When pressed on the fact that He is dining with “tax collectors and sinners,” Jesus ultimately responds by effectively saying “I came to call sinners.” That is, “these are the people---these tax collectors and sinners (Gentiles and those treated as Gentiles, if you will)---that I intend to gather into the kingdom of God. I am going after these people.” Concordantly, a regular accusation that would be leveled against Jesus, that was intended (among other things) to show that He could not possibly be Israel’s Messiah, was the manner of His table fellowship and the people with which He surrounded Himself. In the eleventh chapter of Matthew, as we see the constant building of the story and the inter-connectivity of the pieces of the narrative, Jesus Himself gives voice to this charge, reporting what it was that was being said about Him: “Look at Him, a glutton and a drunk, a friend of tax collectors and sinners!” (11:19b). Surely, the thoughts seemed to run, God’s messiah would not surround Himself with those that are taken to be outside of His covenant---not displaying or adhering to the accepted and determined covenant markers (circumcision, dietary laws, Sabbath-keeping) of the people of God. By His consistent fraternization with and acceptance of such people, Jesus demonstrated His attitude towards and compassion for said classes of people.
In a way that seems to run contrary to that which we have seen to this point, when we reach the tenth chapter we find Jesus sending out His twelve disciples and instructing them “Do not go to Gentile regions and do not enter any Samaritan town. Go instead to the lost sheep of the house of Israel” (10:5b-6). We, right along with Matthew’s hearers, should find this to be highly unusual, as it seems to run counter to what we have seen and heard from Jesus. We understand this a bit better when we hear what it is that is to be the content of their message, which is that “The kingdom of heaven is near!” (10:7b) This is a fundamentally Jewish concept, and would not necessarily be understood by Gentiles and Samaritans. So this may need to be less understood as restrictive, and more understood as being practical. At the same time, a careful inspection of Matthew seems to reveal that Jesus limits His talk of the kingdom of heaven to His interaction with the people of Israel, which can also make sense of the practical nature of the instructions.
Of course, we hold this tension in mind and find that it is ultimately balanced by the great commission that we encounter in the closing verses of Matthew’s Gospel. This tension and expectation of what is to come is played out here in the tenth chapter, as Jesus continues His instructions, saying “I am sending you out like sheep surrounded by wolves… Beware of people, because they will hand you over to councils and flog you in their synagogues” (10:16a,17), which was very much the experience of the community of Christ-followers in the years following the Christ-event and the time in which this Gospel would have been composed. As it relates to understanding what it means to treat someone as a Gentile or tax collector, Jesus relates the greater purpose of this treatment of His disciples, saying “And you will be brought before governors and kings because of me” (10:18a). Here, we cannot help but think of the travails of Peter, John, and Paul, and their appearances before the authorities (especially those of Paul), which would most likely have been known to the community for which Matthew is writing. When standing before governors and kings, Jesus’ persecuted disciples would act “as a witness to them and the Gentiles” (10:18b). Yes, Jesus was always cognizant of His mission. His church has always been cognizant of its mission. This mission, as Matthew’s hearers would well-know and would routinely hear, included reaching out to Gentiles so as to bring them into the plans and purposes, and the ever-widening fold of the people of the kingdom of God.
In the eleventh chapter we find some more useful information for our premise when we read/hear the report of Jesus criticizing a number of cities. He pronounces woe to cities such as Chorazin, Bethsaida, and Capernaum, which were all cities of the Galilee region, for their lack of repentance (joining up with Jesus’ new exodus movement) though they had witnessed “many of His miracles” (11:20b). In contrast, Jesus mentions three Gentile cities---Tyre, Sidon, and Sodom---that He seems to believe would have responded differently to His call, had they been given the same opportunity. His statement of “For if the miracles done among you had been done in Sodom, it would have continued to this day” (11:23b), along with “But I tell you, it will be more bearable for region of Sodom on the day of judgment than for you!” (11:24) would have weighed heavily on the minds of His hearers. Such pronouncements by Jesus, among His Jewish hearers, would probably have called to mind the story of Jonah and the repentance of Assyria; and indeed, we are not disappointed to find Matthew making reference to that very story in chapter twelve, when Jesus, in response to the demand for a sign, references the sign of Jonah and goes on to say “The people of Nineveh,” the capital city of a Gentile nation that had been responsible for the oppression of Israel (thoughts of Rome and its oppression lurks in the background here), “will stand up at the judgment with this generation and condemn it, because they repented when Jonah preached to them” (12:41).