I got a little fired up in preaching this sermon. This was one of those texts that grabbed me and wouldn’t let go once I got studying it. Some texts burn their way into your heart, fill your mind, and fire your imagination. God’s Word is always effective, but sometimes you can feel it at work, and this was one of those times. It torques me when fallible, weak, sinful people want to sit in judgment on God for lavishly offering His grace to a fallen race — but that’s what we all do at times. Ladies and gentlemen, we have met the Pharisee, and he is us (to paraphrase Walt Kelly.)
This sermon didn’t preach exactly as I have it written here. I dwelt more on the individual’s relationship to God — whether we approach the Lord as a Pharisee or a tax collector. Perhaps that’s just as well — this coming Sunday’s gospel deals with exactly the issues that I skipped over in preaching the burning message of this text, which is God’s grace to all regardless of who approves. That’s another built-in benefit of the lectionary – you cover everything when you follow along and preach each text as it’s supposed to be. (Even the intro for this sermon fits with next week’s gospel, as that gospel contains the calling of the 12.)
The first picture in this post is a painting by Caravaggio, who’s probably my favorite painter. I like how he used light and dark, and how realistic his scenes are. And most of his subjects came from the Bible, which I also like (surprise, surprise.) Caravaggio is the name of one of the characters in one of my favorite books, The English Patient by Michael Ondaatje. I highly recommend it — a beautiful book.
May Jesus warm your heart with His abundant grace, and may you find a place in the marriage feast of the Lamb in heaven. Amen, and God be with you.
“As Jesus went on from there, he saw a man named Matthew sitting at the tax collector’s booth. “Follow me,” he told him, and Matthew got up and followed him.
10 While Jesus was having dinner at Matthew’s house, many tax collectors and “sinners” came and ate with him and his disciples. 11 When the Pharisees saw this, they asked his disciples, “Why does your teacher eat with tax collectors and ‘sinners’?”
12 On hearing this, Jesus said, “It is not the healthy who need a doctor, but the sick. 13 But go and learn what this means: ‘I desire mercy, not sacrifice.’ For I have not come to call the righteous, but sinners.” (matt 9.9-13 niv84)
We don’t know a lot about the men who became Jesus’ disciples. We hear little facts here and there, but for twelve men who became the foundation of the Christian church after Christ ascended into heaven, we know surprisingly little about them. Some of them we know no more than a name. Others, even the more famous ones like Peter, we may know only a name, an occupation, and a hometown – and that’s it. Not much for those who would be the church’s teachers in the future. Even the little we do know about them teaches us about God’s grace in action – not just little tidbits about their lives. Take Matthew, for instance. He records the story of his own calling in our gospel for today. This account is broader than just information about Matthew, though. We also see God’s generous grace extended to those who need it the worst, and how self-righteousness can rob you of that grace. Today we will see that Only Sinners Need Apply.
Matthew probably had heard Jesus preach before, or had been present in the crowds when He’d done miracles before. Many of the miracles Jesus did were famous throughout the area. Matthew could hardly have avoided hearing about Jesus. They probably even knew each other, or had met before. The way Jesus speaks to Matthew here, and the way Matthew responds, would lead us to think that they had had at least a little contact before. Most people wouldn’t just get up from their desk and leave work because someone told them to follow them.
But we shouldn’t minimize what a remarkable thing Matthew’s calling is. It’s remarkable when you consider what Matthew himself must have been like. His position meant that he was well known in the community…but not well liked. He had the job of making sure that everybody paid their taxes, and the Romans taxed everything. They contracted the job of collecting taxes out to native people in the lands that they’d conquered, which meant that Matthew, a Jew, was collecting taxes from his fellow Jews for the hated Romans. The tax collectors were allowed to keep any money over the amount of the tax that they could collect. It was basically legal extortion, and there wasn’t a thing the people could do about it.
Nobody liked him. His only friends were his fellow tax collectors. Look who he invites to his banquet – the guys he works with. His job made him an outcast to his fellow Jews. He couldn’t even go to church. Tax collectors were not allowed to attend the synagogue with the rest of the Jews. Their profession made them unclean, because they dealt with Gentiles all day and because they were regarded as little better than thieves – and the worst kind of a thief is one who works inside the law. He was well off, to be sure, but that couldn’t make up for what he didn’t have. He was cut off from the people around him. He had no way to be forgiven of his sins, no way to get closer to God, if he couldn’t go to church. Every day Matthew probably went home to a well-furnished, large, comfortable home that still felt empty – because something was missing. That something was the presence of God in his life. He had no connection to God, and thus he felt tired, burdened, guilty, and alone. Maybe you can imagine how he felt, because you feel that in yourself at times.
And then one day Jesus walked by, and He said, “Follow Me.” In those two short words was the promise of everything Matthew felt so keenly that he lacked. Jesus cared about him! Nobody else did, except his boss, and even then he didn’t care about Matthew, he cared about the money Matthew brought in – but Jesus cared about him! Jesus didn’t hold Matthew’s sins against him, like everybody else did. Jesus did something better with them: He forgave Matthew. Matthew knew, when he heard the Savior’s voice, that this man was different – He loved sinners, He didn’t want to ostracize them. Matthew knew that Jesus loved him, and therefore God loved him. That was worth more to Matthew than everything that made up his life to this point. What could all the money in the world compare with knowing for a fact that he had a gracious God in heaven who was watching over him, who’d promised to forgive him every time he sinned, and who was everything he needed?
Matthew looked down at the table full of money in front of him, and he pushed back his chair. He got up and walked out of his tax collector’s booth, and he didn’t look back. There were probably a few soldiers on hand to keep order and to safeguard all that money, but still – who just walks off the job like that? Matthew understood at that moment that his real treasure was in the kingdom of heaven and in everything Jesus gives, and not in the gold and silver that the world covets.
Then Matthew threw a big party at his house. He invites Jesus over as a way to honor Him, and to say thank you. Matthew knew that he could never repay Jesus for what He’d done for Matthew, but Matthew wanted to say thank you. Matthew also has another reason for hosting this dinner. He invited all his tax collector buddies so they could meet Jesus. Matthew knew that they had the same sins, the same bad consciences, that he did, and he wanted them to meet their Savior too. Centuries before anybody coined the term, Matthew was practicing friendship evangelism here. He was sharing Jesus with the people he knew, so that they could find what he had found: peace for their souls, a home in heaven, and burdens lifted off their shoulders. This was a big deal. To eat a meal with someone was more than just politely accepting an invitation – it showed that you and they had something in common. It showed that you had a close mutual bond of fellowship. You identified with the people you ate with. They were your kind of people. Here, Jesus eats with the sinners – the tax collectors, the people who didn’t follow God’s law and didn’t care who knew about it. These were the kind of people that could get you a reputation if you ate with them.
The Pharisees were more than ready to give Jesus that kind of a reputation. He had failed to live up to their own personal codes of holiness. They had decided that certain people were beyond the pale, were not even worth considering associating with, and Jesus wasn’t living up to that. The Pharisees shake their heads and whisper among themselves – “Do you see that? He eats with tax collectors and sinners! What kind of a teacher is He?” The Pharisees did this because they thought they were better than the people inside. They were stone-cold convinced that they were special in God’s eyes just because of who they were. They had no mercy or pity for those who were inside with Jesus, no compassion for those who were trapped in their sins, because they did not think that their sins stank in God’s nostrils as badly as those of the tax collectors’. The Pharisees did not grasp what great sinners they truly were. They didn’t know how sick they were. They were like the fitness fanatic who runs marathons as a hobby, who feels fine until one day he sees spots and falls over, then goes to the ER and finds out he has cancer. “How can that be? I feel fine!” You don’t always know how sick you really are. Or anorexic Hollywood actresses who starve themselves until they’re skeletal, and they think they look fabulous, but they really look ghastly. You don’t always know how sick you are.
So which one are you? A tax collector weary of your sin and ready to embrace the good news of forgiveness that He preached? Fed up with your inability to stop or control your sin, sick of what it does to your life, and longing for a way out? Longing for forgiveness – a clear conscience – hope – a bright future, and feeling like you don’t deserve it? If you feel like a tax collector – like you’re too sinful for God to love you – then come, find peace and rest for your souls. You are not too sinful to love. God forgives you for the sake of His dear Son. He loves you and He gives you the pledge of that love and forgiveness again today, in the Lord’s Supper.
Or would you be one of the crowd of Pharisees outside, excited because you feel like you “caught” Jesus doing something that your personal moral code, and not God’s law, said was “wrong”? Looking down on those who crowd around Him and feeling superior because you’ve got a fine reputation and fewer sins to repent of? Feeling absolutely no need to be here today at all, other than purely social reasons – see and be seen, catch up on gossip, look for things to disapprove of or “catch” people at? If you realize that you’re more like a Pharisee – if you realize that you’ve got an unblinking eye for other peoples’ weakness and sins and you never see your own sins or are bothered by them – then go home and get out your Bible or your catechism. Turn to the Ten Commandments, and go through them slowly. Can you look God in the eye and say that you’ve kept every one of them perfectly, even in your thoughts and desires? Can you really say that you’re better than someone else just because fewer people know about your sins, or because nobody will confront you about them? Remember, God knows. Then when you realize that you, too, are sick with sin and need a Savior, then come – come to His table, come and hear His Word that forgives you and encourages you. Those tax collectors came because they craved God’s grace and they knew Jesus had it for them – He was giving it away to anyone who would listen – that He cared for their souls, not for what their lives had become outwardly. The Pharisees came to disapprove and carp and sniff contemptuously and find fault – but not for themselves. Never for themselves. They had no need of the doctor or the medicine, because they didn’t think they were sick.
What would our church look like if we extended Matthew’s kind of hospitality – or Jesus’ kind of hospitality? Would we have gay people? Would we have black people, Jews, Hmong? I simply raise the question; I don’t know. We might not have a lot of that kind of outsider in our community — but who else might be here? The people that everybody takes for granted as being lost causes, too sinful to be worth the effort, not worth the time to talk to? Even those who used to fill these pews but have drifted away and nobody’s gone to get them? Let’s not let them be lost anymore. Those are the exact people Jesus came for – people like you and me. Amen.