Text: Matthew 9:9-13
Grace, mercy, and peace be to you from God our Father and from our Lord and Savior, Jesus Christ.
“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 all know Matthew. One of the most beloved of the disciples. The writer of the Gospel that since the beginning of the second century has been the first book of the New Testament. This prominent position testifies to Matthew’s dominant role in the early church in spreading the teachings of Christ. Matthew’s writing is used more than any of the other three Gospel writers in the readings that show up in our lectionary. He’s sometimes referred to by His Jewish name of Levi, and being from that tribe he could have been eligible for the priesthood. Instead, he chose to go in a very different direction. A direction that makes this calling to be a disciple seem all the more unlikely.
As is the case with the accounts of the callings of the other disciples which are recorded for us, Matthew’s calling has a number of striking aspects to it. Matthew was a tax collector, employed by the Roman government. For a number of reasons this meant he would have been despised, even considered a traitor by his own people. Working in Capernaum, in the service of Herod Antipas, Matthew would have been to assess taxes on the salt, hides, fish, grain, oil, cosmetics, and gold carried by the caravans and travelers who passed through this trade route. He’d have regular contact with Gentiles, making him ceremonially unclean. But perhaps even worse than that, these tax collectors had quite a bit of freedom in setting whatever price they could get away with. Since they had no wages they would have to collect more than what they had to give to the Romans, a good portion would wind up in their pockets. For these reasons, tax collectors are usually mentioned along with sinners.
All of this makes Matthew a most unlikely candidate for discipleship. Or does it? Jesus makes it perfectly clear through His interactions with Matthew, his friends, and the Pharisees that he’s just the kind of man He came for. Our Old Testament reading from Hosea notes that without God, all humans will wallow in despair and disaster. But even through this prophet, the promise of God rings our clearly. “He will bind us up.” And in this case, Jesus doesn’t wait for Matthew to realize his despair. He walks right up to Him and calls him out of it with two simple words. “Follow Me.” Without hesitation, Matthew does just that. “And he rose and followed Him.”
Even that simple interaction shows how countercultural Jesus’ methods were. Jesus chooses Matthew, not the other way around. Students in the ancient world were expected to choose their own teacher. So, Jesus’ selection of Matthew is just another way that He diverges from Jewish practice. As if the Pharisees needed more reasons to be suspicious of this rising leader and His different teachings and methods. They find plenty to be upset about as they witness the closeness Jesus has with Matthew and his friends. Matthew, the Gospel writer, relays what happened immediately after his own calling when he says, “And as Jesus reclined at table in the house, behold, many tax collectors and sinners came and were reclining with Jesus and His disciples.” To fully understand why this upset so many people, we have to realize that this posture of reclining at table was the posture of a specific type of meal. It wasn’t a casual snack shared by friends, but it also wasn’t a formal banquet where everyone would be assigned a place at the table based on their status. It was a gathering of friends, not just for the purpose of sharing a meal, but also as an indication that those at table together were sharing a way of life. None more or less deserving than the next.
“And when the Pharisees saw this, they said to His disciples, why does your teacher eat with tax collectors and sinners?” While we know that Jesus remained sinless, this sort of engagement with tax collectors and sinners would be perceived by others as though He was engaged in the same sort of lifestyle as those He was cozying up to. Or at the very least it could be perceived as an endorsement of that life. The Pharisees couldn’t stomach Jesus’ fellowship with sinful people in this way. It’s a fine line. It really is. We think about it in today’s terms and we have the very same issues. What did mom always tell you. ‘Stay away from that crowd. They’re a bad influence. Be careful who you hang out with. They’ll lead you astray.’ It’s not bad advice for those who are unable to stand strong in the face of peer pressure. But that thinking also breeds the likelihood that those who most need the positive influence – those who need most to hear the Gospel message – will never hear it. It’s a fine line between protecting oneself and having a God pleasing Christian influence on the world around us.
Jesus walks that fine line perfectly. Without falling into sin Himself, He reminds us all who He came to earth for. “But when He heard it, He said, ‘Those who are well have no need of a physician, but those who are sick.’” So true. And yet, I’ve become quite familiar with the term well-visit. Our health insurance incentivizes taking our children to the doctor when there’s absolutely nothing wrong with them, to…I don’t know…record that there’s nothing wrong with them? I guess I’m just one of those people who, when in good health, doesn’t appreciate the presence of a doctor. The difference here is that Jesus isn’t talking about the physical health of the tax collectors, or the sinners, or the Pharisees. He’s talking about their spiritual health. Jesus is the great physician of both body and soul. He uses the healing of the physical body, through so many miracles, to point us to the real need for healing of the soul.
The Pharisee’s problem is, that even though Jesus is pointing out the spiritual sickness of each and every person – our constant state of sinfulness – these leaders are unable to see their own need for the doctor who’s right there in their presence. He’s not saying that there are some that He came for and others for whom His remedy is unnecessary. But as is so often the case, this subtlety flies right over the heads of the Pharisees. Jesus goes on to tell them, “Go and learn what this means, ‘I desire mercy, and not sacrifice.’” He quotes the Scripture theyre so familiar with. The very words of Hosea. And He says them to the Pharisees, who thought the sacrifices they made in the temple would pay the price for their sins, regardless of repentance and faith. But those sacrifices were not an end unto themselves, but rather an expression of God’s loving-kindness in Christ. And what they truly didn’t understand was that each and every one of those sacrifices that they had ever made was meant to point them to the once and for all sacrifice right in front of them reclining with tax collectors and sinners.
We can all relate to Matthew and the friends He invited to dinner. We’re all in the same boat. Sinful in all sorts of ways. In need of a doctor in more ways that we’re willing to even acknowledge. In the midst of it all Jesus comes to us, calls us with the same simple calling as Matthew, “Follow Me.” Without deserving it, He’s chosen each of us for an opportunity at a second chance. In all that I do, I often find myself interacting with people in difficult and troubling times. Just yesterday, I received a message from someone I’ve been called to minister to that speaks to this very text. The person wrote, ‘I just finished reading this book and it emphasized how God can transform our lives even when we don’t feel we need it. No one deserves second chances, but God gives them to us anyway.’ So often we don’t hear God calling, we don’t feel His presence, or we don’t recognize His mercy because we don’t feel we need it. But we all need it. Jesus said, “For I came not to call the righteous, but sinners.” He came for each of us. And the heart of today’s Gospel text is that He desires to shower that mercy abundantly on His people. On each of us who recognizes the need for what He alone has provided by His once-for-all sacrifice on the cross. And what He gives to us right here in this place.
This is our spiritual hospital. The place where the Great Physician comes to us in Word and Sacrament. Where He reclines with us, not to join in with or sanction our sinfulness, but to heal us. As Matthew was called by Jesus out of the life he was living, we too have been called by the Gospel, brought to the waters of Holy Baptism, and enjoy the opportunity to be strengthened by the body of believers in His church. This is where we come to be healed. Where our calling leads us to be refreshed and renewed by the gifts He provides here. And where we constantly hear Jesus calling us with the same words He used to call Matthew. “Follow Me.” May we respond as Matthew did. In repentance and faith. Receiving the mercy Christ freely gives. And sharing that same mercy with the rest of the world. We all need it. Amen.
The peace of God which surpasses all understanding guard your hearts and your minds in Christ Jesus.