This is a sermon I preached on Sunday on discipleship from Matthew 9:9-13, the calling of Matthew the tax-collector. I hope you find it helpful.
Politics has been very much in the news this last week. And when you’re running a political party, or launching a movement for change, the kind of people you attract to follow you is important. Scotland voted to stay part of the Union, but there was plenty of feeling on both sides.
People with friends and relatives in Scotland were telling me about banners being defaced, people being spat at, and bricks thrown through windows because they were voting the other way to them. Are those the kind of supporters you want? Would you want to attract supporters who do that?
If we were Jesus, launching a world-changing movement, who would we want following and supporting us? The most respectable, well-behaved, people? Thankfully we’re not Jesus, and the kind of people Jesus attracted tells us what we need to know about what it means to follow him. The gospel is not just good news – it’s the best news. And we’ll see why!
Condemn, condone or call?
Jesus doesn’t just wait for people to come to him. And he doesn’t wait for the right kind of people either. Jesus has just come from healing a man who was paralyzed. He was brought for healing, and Jesus told him his sins were forgiven. And healing him showed he had the power and the authority to forgive. So Jesus has already shown that he’s in the business of changing people – from the inside out. Physical healing here was a sign of God’s greater work in healing the soul.
And so, as Jesus is walking through Capernaum, he sees Matthew sitting at the tax-collecting booth. Capernaum would have been a hub of activity, as goods came through into Herod’s territory, either by land or across the Sea of Galilee. Matthew was almost certainly collecting the duty on those goods.
We may not think much of taxes and tax-collectors today (though there is nothing wrong in being a tax collector, it has to be said!), but then they were pretty low in people’s opinions. Not only were they seen as traitors for collecting taxes for the occupying Romans, but they were viewed as thieves too. Tax collecting was a profitable business, and there was always some profit to be skimmed off the top for yourself. So Matthew would have been wealthy, but despised.
And Jesus walks up to him, and says, “Follow me.” Now, we have no idea what contact Matthew had had with Jesus before now – he knew who he was, because Jesus was based in Capernaum, and had probably heard him speak. But now, Jesus gives him the chance to do something about his life.And not only does Jesus call him to join his disciples, he goes and eats with him – and his friends. It was a pretty scandalous thing to do, and the Pharisees knew that, which is why they reacted so badly. But we’ll come on to them in a moment.
Jesus doesn’t condemn Matthew. There would have been a lot of fingers pointing at Matthew, but Jesus’ wasn’t one of them. But Jesus doesn’t condone Matthew’s lifestyle either. Eating with Matthew doesn’t mean that Jesus is turning a blind eye, or saying in effect, what you get up to isn’t important to me as long as you come along and be my disciple. That is, I think, a real misconception among a lot of people who think they know something of Jesus.
“Jesus didn’t judge people”. That’s true. Jesus didn’t. But he didn’t come to just love people and leave them as they were. Jesus didn’t condemn, or condone – he called. He called people to follow him. Look at what Jesus says, “It is not the healthy who need a doctor, but the sick.” “I have not come to call the righteous, but sinners.” There is no doubt that Jesus saw Matthew as a sinner. Just as I am; and you are. And he was called not in spite of his sin, but because of it.
Jesus met Matthew where he was, but didn’t leave him there. It’s the same now: Jesus takes us as we are, but never leaves us as we are. There is the call to repent, to turn away from our rejection of God, and the life that says ‘I will do what I want’, and to follow.
We rightly remember John 3:16 “For God so loved the world that he gave his only Son, that whoever believes in him should not perish, but have eternal life.”
But we need to remember John 3:17 too: “For God did not send his Son into the world to condemn the world, but in order that the world might be saved through him.”
And as Christ’s disciples, that ministry is extended to us: not to condemn, not to condone, but to call people to Jesus.
How to spot your inner Pharisee
But there’s a problem immediately after Jesus calls Matthew. The Pharisees. They come to Jesus’ disciples, and they know that Jesus has been eating and drinking with tax collectors and sinners. And they’re not happy.
Why aren’t they happy? Well, because if Jesus really was a prophet, doing the works of God, then he should know what kind of people these were. To understand their problem, we need to think a bit more about the Pharisees.
They were the ruling class in Judea, and they controlled much of the interpretation of the Law. They were ultra-zealous when it came to ceremonial cleanness. Having anything to do with Gentiles, non-Jews, made them unclean. So tax collectors and sinners were always personas non grata, partly because of their lifestyles occupations, but also because those occupations put them in too close a contact with unclean people. Strict obedience to the Law was everything. And so they created laws around the Law to ensure that they didn’t break the Law – like the layers of an onion. Anybody who didn’t live up their standards was a sinner.
But don’t we all do that. I know I do. It’s easy, isn’t it, to judge others by our own standards rather than by God’s. There is a Pharisee in each of us.
But that’s not the problem. In lots of ways, the Pharisees were right. Tax collectors and probably a lot of these sinners were living in a way that would have grieved God’s heart. In the same way that much of the world has still rejected God’s loving purposes for them. Here was, I think, the problem. The Pharisees saw these people existing in sin, and couldn’t care less about them. All they wanted to do was point the finger at them, and justify their own upstanding ‘righteous’ behaviour. If they knew the Law, if they really loved God, they should have been doing everything they could do reach them, to draw them back to God. Instead, they just built up more and more barriers, shut up shop, saying ‘no entrance’. They neither loved God nor loved their neighbour.
How often do we pray for others to repent and turn to Christ? The Pharisees knew their Scriptures really well. They recited them, learnt them, obeyed them. But Jesus reveals their hearts: they didn’t know them at all. “Go away and learn this,” In other words, read it again, and this time with your heart. Don’t just read it, seek to understand it. The Lord God says, “I desire mercy, and not sacrifice”. And here’s the headline reason.
Sacrifice is safe, mercy is messy
This is a quote from Hosea 6. Hosea was looking around, and seeing what was going on. People were paying lip-service to God. They would make their way up to the Temple to make their sacrifices, to do their religious duty; but their hearts – and their attitudes to others – were a long way from God.
When we base our faith on simple religious observance, then there is no need to love others, certainly the ones who might ‘contaminate’ us. Sacrifice, religion, seen like this, is safe. Here are my boundaries, here is my comfort zone. But Jesus showed that while sacrifice – religion – is safe, mercy is messy. It brings us into contact with people who are outside our comfort zones; it means loving people in a radical way; it will mean calling people to follow Christ. Whilst the Pharisees effectively wore rubber gloves around people, Jesus got his hands dirty. And he got his hands dirty for us, with hands outstretched on the cross, dying for our sins. My sins. Our sins.
I wonder what this will mean for us as a church? Perhaps this is something we can put some prayer into. What it doesn’t mean is that holiness is unimportant. Our personal walk with God is vital; our church life should be marked by godliness, love and acceptance. But not at any price. Not without the challenge to change, to follow Christ and leave everything that separates us from him behind. And to call by our example that we have followed him the same way.
Part of the problem is that for some, church feels like the waiting room for a job interview. You have to be well dressed, on your best behaviour; you have to put on your best face, and need to remember to say the right things. You’re on show.
But in reality, the church is more like the waiting room to a doctor’s surgery. We’re all sick – spiritually – in one way or another; we all need healing. There is therefore a humility there – we follow the same healer-saviour. No room for pride. We leave that at the door. Jesus neither condemns, or condones. He calls us to leave all that sin behind and follow him.