Matthew 9:9-13 “As Jesus passed on from there, he saw a man called Matthew sitting at the tax booth, and he said to him, "Follow me."
We know him as Matthew the Apostle, one of the original twelve disciples, a man who is remembered with his own feast day the liturgical calendar. We know him as Matthew the Evangelist whose Gospel contains the most complete account of our Lord’s life and teachings—a means of grace that God the Holy Spirit has used to bring countless people to faith in Christ over the last two thousand years. We know him as St. Matthew, one of the great heroes of the faith who occupies one of the twelve thrones in heaven.
But that is not how the people of his day knew him. They knew him as Matthew the tax collector—a public sinner held in contempt by his neighbors—cut-off from society—excommunicated from the synagogue.
And it is only when we begin to see the story like that--that we understand what an earth-shattering, grace-filled event this call of Jesus to Matthew was—how completely unlike the way mankind thinks that God works.
Each of us are born with a natural religion that believes that God looks down from heaven and chooses people to love on the basis of who we are compared to others and of course we are always among those chosen and loved.
But in the call of Matthew we see that God invites us to have a life with him as an act of his pure grace—not on account of who we are—but because of Jesus and what he has done.
If you knew nothing else of the Bible but this story-- you would still know the Good News that Jesus graciously calls sinners to come and have a life with God.
The Bible says that Jesus said to him: "Follow me." And Matthew rose and followed him. This simple sentence and the scene it portrays is so remarkable that virtually every bible commentator says that surely Matthew must have known Jesus beforehand to have such a radical break with his past.
But Matthew is the one telling his story and he never mentions anything of the sort. He simply says that Jesus called him and he followed.
I think the reason that bible scholars have such a difficult time believing what is right there on the Bible page in front of them is because what happens in the response of Matthew is so different than what we experience in our own life of faith.
What is common to our experience is the call of Jesus to the rich young man who didn’t want to give up his stuff. Or the call of Jesus to the man who lost a loved one and his family came first. Or the call of Jesus to Nicodemus who wasn’t ready to give up his religious misconceptions about how God ought to work and what the Messiah ought to be. These folks we understand--because they are like us.
But a notorious sinner who hears the call of Jesus and immediately, whole-heartedly follows? A sinner who gives up his livelihood in one fail swoop? We have to come up with a reason of why that can’t be so because it is such a sharp rebuke to every one of us who has priorities other than obedience to the call of Jesus.
But why shouldn’t Jesus expect just exactly the same faith from each of us this day that he received from Matthew that day? The One who calls us to follow him is God in flesh and he speaks with the same authority and he calls to us: follow me!
All who answer that gracious call of Jesus with the “yes” of faith we will discover what Matthew did: that whatever we leave behind is nothing compared to what we gain: forgiveness for our sins—a new beginning—and a life with God.
Gaining this for himself, Matthew he wanted his friends and fellow sinners to know and have the same forgiveness and new life. The bible says that:
As Jesus reclined at table in the house, behold, many tax collectors and sinners came and were reclining with Jesus and his disciples.
There at the table in Matthew’s house were all of his friends—his fellow tax collectors and other notorious sinners—and Jesus, eating with sinners.
That was something that decent people of that day didn’t do. It was certainly something that religious leaders didn’t do. And it was beyond imagination that the Messiah would do such a thing!
And yet there Jesus was in the midst of sinners: speaking to them—sharing food with them—laughing with them—and touching them.
The call of Matthew and the meal at his house is such a beautiful summary of the Good News of salvation in Jesus!
God did not hold himself aloof from the broken-ness of his creatures but sent his Son in human flesh-- right into the midst of our sin and broken-ness-- to make it right by his death and resurrection.
He so identified with our broken human condition that our sins were laid upon him and he suffered the death that we deserved. And he endured it all and rose up from the dead so that the fellowship we see around the table in Matthew’s house would be an eternal reality for every person who comes to Jesus in faith—a new eternal life for the sinners like Matthew AND for the self-righteous like the Pharisees. The Bible says:
And when the Pharisees saw this, they said to his disciples, "Why does your teacher eat with tax collectors and sinners?"
The implication of the Pharisees’ question to the disciples was that if Jesus really were holy—if he really were a rabbi—if he really were the Messiah-- then he would never have fellowship with sinners—but that is why he was there in the first place!
Somewhere along the way the religious leaders of Israel had forgotten that the purpose of the Messiah restore fellowship between God and man their purpose as God’s people was to tell the world this Good News!
And so rather than being engaged with the world for the sake of their salvation—they kept the world at a distance with one arm-- while patting themselves on the back for their own holiness with the other arm.
We need to remember this scene of sinners eating with Jesus while the self-righteous stand outside that fellowship because we are not somehow magically immune to their contempt for the fallen.
Our congregations become holy huddles of like-minded people with little room for those who struggle. We look askance at those who have failed in real ways. We stand in God’s place as judge rather than act like Jesus who was the friend of sinners.
And slowly but surely, our Christian faith (which ought to have as its first priority a loving concern and compassion for the lost) becomes instead the reason for keeping the lost at arms length and away from Jesus who came to heal the sin-sick.
The Bible says that when Jesus heard the Pharisees question about his eating with sinners he said: "Those who are well have no need of a physician, but those who are sick. That is how Jesus regarded those around them table with him: that they were sin-sick unto death.
Jesus was there that day in the midst of sinners because they were afflicted the fatal disease of sin and death and as the Great Physician of body and soul he had been sent by his Father to bring them healing. He wouldn’t abandon them!
And yet that is what the Pharisees expected Jesus to do, not realizing that they were just as sin-sick because their self-righteousness had blinded them to that diagnosis. But Jesus desired their healing too and so he said to them: Go and learn what this means, 'I desire mercy, and not sacrifice.'
The ceremonies and rituals Pharisees were not an end unto themselves but were intended to bring them to a correct knowledge of God—that the LORD is a God of mercy who longs to forgive us so that we might have a life with him.
That the Pharisees could not see God’s love for sinners in the actions of Jesus Christ, God’s own Messiah, shows how far they had wandered away from the truth.
What about us? Are we rigorous in doctrine but merciless to sinners? Are we satisfied with external religiosity but withhold the one thing needful from those around us? Are we quicker to judge than to forgive?
If we find ourselves numbered today with the sinful, self-righteous Pharisees, there is still Good News for us because Jesus “…came not to call the righteous, but sinners." The same Jesus who loved and called Matthew to leave his life of sin and follow him, loved and called the self-righteous Pharisees to do the same.
That we number ourselves with those sinners that Jesus has called is not a sign of shame but a sign of salvation-- for Jesus came for this very purpose: to call sinners to a life with God through faith in him. Amen.