “sinner” and take up tax collecting is never mentioned in Scripture.  Christ does not make any reference to it in approaching the man, only the simple statement, “Follow me.”

15.  Now it happened, as He was dining in Levi’s house, that many tax collectors and sinners also sat together with Jesus and His disciples; for there were many, and they followed Him.

Our Lord was not only willing to make cast-out men His disciples, but also to gather them around Him and eat with them.  Most Israelites would have been terrified to do so for fear that they to would be cast out of the community as well.  Jesus, however, did not care in the least for the petty vengeance of the Pharisees.  He loved all who came to Him, and these “sinners” were no exception.

16.  And when the scribes and Pharisees saw Him eating with the tax collectors and sinners, they said to His disciples, “How is it that He eats and drinks with tax collectors and sinners?”

Since the Pharisees were responsible for making these men “sinners,” and since much of their power and the fear they held the people in depended on the people dreading their power to cast out of the community, the Pharisees are of course upset by Jesus disregarding their sentence against these sinners and eating with them.

17.  When Jesus heard it, He said to them, “Those who are well have no need of a physician, but those who are sick.  I did not come to call the righteous, but sinners, to repentance.”

This is the job that the Pharisees should have been doing…helping those who were in need, not rejecting them…and the Lord’s statement gives them the proper rebuke.  Of course, they were not really righteous at all, as the Lord made plain in many of His rebukes and admonishments against them.  Yet they viewed themselves as righteous, and thus not in need of God’s help to take away their sins.  These sinners, who well knew that they needed a Savior, were eagerly willing to come and submit themselves to the Lord and ask for His acceptance and help, yet the self-righteous scribes and Pharisees were not.  It would have been good for them if they had responded in faith to His words here and admitted to the Lord here their own folly and need for His help, but of course they did not.

18.  The disciples of John and of the Pharisees were fasting.  Then they came and said to Him, “Why do the disciples of John and of the Pharisees fast, but Your disciples do not fast?”

These disciples of John the Baptizer and the Pharisees have a religious question for the Lord.  They are currently observing a fast, and are wondering why He and His disciples are not doing so.  Note that this was not the yearly fast, which all Israelites had to observe according to God’s law.  This was just a fast that the religious in Israel traditionally observed.  Matters of difference in religious practice are often crucial to those who do not understand the reasoning behind them.  These disciples of John and the Pharisees thought that Jesus and His disciples were doing something wrong by not fasting with them. 
19.  And Jesus said to them, “Can the friends of the bridegroom fast while the bridegroom is with them?  As long as they have the bridegroom with them they cannot fast.

Fasting (aside from the yearly fast) was done when seeking after God, and was a sign of serious contemplation, trouble of spirit, or mourning.  It was not something that was proper to do during a time of joy or celebration.  Thus, it would be a completely inappropriate thing to do at a wedding.  The Lord is obviously referring to Himself here as the bridegroom, and stating that while the joyous circumstance of His being on earth is true, those who are His friends cannot fast.  It would simply not be the proper thing to do at that point.  Israel was to fast when they were seeking after God.  Thus there was no need for the disciples of the Lord Jesus to fast, for God was right there with them!

20.  “But the days will come when the bridegroom will be taken away from them, and then they will fast in those days.

The Lord knew He would leave His disciples.  Then, at that time, they would fast, for it would be a time of mourning, and a time when it would be necessary once again for them to seek after God.

21.  “No one sews a piece of unshrunk cloth on an old garment; or else the new piece pulls away from the old, and the tear is made worse.

The Lord seems to be suggesting that it would be just as inappropriate for His disciples to fast while He was with them as to sew a piece of unshrunk cloth on an old garment.
22.  “And no one puts new wine into old wineskins; or else the new wine bursts the wineskins, the wine is spilled, and the wineskins are ruined.  But new wine must be put into new wineskins.”

Again, the Lord suggests that the inappropriate religious practice of fasting while present with Him would be similar to putting new wine into old wineskins, causing them to burst.  Although fasting was a good thing and one sanctioned by God, it just would not have been proper for them to fast at that time.  In the same way, there are many good and proper religious practices in the Word of God that it just is not proper for us to perform in our day in the dispensation of grace.  We would do well to heed Christ’s words here and abstain from all such untimely practices, or we will end up being like the one sewing the unshrunk cloth on the old garment or putting the new wine into the old wineskins.  We will not accomplish anything, and will in fact just make things worse!

23.  Now it happened that He went through the grainfields on the Sabbath; and as they went His disciples began to pluck the heads of grain.

The disciples are plucking heads off the grain to eat as they pass them.  This was an accepted practice to aid in feeding the poor in that day.  They were allowed to eat off the stalks, but not to gather any and take it with them or they would be considered as thieves.  Thus, this was not stealing, nor was it destroying anyone’s crops.  Yet this was not something that the Pharisees would allow on the Sabbath.

24.  And the Pharisees said to Him, “Look, why do they do what is not lawful on the Sabbath?”

The Pharisees had made so many laws regarding the Sabbath that it is a wonder that even they could keep them all straight.  However, this action of the disciples was definitely a violation, and they therefore question Christ concerning it.  More than likely His disciples had asked Him if this was appropriate before doing it, and He had told them to go ahead.

25.  But He said to them, “Have you never read what David did when he was in need and hungry, he and those with him:

The Lord takes them back to the Old Testament and one of their most-respected national heroes, King David, for a precedent for what He was allowing His disciples to do.
26.  “How he went into the house of God in the days of Abiathar the high priest, and ate the showbread, which is not lawful to eat, except for the priests, and also gave some to those who were with him?”

The Lord gives this precedent for their actions from the life of David, when he ate the sacred bread when he was in need.  This event is recorded in I Samuel 21.  The bread he and his men ate was the showbread, which, according to Leviticus 24:9, was only lawful for the priests to eat.  Yet when David had need, God and His high priest allowed David and his men to eat of it.  An example of the fact that God’s laws were never meant to be oppressive, as the Pharisees had made them.

27.  And He said to them, “The Sabbath was made for man, and not man for the Sabbath.

Then He points out that the Sabbath was made to benefit man, not make him suffer or go hungry.  The Lord had created it as a way of ensuring a day of rest for all servants and employees in Israel, so that they would not be worked seven days a week.  It was meant to ensure that everyone would receive a day of rest.  Yet what good was a day of rest if those resting were forced to go hungry because of it?  These Pharisees needed to realize that the Sabbath was created by God to benefit man.  They were acting instead like man was made for the Sabbath, and just forced into it as a way of following a religious rule.  This was never God’s intention, but rather that it would benefit man, and Christ points this out to them.

28.  “Therefore the Son of Man is also Lord of the Sabbath.”

Finally, He confirms that the Sabbath is His day, and He is the Lord of it and may use it as He wishes.  In Genesis 2:3, we read that God set apart the seventh day as a special day for Himself.  And the Lord Jesus is the same God Who created the world.  Thus, the Sabbath is His, and He can use it as He sees fit, being the Creator of it.  What He says, when it comes to the Sabbath, goes, since it is His day.  Thus, if He judged it permissible that His disciples pluck grain on that day, then it is permissible.  Yet the Pharisees could hardly accept this truth, since they did not believe that Jesus Christ is, in fact, truly God.