Matthew 9:9-13

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Matthew 9

9 As Jesus passed on from there, he saw a man called Matthew sitting at the tax booth, and he said to him, “Follow me.” And he rose and followed him. 10 And as Jesus reclined at table in the house, behold, many tax collectors and sinners came and were reclining with Jesus and his disciples. 11 And when the Pharisees saw this, they said to his disciples, “Why does your teacher eat with tax collectors and sinners?” 12 But when he heard it, he said, “Those who are well have no need of a physician, but those who are sick. 13 Go and learn what this means: ‘I desire mercy, and not sacrifice.’ For I came not to call the righteous, but sinners.”

Here is Thomas Cahill, author of How the Irish Saved Civilization and The Gift of the Jews, on the state of the Christian church:

Many Christians, especially higher clergy, are concerned only with the strength of Christianity as an institution—something Jesus showed no interest in. They show little concern for the success of the Gospel of peace and love…Christianity comes in two different packages, official and real. Official Christianity is doing pretty well, with a head count that is several hundred million more than its nearest competitors, Islam and Buddhism. But there is the question of what the content of Christianity is, and whether Christians truly subscribe to this content—Feed the hungry, clothe the naked, shelter the homeless, comfort the afflicted.  Here, the results are much more spotty.[1]

What I want to say immediately is that, yes, the “content” of Christianity does involve all of the things Cahill mentions—feeding the hungry, clothing the naked, etc.—but it also includes a theological component as well. That is, Christianity is a theological assertion as well as a philanthropic and benevolent effort. The latter flows out of the former.

That being said, I do agree with Cahill’s basic point that “official” Christianity (we might say “institutional” Christianity) is indeed often at odds with “real” Christianity. Furthermore, I agree that the point of departure between the “official” and the “real” is Jesus’ lovingkindness revealed to suffering and lost humanity.

Our text demonstrates how the “official” oftentimes misses the “real.” In Matthew 9, the “official” is represented by the Pharisees, one of the prominent faces of institutional Judaism. In our application of this text to the church we might say that the Pharisees represent the religious people in churches who like to check all of their theological and ecclesiological boxes but who, in their great regard for the rules and decorum, often miss the very heart of Jesus: love for people, love for sinners.

It is this last point—Jesus’ love for sinners—that is at play in this particular separation of the “official” from the “real,” and it is the call of Matthew specifically where we see this dynamic fleshed out.

A Most Unlikely Disciple

It must be noted, first, that Matthew is a most unlikely disciple. Our text reveals the primary reason for this unlikelihood.

9 As Jesus passed on from there, he saw a man called Matthew sitting at the tax booth, and he said to him, “Follow me.” And he rose and followed him.

Matthew was a tax collector. In first century Judaism it is hard to imagine a more despised character than a tax collector. Craig Keener explains why this is:

The common people and nonaristocratic pietists despised tax gatherers as agents of the Romans and their aristocratic pawns…perhaps something like what the Dutch or French felt toward local collaborators with the Nazis or African felt toward slatees, African assistants to European slave traders.

            The average Jewish person in ancient Palestine had several reasons to dislike tax gatherers. First, Palestine’s local Jewish aristocracies undoubtedly arranged for this collection…Second, the Empire sometimes had to take precautions to keep tax gatherers from overcharging people…which suggests that some tax gatherers did just that…some also beat people to get their money…Further, nearly all scholars concur that taxes were exorbitant even without overcharges; in some parts of the Empire taxation was so oppressive that laborers fled their land, at times to the point that entire villages were depopulated…

            Matthew’s office would have made him locally prominent, possibly as a customs official. Customs officers demanded written declarations of travelers’ possessions and searched baggage…They may have collected some other government revenues as well…some Jewish texts condemn customs officers as well as other tax gatherers…though some such officials appear to have become benefactors to local populations.[2]

One thing is for sure: these tax collectors were more than effective. Josephus reports that Herod Antipas derived the modern equivalent of approximately five million dollars each year from the taxes he levied.[3]

Imagine, then, what the common person felt when he saw Matthew at his booth. He felt anger. He felt defensiveness. He felt a sense of bitter confusion. Why on earth would this man, a fellow Jew, help the despised Romans, those foreign invaders who held them all under the bootheel of oppression? Did the common man give the tax collector’s booth a wide berth when he had to pass by, in order to avoid being fleeced? Or did the common man walk sufficiently close by so that he could communicate his great distaste for the tax collector either by word or gesture? In either case, there could be no doubt in the people’s mind about the lostness and necessary distance of the tax collector from them and God and there could be no doubt in the tax collector’s mind of how people viewed him.

But hear our text again:

9 As Jesus passed on from there, he saw a man called Matthew sitting at the tax booth, and he said to him, “Follow me.” And he rose and followed him.

How astonishing! Where everybody else saw a loser, a reject, an undesirable, an outcast, Jesus saw a would-be disciple, a person made in the image of God, a person worthy of His attention and, most importantly, a person He intended to call.

Our text should caution us against writing people off, relegating people to the category of the useless and the despised. Our text should remind us that Jesus looks at us with the eyes of Heaven, with the loving heart of God.

A Most Ironic Blindness

Jesus looked at Matthew with the eyes of Heaven but the Pharisees looked with the eyes of official religion and from a vantage point of self-righteousness.

10 And as Jesus reclined at table in the house, behold, many tax collectors and sinners came and were reclining with Jesus and his disciples. 11 And when the Pharisees saw this, they said to his disciples, “Why does your teacher eat with tax collectors and sinners?”

Given all that was said above, the scandal of Jesus eating with “many tax collectors” is understandable. This scandal was amplified with the Pharisees. Frank Stagg points out that “Pharisee means separated, ones separated from ‘unclean’ people and things.”[4]

Even so, I call the Pharisees’ blindness “ironic” because they were well-versed in the things of God. They should have understood and seen the truth of the matter: that to show mercy and reach the lost and the outcast is to demonstrat the heart of God. These Pharisees should have known better. However, their question reveals how blind they truly were to the heart of God:

“Why does your teacher eat with tax collectors and sinners?”

Why does this question reveal their blindness? Because this is what God does: He moves toward the lost. And how do we know this? Because “in Christ God was reconciling the world to himself, not counting their trespasses against them, and entrusting to us the message of reconciliation” (2 Corinthians 5:19). In other words, when Jesus moves toward sinful Matthew, it is God moving toward sinful humanity.

Here again we see the difference between the “official” and the “real,” to borrow Cahill’s distinction. Official religion guards against the lost, the sinful, the distant, and those far from God. The official sees sinners and thinks “judgment!”

But true religion, real faith, moves toward the lost, the sinful, the distant, and those far from God. Those who know the heart of God do not want the lost to be judged. Instead, they want them to be saved, transformed, resurrected. They want the lost to receive salvation by grace through faith. This is the heart of God, as Peter reveals in 2 Peter 3:

9 The Lord is not slow to fulfill his promise as some count slowness, but is patient toward you, not wishing that any should perish, but that all should reach repentance.

The Pharisees saw in Matthew a scoundrel in need of judgment.

Jesus saw a human being who could become one of His disciples.

The Pharisees condemn.

Jesus saves.

A Most Scandalous Mission

In the call of Matthew we see the heart of God and the heart of Jesus’ mission. This is revealed even more clearly in Jesus’ response to the Pharisees’ question.

12 But when he heard it, he said, “Those who are well have no need of a physician, but those who are sick. 13 Go and learn what this means: ‘I desire mercy, and not sacrifice.’ For I came not to call the righteous, but sinners.”

To use a modern colloquialism, Jesus, to put it mildly, brings the thunder in His words! He points out the obvious: sick people need doctors, not healthy people. In saying this He was offering a subtle condemnation of the Pharisees themselves, for they, in this story, were truly the sick ones. They were blind! Jesus’ critique of the Pharisees is heightened in His next words: “Go and learn what this means…” He then quotes from Hosea 6

6 For I desire steadfast love and not sacrifice, the knowledge of God rather than burnt offerings.

Jesus’ rendering of this beautiful verse is “I desire mercy, and not sacrifice.” But it is His invitation for the Pharisees to “Go and learn” what those words mean that stung most, for His words assume that they are ignorant of the scriptures in which they should have been highly proficient.

But more than this, Jesus’ quotation of this verse suggests not only that these Pharisees do not understand the scriptures but also that they do not understand God! In saying this, the “real” called the “official” out on its hollowness and hypocrisy.

Jesus came to show mercy. The Pharisees would not have disagreed that God was merciful in theory. There are plenty of passages in the Old Testament that say this outright. But it is one thing to know the words and it is another to see the words lived out in flesh-and-blood uncomfortable reality. “Early Jewish literature indicates that, for all Judaism’s emphasis on mercy and repentance,” writes Craig Keener, “Jesus’ act of actively pursuing sinners was virtually unheard of…it is thus not surprising that it appeared scandalous.”[5]

This verse that Jesus quotes, Hosea 6:6, contains a fascinating word, a mysterious word, a saving word. We should rejoice that Jesus quoted this verse and used this word! What is this word and why should it thrill out hearts? Michael Card explains:

The Old Testament word for “mercy” is the Hebrew word hesed. This word describes the very heart of God and is used 250 time in the Old Testament. It is an untranslatable word, like love. It can properly be understood only by being incarnated. And this is what Jesus has come to do. The creators of the King James Version had to invent a new word to attempt to translate the untranslatable hesed. They came up with the compound word lovingkindness. The best translation I know requires an entire sentence: “when the person from whom I have a right to expect nothing gives me everything.”[6]

What an image: “when the person from whom I have a right to expect nothing gives me everything”!

Sit with that for a while.

Let that stay with you.

Let that change you.

Hesed.

“When the person from whom I have a right to expect nothing gives me everything.”

And it is this word and this truth that Jesus employs to define His ministry!

Jesus delights in showing mercy! Jesus has come to show mercy! Jesus is in the mercy-giving business!

If you are broken in your sin and feel judgment and condemnation, remember this: the Lamb of God who takes away the sin of the world sees you and loves you. You are why He came! I am why He came! We are why He came! For we are all Matthew. We are the tax collector. We are the judged, the condemned. And rightfully so. We are indeed sinners! But Jesus comes to pay the price for your sins and to cancel the debt against you.

Mercy! Sweet mercy! Jesus offers you mercy!

How do you receive this mercy? You repent. You leave the booth of your shame! You follow Jesus! And Jesus forgives you and shows you mercy and grace and forgiveness.

You are loved. Jesus loves you. Step into His offered hesed and be saved.

 

[1] Life Magazine, December 1999, p.68.

[2] Craig S. Keener, The IVP Bible Background Commentary: New Testament. 1993(Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity Press, 1993), p.187.

[3] Michael J. Wilkins, “Matthew.” Zondervan Illustrated Bible Backgrounds Commentary. Gen. Ed., Clinton E. Arnold. Vol.1 (Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan, 2002), p.63.

[4] Frank Stagg, “Matthew.” General Articles, Matthew-Mark. The Broadman Bible Commentary. Vol. 8 (Nashville, TN: Broadman Press, 1969), p.129.

[5] Craig S. Keener, p.189.

[6] Michael Card, Matthew. (Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity Press, 2013), p.89-90.

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