In our reading so far, we have seen how Jesus received those who came to Him in faith…we have heard His words to one who came with questions…and we have seen Jesus seek out those who were outsiders, excluded from the Jewish community. Today we will read just a short section of scripture, in which we watch and listen as Jesus seeks out another group of people….
As Jesus passed on from there, He saw a man named Matthew sitting at the tax office. And He said to him, “Follow Me.”
So he arose and followed Him.
Now it happened, as Jesus sat at the table in the house, that behold, many tax collectors and sinners came and sat down with Him and His disciples. And when the Pharisees saw it, they said to His disciples, “Why does your Teacher eat with tax collectors and sinners?”
When Jesus heard that, He said to them, “Those who are well have no need of a physician, but those who are sick. But go and learn what this means: ‘I desire mercy and not sacrifice.’ For I did not come to call the righteous, but sinners, to repentance.” (Matthew 9:9-13)
Isn’t this a beautiful moment for Matthew? Here he is, sitting in his office – whatever that may have looked like at the time -, going about his business as usual. It seems most likely that he has heard by now – there is Someone drawing near, Someone who has been doing impossible things. I wonder, though, if Matthew might have felt reluctant to join in the gathering crowd. Because, as a tax collector, he worked for Rome, and was despised by his fellow Jews.
We can understand how frustrated the Jewish people were with these men, I think. After all, he took money from his own people and handed it over to those occupying their land. And, like all of the tax collectors, he had the choice to take as much money as he wanted — putting the proper allotment into Roman hands and keeping the rest for himself.
So, maybe, he would have chosen to avoid the resentful stares and the muttered comments.
But Jesus did not pass him by. He saw Matthew sitting there and went right up to him.
Imagine what Matthew must have thought – was this Teacher going to judge him as harshly as everyone else did? What could He, this man spoken of as extraordinary, want with him?
Imagine Matthew’s complete surprise when, instead of deriding him, Jesus simply said – Follow Me.
When no one else would have wanted a thing to do with him, Jesus asked for his fellowship.
Now, we don’t know what Matthew had felt about his situation. Maybe he enjoyed his profit…but, maybe, there was guilt like a shadow over his days. Maybe he hadn’t counted on how the rejection of his fellow Jews would hurt. Maybe he wished for a way out – but didn’t quite know how to make things right. Maybe he thought his regrettable choices would define the rest of his life.
However he felt – it is certain that Jesus caught his attention. Because these are his own words telling us – he arose and followed Him. It does not sound like there is any hesitation or reluctance here. For Someone was giving him a second chance – and it was a chance he willingly took.
They made their way to Matthew’s house and a meal together – I can only imagine that Matthew’s curiosity was burning bright – who was this Man who had invited him along? Who was this teacher, this prophet, this miracle-maker who sat down with tax collectors – for others came along into the house – and sinners, too? He didn’t just tolerate this crowd around Him – He seemed to welcome them.
And I believe that His kindness stirred up in Matthew a longing to change…a longing for a different life…perhaps a new life altogether.
So what do we make of the Pharisees, men who saw Jesus sitting at this table full of tax collectors and sinners and questioned His judgment?
It seems that they looked around and saw men deserving of contempt, unclean sinners to be avoided.
Had they had forgotten that the law they so diligently upheld was always a covenant founded on mercy?
When God created mankind, He wanted to have a relationship with us. He walked with Adam in the cool of the evening – talking with God and being in His presence was a natural part of life in the Garden of Eden. But when sin became a part of that life, intimacy with God was hindered. Sin obstructed the human heart from God’s holiness. From that moment of disobedience and disrupted relationship, God was at work to reconcile us to Him. His mercy was already flowing – imagine how He, despite Adam and Eve’s rebellion against Him, covered them with clothes made by His own hand because they could not adequately cover themselves.
I believe that the sacrifices implemented were evidence of that same mercy. He gave man a way to approach Him, to talk to Him, to continue to know Him. When we think of the law, we can sometimes forget that it, too, was given because of God’s love for us. God reached out to Adam, Noah, Abraham, Moses – and He revealed Himself for the sake of all people. He established the laws of sacrifice and daily life so that His people could live in holiness, as He was holy. He wanted what was best for them. Their obedience was to be out of response to that love and the knowledge of God’s greatness. Obedience was to be from their hearts – it was an act of worship.
So until the appointed time – when Jesus would come to fulfill the law as the perfect and final sacrifice to atone for our sins, establishing the promised new covenant, people were invited into relationship with God through the law. And this, too, was grace. This is why I love what John says about Jesus in His first chapter – He brought grace for grace. Grace built upon grace…how wonderful it is to be loved like this by God!
So where did these Pharisees go wrong?
Their obedience was no longer an overflow of their hearts. Jesus spoke words from the prophet Hosea to them – He reminded them that mercy was desired above sacrifice…for the people of Israel had before given God their words and sacrifices without giving Him their true worship. They didn’t offer Him their love.
Just like those men of old, the Pharisees believed their righteousness was secure because their actions were in line with the law. Their ways – taken from the law of Moses and their own man-made traditions – kept them separated from anything unclean. They wanted to be known for their holiness – and their ‘righteousness’ was more important than anything else.
And so Jesus confused them. If He was a holy man, why would He associate with those considered unclean? If He was a righteous man, why would He spend time with those who were sinners? How could He let Himself be tainted by those so unclean?
They could not comprehend the awesome mystery that was happening in front of their eyes…the new covenant in action. They shall all know Me, from the least of them to the greatest, the Lord declared to the prophet Jeremiah. For I will forgive their iniquity, and I will remember their sin no more.
For so long, people had been given a way to God through sacrifices and following the law. But when Jesus came, He Himself was became the way to God – He Himself held mercy and forgiveness of sins. Instead of a priest entering into the Holy of Holies on behalf of man, God Himself had entered into the space of mankind to make us righteous in His sight.
This was the miracle of mercy given because of His great love, not because of our actions to deserve it. The Pharisees would have required repentance before association, sacrifices before mercy could be extended. And, honestly, I have sometimes felt this way myself. Why would Jesus come to me and invite me to His table? How could the Son of God, in all of His holiness, allow me into His presence?
I can only offer the words of Jesus Himself – those who are well need no physician, but those who are sick…oh, yes, we need Him. He was – and still is – after hearts who will respond to Him in love. He is after relationship.
As for God’s willingness to send His Son to rescue us from our separation from Him, our soul-sickness, from our sin? As for Jesus’ willingness to obey this calling?
It’s only because of great, enduring, inexplicable Love.
The older I get, the more I know I cannot understand it – it is not for us to have to explain why God loves us – only to accept that He does, and respond by giving all of our selves to Him in worship.
And as for Matthew, our tax-collector-disciple? He found that new chance – a new life – in the One who stopped for him on that long-ago day. Matthew, forgiven and freed from his past, followed Jesus for the rest of his days – in fact, his gospel is written to show us that the One promised by the prophets, the One who would come and redeem His people, had indeed come to Israel and to the world. Matthew knew it quite well, for he gladly counted Himself among the redeemed.
But because of His great love for us, God, who is rich in mercy, made us alive with Christ even when we were dead in transgressions—it is by grace you have been saved. God saved you by His grace when you believed. And you can’t take credit for this; it is a gift from God. Salvation is not a reward for the good things we have done, so none of us can boast about it.-Ephesians 2:4-5, 8-9