READ : Matthew 9:9-13
Jesus’ most basic command was a simple two-word order: “Follow me.” How likely you are to do that depends on just how you see yourself.
Matthew the evangelist, whose gospel we have been following in this series of programs about Jesus’ ministry, was originally Matthew the tax collector. The only mention Matthew makes of himself in his work is a brief reference to his conversion and its immediate aftermath.
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.
A Dramatic Conversion
“As Jesus passed on . . . he saw a man called Matthew sitting at the tax booth.” That’s not much of a description for the evangelist to give us of himself. The only thing Matthew tells us about himself is his occupation, but that occupation says it all. Matthew was a tax collector. The Romans farmed out the tax collection in their empire to locals who would bid for the privilege of raising money from a given district. The only thing the imperial overlords cared about was receiving the amount due. How much the local tax collectors actually raked in and what methods they employed to collect it were of little concern to the Romans themselves. So you can imagine what tax collectors were like. They were a sort of combination of mob extortionist and Nazi collaborator, the most despicable members of their society.
It may startle you to realize that Jesus must have known Matthew the tax collector for years. Matthew’s place of business was just outside Jesus’ own city of Capernaum (Matthew 9:1). Jesus would have passed by that particular toll booth often in the years that he lived there. Matthew had undoubtedly put the squeeze on Jesus, and his widowed mother, and his younger brothers and sisters, more than once looking for money they could not well afford to pay.
But now Jesus is no longer just a simple carpenter, and he is going to exert a very different kind of pressure on Matthew. Jesus stops and calls Matthew to become one of his disciples. “Follow me,” he says. It’s the simplest and most basic of all the Bible’s commands, and perhaps the most important for us to obey. This is exactly what Jesus had said to Peter, James, and John as they sat by their fishing boats and mended their nets on the shore. Whoever you are, wherever you are, whatever you are, Jesus’ call to you is the same. It is at once an invitation as well as a command. Being a notorious sinner like Matthew does not disqualify you from receiving the invitation; being a respectable businessman like Peter or John does not excuse you from obeying the command. To each and every one of us Jesus says, “Follow me.”
And Matthew did. The gospel simply states, “And he rose and followed him” (v. 9). Luke, in his account of this encounter, adds a detail: “And leaving everything, he rose and followed him” Luke 5:28). You see, there is an urgency about following Jesus. It’s a life-and-death decision. Matthew didn’t even stop to close his books or pick up his money. When the chance came for him to cast his lot with the followers of Christ, he took it without a moment’s hesitation.
It’s tempting to try to dig deeper into Matthew’s psychology here and know what prompted this extraordinary response. Had he been thinking about Jesus? Was he attracted to his teaching and character? Maybe. Did Matthew feel disgusted with himself and his life, guilty for what he had become? Was he secretly longing to break the chains of his own greed? Possibly. Was Matthew moved by Jesus’ willingness to accept and welcome a social pariah like himself, was he astonished by the amazing grace, “that saved a wretch like ‘he'”? Perhaps.
But the truth is, we don’t know any of those things. We’re not told what Matthew’s feelings and motives were. The text is less interested in Matthew’s act of obedience than in Jesus’ word of command. That’s where the emphasis falls. Jesus speaks, and as with all of God’s words, what he commands happens. Who can fully understand how it happens? Why does anyone decide to follow Jesus? Every conversion is the story of both a mystery and a miracle. But the word of Jesus has explosive power, and here it blows away Matthew’s old life. It dynamites him up out of his seat and scatters his ill-gotten gains. The powerful word of the Lord liberates Matthew the tax collector from his degraded past just as surely as it blows up the more conventional lives of the other disciples.
If Matthew’s conversion is mysterious, what happens next is perfectly understandable. Matthew immediately wants to introduce all his friends and associates to Jesus, so he throws a big dinner party (see Luke 5:29), and everybody comes:
And as Jesus reclined at table in the house, behold, many tax collectors and sinners came and were reclining with Jesus and his disciples. And when the Pharisees saw this, they said to his disciples, “Why does your teacher eat with tax collectors and sinners?” But when he heard it, he said, “Those who are well have no need of a physician, but those who are sick. Go and learn what this means, ‘I desire mercy, and not sacrifice.’ For I came not to call the righteous, but sinners.”
One thing that strikes me as I read the gospel accounts of Jesus’ ministry is how quickly opposition to Jesus developed among the religious leaders of his day. He had barely appeared on the scene in Galilee before the scribes and the Pharisees began to criticize his words and actions.
The scribes were the official interpreters of the Jewish scriptures and thus filled a role similar to that of ministers and priests today. We might even think of them as the Bible teachers and the theologians.
And then there were the Pharisees (the precise meaning of that term is uncertain), but they developed as a group in the aftermath of the Exile, when a remnant of the Jewish people returned from captivity in Babylon to refound the city of Jerusalem, rebuild the temple, and restore the Jewish religion. During the period between the end of the Old Testament and the beginning of the New Testament the Pharisees emerged as a party within Judaism. They were determined that the law should be kept in its entirety. They were the orthodox, the totally dedicated, the religiously pure??”scholar Dale Bruner calls them “The Serious”??”who would go to any lengths to keep God’s commandments.
But why such instant, intense, deadly opposition to Jesus of Nazareth? Why were the Pharisees so swift to denounce him, so eager to entrap him, so anxious to discredit him? To put it bluntly, why did the very people who wanted to honor God the most hate Jesus so much? I suppose there are several reasons for it.
First of all because Jesus challenged their legalistic religious code. The Pharisees’ tradition had built up over the course of many generations an extensive body of extra-biblical rules to keep people from transgressing the law. Jesus didn’t accept these human rules; in fact, he regularly and intentionally broke them. And then there was also Jesus’ personal popularity, which must have grated upon the egos of these religious leaders. After all, who was this upstart teacher from Galilee? What gave him the right to make such authoritative pronouncements? Why should all the people be flocking to hear him?
But here in Matthew 9 at Matthew’s dinner party we see yet another reason for the Pharisees’ hostility to Jesus. Here’s Jesus enjoying the hospitality of his newest disciple, Matthew the tax collector. The guest list, on this occasion, includes a lot of Matthew’s old friends and colleagues, a group collectively described as “tax collectors and sinners.” We’ve already seen what the tax collectors were like; the sinners referred to here were probably mostly just people who didn’t measure up to the Pharisees’ strict standard of law-keeping. Centuries of striving so hard to be good had in fact produced in the Pharisees a contempt for those who were less law abiding. In fact, their pride in their piety became legendary (cf. Matthew 6:1-18; Luke 18:9-14). So Jesus’ association with such disreputable people offends the Pharisees’ sense of propriety.
Once when Martin Luther was criticized for writing something thought to be not sufficiently respectful of the pope, he replied, “I’m sorry. I thought he was just another stinking sinner like the rest of us.” The Pharisees’ trouble was that they forgot they were stinking sinners like everybody else, and when Jesus reminded them of it, they hated him for it.
So the Pharisees express their objection in a complaint to Jesus’ disciples: “Why does your teacher eat with sinners?”, which prompts his famous reply, “Those who are well have no need of a physician, but those who are sick. . . . I came not to call the righteous, but sinners.”
Have you ever heard somebody explain that they have rejected the church because it’s full of hypocrites? The best way to respond when you hear that old excuse is to say, “Of course it is. Where else would you expect them to be? Criticizing the church for being full of sinners is like criticizing a hospital for being full of sick people.”
Those who think they are righteous will have no interest in Christ. But people who realize how broken and needy and sinful they are will turn to him eagerly. A moment ago I quoted Martin Luther. Here’s something else he said, in a letter to a friend. “Beware of ever desiring such purity that you do not want to seem to yourself to be a sinner, for Christ dwells only in sinners.”
I am grateful for that. Aren’t you?