Read Matthew 9:9-13
What is the main point of this story? Jesus’ words at the end are a big clue: “It is not the healthy who need a doctor but the sick… I have not come to call the righteous, but sinners.”
Put that in context. We have seen a number of sick people and sinners. Peter was so convicted after the huge catch of fish that he fell at Jesus’ knees and begged Him to leave him because he was a sinful man. Instead, Jesus called him to follow Him. A leper came to Jesus not sure that Jesus would care. Jesus touched him and healed him. A paralysed man was lowered through the roof and Jesus’ first response was to forgive him – sick and sinner.
And then we have Matthew – or, as he is called in Luke’s version of the story, Levi. Matthew was a tax collector. People used the expression “tax collectors and sinners”. It seems that a common way to refer to the most despicable people in society – the lowest of the low – was to simply refer to that group of horrible people called “tax collectors and sinners”.
Tax collectors were despised. They worked for the enemy, the Romans. They were traitors. They were the enemies of their own fellow Jews. What is more, as long as they paid the required amount to the Romans, they could collect as much tax as they wanted and they could keep the extra. So they imposed all sorts of taxes on the Jews. They robbed their own people in order to pay the Romans and to line their own pockets. These were despicable little men who, because they had no morals at all and were driven only by the desire to be rich, turned against their own people. I am not even sure what a modern parallel would be – someone who lives in this country but is a traitor, working for the enemy and is getting rich by robbing New Zealanders but cannot be touched by the law.
The fact that Matthew held a “great banquet” (to quote Luke) where there was a large crowd of tax collectors and sinners suggests:
- He was probably very rich
- He was very grateful for what Jesus had done
- His only friends were the rejected scum – the tax collectors and sinners
And Jesus! Jesus was there eating and drinking with these horrible people – and apparently quite comfortable with them and they seem to have been quite comfortable with Him. Often the church is seen as being judgemental and sinners feel condemned. Often the church keeps itself very separate from the dregs of society.
Last week Joy McRae talked about her ministry with alcoholics, drug addicts, prostitutes and criminals. That sounds a bit like Jesus, doesn’t it
Recently, the Supreme Court of the USA legalised same-sex marriage (as our own parliament has done.). How are Christians responding? Some of it is nasty. Some are expressing bitter hatred. Some talk as if practising homosexuals are more evil sinners than anyone else. And the church is seen as hateful.
And yet, here is Jesus partying with tax collectors and sinners. He became known as the friend of sinners. If the church is following Jesus, the church also needs to be known as the friend of sinners.
The Pharisees were outraged. How could Jesus go into this man’s house? How could He eat with these people? Fellowship implies acceptance and warmth and welcome. How could Jesus do this?
Imagine what it was like for the disciples too. They probably felt unbelievably uncomfortable in this context. They had probably never been in a tax collectors house before or been surrounded by such a large crowd of society’s worst people. How would you feel being at a party where everyone was shooting drugs? How would you even feel in the house of a multi-millionaire surrounded by highly successful businesspeople and socialites? That’s probably what it was like for the disciples.
Jesus seems right at home but the disciples probably wished they were at home. And then, to rub salt into the wound, the very proper Pharisees and teachers of the law questioned the propriety of this. In Matthew’s account, they asked “Why does your teacher eat with tax collectors and sinners?” But in Luke, the question is addressed to the poor disciples who probably didn’t have a clue why they were there and wished they hadn’t been. “Why do you eat and drink with tax collectors and sinners?”
Fortunately, Jesus stepped in and answered for them: It is not the healthy who need a doctor but the sick.
This is the latest in a list of sick people called by Jesus: Peter, the leper, the paralytic, Matthew, the tax collector. A fisherman, a leper, an invalid, a tax collector – all sick. So what is the point?
The point is made in Jesus’ answer to the Pharisees: “I have come for the sick. The healthy don’t need a doctor; the sick do. I haven’t come to call the righteous; I have come to call sinners.”
Matthew heard that! Jesus called him and all his friends “sick”. How would you feel if you invited someone for a meal and their response was “You’re sick, man.”?
Was Matthew offended? Or did he, and all his guests, say, “You know what, you’re right. You are a little blunt but you are right. We are sick. We need the help of a doctor. We are living lifestyles that even we don’t like. We make resolutions to tidy up our act but we can’t keep them. We enjoy sin too much. When it comes to judgement, we don’t stand a chance because we have neglected God and defied God. And we can’t escape this trap. We are sick. We do need help.”
We can assume that Matthew wasn’t offended by the by the fact that he became an apostle. Jesus hadn’t rejected him. Jesus had invited him onto His team. He had invited him simply to follow. There hadn’t been any conditions or rules laid down. It wasn’t “If you do such-and-such, you can follow me.” Jesus had simply invited. We can assume that Matthew wasn’t offended from the fact that he wrote this story about himself. “I was one of the tax collectors and sinners. I was sick. I needed a doctor. Jesus was right and I am glad that he came for the sick.”
The crowd had probably been horrified that Jesus should call a tax collector and equally horrified that Jesus would eat in Matthew’s house but Matthew recognised the genuine love and mercy and he responded to that and chose to follow Jesus. Was he offended by being called sick? No, he was sick but here was a doctor who offered health, and he wanted that health.
Luke includes two more words on the end of “I have not come to call the righteous, but sinners… to repentance.” He didn’t mix with sinners because He approved of their sin. He mixed with them to call them to turn away from their sin. By eating with them, He wasn’t approving of them but He loved them enough to want something better for them.
This is crucially important. Jesus spoke truth. He called sin “sin” and He called sickness “sickness” but people knew that they were genuinely loved. The doctor doesn’t see the patient so that they can both rejoice in the illness. The doctor sees the patient so as to bring healing.
Jesus also spoke truth to the Pharisees and the teachers of the Law. They thought that they were healthy and righteous so Jesus was frank: “I have not come for you. I’ve come for these people. You think you don’t need me. OK, have it your way.”
The main point here is that whoever you are, if you know that you are sick; if you know that you have failed time and time again to please God; if you know that sin keeps defeating you and you need help, Jesus has come for you. It doesn’t matter. Maybe no one else likes you – like Matthew. Maybe you are wealthy or maybe you are poor. Maybe you are physically strong and healthy but you know that spiritually and morally you are weak. It doesn’t matter. Jesus invites you to follow Him. He doesn’t set pre-conditions. You don’t have to pass a test first. Just choose to follow Him. He will accept you. You will be forgiven. And as you follow Jesus, you will learn all sorts of things and you will be wonderfully changed. Jesus calls even tax collectors. It doesn’t matter. Just follow Jesus. He is the friend of sinners.
Jesus’ invitation is incredibly inclusive in its scope. It is an invitation to everyone – everyone. The only requirement is that you are sick; that you know that you are sick and you need a doctor.
But note also that Jesus’ invitation is incredibly exclusive in its demands. Matthew was called to follow Jesus. Following means a radical change of direction. My life was heading in this direction; I now follow Jesus. That change of direction is called repentance. Matthew’s life had been all about greed. It would now be all about Jesus. That is what it means when we are told, in Luke’s words, that Matthew “got up, left everything and followed Him”. Matthew could not possibly have called himself a follower of Jesus and continued with his old life.
Following Jesus means a radical change in our lifestyle and in our priorities and loves and how we use our time and our money. Jesus requires that. Remember His words about loving Him more than our own families and “anyone who would follow me must deny himself, take up his cross and follow me”? Following Jesus means a radical change of lifestyle – making Jesus Lord of our lives. We cannot agree to follow Jesus but keep going the way we were before. Matthew’s response of getting up and walking away from his tax collector’s booth illustrates the change.
Jesus’ invitation is inclusive in its scope; it is extended to everyone. But it is exclusive in its demands. God doesn’t exclude but we exclude ourselves if we are not willing to admit that we are sick and seek the help of the doctor and turn from our sins. God invites everybody but not everybody accepts that invitation. God chooses everybody; we choose whether or not we will follow.
So, for example, as I mentioned before, Christians sin when they show hatred for homosexuals or they reject them of even just avoid them. This story of Jesus eating with tax collectors and sinners shows how unlike Jesus that is. Christians are called to be the friends of sinner just like Jesus was. But those who engage in homosexual acts are also sinning. They are doing what the Bible clearly says is sin. Jesus is not Lord of their lives. That is not following Jesus. But that should stir us to compassion – not to hatred but to compassion. The same is equally true of anyone involved in heterosexual sin – or any sin, like Matthew’s greed. Jesus calls the sick but He calls the sick to repentance.
Jesus said to the Pharisees and teachers of the law, “Go and learn what this means: ‘I desire mercy, not sacrifice.’” That is a quote from Hosea 6:6. So, Jesus taught the law to the teachers of the law! He told them that they did not understand their own area of expertise. “Go and learn what this means.”
God desires mercy, not sacrifice. The Pharisees did all the right things. They observed the Law in all its detail. Actually, they didn’t. Jesus called them hypocrites, but they gave the impression of doing all the right things and they believed they were righteous people. They tithed; they sacrificed in the temple; they observed all of the rituals.
God had said (and they should have known this), “I don’t want that. I want mercy.” Were they showing mercy? No, they were showing condemnation. They were looking down on these despicable tax collectors and sinner. They believed they were too pure to mix with such filth. One should not eat with them!
Jesus was utterly different. He showed mercy and He says to us, “God doesn’t want your sacrifices and your rituals. It is not about being in church every week and fulfilling certain religious obligations to earn brownie point. It is definitely not about feeling proud that we are not like other people. It is about showing mercy. It is about being the friend of sinners, loving them enough to eat in their houses and to mix with their friends and, out of love, to call them to repentance. There are those who know they are sick; who know that they are not good enough for God. There are those who want healing. God says, “Don’t stay in your church where they feel unwelcome. Go and show mercy to them.” Let those who have received mercy, show mercy. We can tell people about the Jesus who loves them no matter what.