A number of years ago my wife Jennifer and I, our two little ones and one in the oven returned home from studying in England. And soon after we returned I was offered a job with a big horticultural company that involved managing about 60 workers. One thing I noticed right away was that this company had hired an unusually disproportionate number of young women to work as landscapers. Also, over time, I also came to realize that almost every woman working there was… and I want to be sensitive to the children here today so I will use coded language… living an alternative lifestyle. Being surrounded by so many women living this way was new to me. But they were good workers, I was their boss and the nature of the job meant I spent a lot of time with them: in my truck traveling from job to job… training them… often working alongside of them…. Well, after a while, as I got to know many of them, Jennifer and I decided together that something was going on and that we ought to begin inviting some of these ladies over to our home from time to time. Over time our home became a safe place for a good number of these ladies and they began to open up about their lives and their pasts and the decisions they’d made. And they would in turn listen as we shared about our lives and our faith and the reasons we lived the way we lived. We knew God was working and I thought it would be good to share this reality with the leadership of the small church we attended then. So, I asked to meet with the elders. They listened to my story and they told me to carry on as God led. But then one of the elders said, “I have one question, Tim. You aren’t planning on ever bringing any of these women here to our church are you? It just wouldn’t be right to have people like that here in our church.” Now, at first I didn’t know what to say, but as I looked around and saw that there were a number of affirming nods in the room, I said, “Oh, no, I would never think of bringing any of these people here.” And in one second my eyes were opened. It was clear that I had crossed a line… the line that divides those who are worthy of God’s love from those that aren’t. As we’ll see in today’s passage, my new friends were the new tax collectors. Now, I realize that some of you may have heard this story before… but I couldn’t talk about today’s passage without talking about this moment because it was a marker moment for me, a moment that helped me understand what Jesus was saying in today’s passage.
Turn with me to Matthew 9:9 page and let’s look at this passage together. Now, you can find this story in 3 of the gospels: Matthew, Mark and Luke. Interestingly, all three accounts are almost identical in the Greek, which means that someone was copying someone… but copying was perfectly acceptable in the 1stCentury. In fact, being plagiarized was considered an honor. And for Matthew, Mark and Luke to carefully include this story in exactly the same language shows us just how important they felt this event was in Jesus’ life. We’ll be using Matthew’s version as our main passage today and I’ll also reference a couple of details from the other accounts as well. Let’s read it.
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. While Jesus was having dinner at Matthew’s house, many tax collectors and “sinners” came and ate with him and his disciples.When the Pharisees saw this, they asked his disciples, “Why does your teacher eat with tax collectors and ‘sinners’?”On hearing this, Jesus said, “It is not the healthy who need a doctor, but the sick. But go and learn what this means: ‘I desire mercy, not sacrifice.’ For I have not come to call the righteous, but sinners.”
First, I don’t think I can over emphasize how much Jews in general, not just the Pharisees, but all Jews, hated tax collectors. Here’s why: The Romans took a regular census of the empire every seven years, I believe, and they used these censuses to determine how much money each region owed Rome in taxes. Once the Romans had figured out how much money a region owed them they would then bid out the collecting of those taxes to local people willing to do the work of collecting the money for them. The winner of the bid got to keep an agreed up percentage of the taxes as well as anything they collected over and above the amount Rome demanded. So, you know what happened. To make matters worse, Rome gave tax collectors great freedom in how they collected the money. If the money wasn’t come in as expected they could kidnap a rich family member and hold them for ransom; they could blackmail people; they could extort money under the threat of violence; they could even use torture if they felt it necessary… and all without impunity from Rome. Rome was an iron-fisted, occupying force; the taxes they demanded were high to begin with but often Rome would raise their demands on a people as punishment for causing trouble; the Jews were always causing trouble. It’s believed that the rate in Israel at this time was about 40% of the local economy. You can see why Jews hated tax collectors. Matthew was a tax collector… he was a Jewish tax collector; worse yet, he was a Levite we’re told in the other gospels. Levites were supposed to be priests and serve in the temple. But Matthew was working for Rome. Everyone thought of tax collectors as the worst of sinners; they were traitors and thieves, for heaven’s sake. The rabbis had even ruled that tax collectors were as unclean as a person with leprosy and any contact with them was discouraged. And as it always is in such situations, tax collectors became a society of their own within the Jewish world… a tax collector’s mafia of sorts. And Jesus called Matthew. He even called him while Matthew was sitting at his toll booth working! My bet is that when Jesus said “Follow me!” some eyebrows raised including the disciple’s eyebrows. Calling Matthew was just plain crazy! But, what we read is that Matthew was ready to meet Jesus. He immediately got up and followed Jesus. The word here that is translated “got up” literally means ‘to rise up’ and it is the same Greek word that is used to describe Jesus ‘rising up’ from the dead. ‘And rising up he followed Jesus.’ I love this: I believe Matthew’s use of this word about himself remember tells us that Matthew suddenly had new life. Luke also tells us that Matthew not only ‘rose up’ and followed Jesus; he tells us that Matthew, and I love this too, ‘abandoned everything and followed Jesus.’ I’m sure everyone present was thinking, “A tax collector, of all people, abandoning everything and following Jesus. Now that is a miracle!”
Now, verse 10 is a bit of a mystery. The Greek never tells us that this is Matthew’s house. It just says, “It came to pass as he was reclining in the house.” Whose house we really don’t know… most likely Matthew’s, but scholars debate this… but whose house isn’t necessarily important. What is important though is that these people… Jesus, his disciples and tax collectors and some other sinners… were all in the same house eating together. Jews took everything related to eating very seriously. They had strict rules about how to wash before eating, how to pray before eating, what you could and couldn’t eat and who you could eat with. What it really came down to was that you were only supposed to eat with either your family or very close friends because when you ate with someone you were telling the world ‘we belong to one another.’ And Jesus and his disciples were eating with tax collectors… so you know what that was saying! And they weren’t just having a casual lunch either. The word in the Greek that our Bible translates as ‘having dinner’ and ‘ate with’ is literally ‘reclining.’ It means to ‘lie down on your side.’ Jews ate most meals sitting on little stools. They only reclined during special meals. Wherever this meal was, it was a special occasion because they were reclining… all three versions of this story describe a large, festive, joyous, loud gathering. It’s no wonder that people dropped by to see what was going on. And I’m not surprised that some Pharisees showed up… Pharisees that felt it was their business to ask the question that was most likely on everyone’s mind. “What are Jesus and his disciples doing with those people?” And did you notice, they didn’t ask Jesus directly? They asked his disciples, because they probably assumed that the disciples weren’t 100% comfortable with what was happening. Luke’s gospel describes the Pharisees’ question as ‘grumbling at the disciples.’ “Why does your teacher eat with tax collectors and sinners?” But Jesus hears what is happening and I am confident it made his blood boil… and he answers the Pharisees in a response that turns out to be a hugely important statement. In fact, what Jesus did, even in the midst of the frustration of the moment, was clarifying once and for all why he had come in the first place… he restated the purpose of his mission: he said, “It is not the healthy who need a doctor, but the sick.But go and learn what this means: ‘I desire mercy, not sacrifice.’ For I have not come to call the righteous, but sinners.”
The reason I feel comfortable saying that Jesus’ blood was boiling is because what he says here is actually very testy. When he says, “Go and learn what this means” he’s pushing it. Pharisees were men who’d committed their lives to studying the Bible. Their identity was built on knowing as much as they could about the Scriptures. Jesus saying, “Go and learn’… implied they needed more schooling. I’m sure that went over well. And what he then quoted to them was just a little, tiny bit of scripture from the Old Testament prophet Hosea, a little, tiny bit of scripture that I’m sure Jesus knew these Pharisees would recognize immediately. And here is the kicker: this little bit of scripture comes from a passage that tells us something very specific. Hosea was writing during a time when the Jewish religious leaders were saying something like this to one another, “God has been pretty rough on us lately… apparently he’s been punishing us for our mistreatment of the poor. Here’s how we can fix this. All we need to change is to start doing the religious things we’ve been ignoring, you know, the sacrifices and the temple stuff. If we do those things it should obligate God to back off and maybe even bless us.” In other words, they were saying straight up that they could manipulate God simply by doing certain religious things in certain ways. Hosea then delivered God’s response, which was what Jesus quoted. “What am I going to do with you, Israel? I do not desire sacrifice but mercy.” And Jesus, by quoting this passage to the Pharisees was saying, “You need to understand this, too. You need to learn what it is to show mercy to those that need it. Your rule following is gets you nowhere with God. I have not come to call the righteous but sinners. I have come to show those in sin, like these tax collectors, some much needed mercy!” Luke’s gospel actually adds one important word to Jesus’ restatement of his mission. Luke quotes Jesus saying, “I did not come to call the righteous but to call sinnersto repentance.” This is what Jesus was all about: calling sinners to repentance and new life… again, sinners like tax collectors… Oh, and by the way, both Mark and Luke tell us that many tax collectors were choosing to follow Jesus… and to be honest the repentance of a host of Jewish tax collectorsshouldhave started a party! All of Galilee should have pulled out all of the stops and ‘reclined’ together in celebration. But the Pharisees still had a lot to learn! Now, they looked good… I’m sure they were wearing the right tassels on their robes, eating the right diet with the right people, keeping all of the right religious practices… oh, they looked good on the outside, but, like the characters in our video today, there was something going on inside of them that Jesus had to expose… they were also condescending and hateful and self-righteous and merciless. They, too, needed a doctor. They, too, needed to be healed. And their healing would only come when they recognizedwhois important to God andwhatis important to God and changed their ways: repented. Their healing would only come when they joined Jesus in his mission… to help bring mercy to those who desperately need God’s mercy.
Now, I know this passage isn’t a difficult one to understand; I’m sure most of you figured out the big idea in this passage right away… But, like most of the things that Jesus says, living out that big idea is another thing. Jesus’ statement here makes it clear that his mission… and by extension it makes clear the mission of anyone that claims to be a follower of Jesus… and that mission is to offer spiritual healing and mercy to anyone that needs healing and mercy. His mission is to call sinners… real sinners… the ones who are covered in the muck of their sin… to repentance and to new life. This was his mission and it is to be my mission… at least it is to be my mission if I claim to be a disciple of Jesus. And if this is supposed to be my mission then I have some personal heart checking to do. First, I need to honestly check my own heart and see if I have any of my own ‘tax collectors,’ people that I feel are undeserving of God’s mercy. I’ve found this can be all over the map. I’ve met Christians who treated divorced people or women who cut their hair as if they were tax collectors… I’ve met Christians that felt that Democrats were beyond mercy and others that felt the same way about Republicans. Clearly, my friends living an alternative lifestyle were beyond mercy to some of the elders of that church. And I can get really smug when I think about these kinds of, what I would call silly attitudes because I don’t struggle with these kinds of condescension. But, the truth is, and it feels terrible to admit, that as I look out over the landscape of our world, I can be such a snob. It doesn’t take me long to see people that I just don’t care about… oh, it’s not that I don’t believe they deserve God’s mercy, it’s just that I’d rather not have to be the one that deals with people like them. And this pains me as I think about it… mostly because I know what I felt like when I was told that no mercy was going to be shown to the women that I was finding actually wanted someone to show them God’s love. And yet, all these years later I still have my tax collectors. I, too, with all of my schooling, a man whose identity is very much wrapped up in knowing the scripture, I am still in need of going and learning about God’s mercy and his heart for everyone. And I don’t think I’m alone in this.
And secondly, I need to have a reality check about the sin in my own life. I, too, can be much like the characters in our video. I’m not the kind of person that is going to live a sinful life out in public like the ancient tax collectors did. But, if I’m not continually taking the pulse of my spirit, and I know myself well enough to say this: if I’m not checking out my heart regularly then I can easily slip into the kinds of sin that the Pharisees fell into: being heartless and self-righteous and merciless. This passage tells me there is no room in Jesus’ mission for any of this. I must never assume that I can get away with doing less than abandoning anything and everything that stands in the way of me following Jesus.
Back when we were getting started creating Grace Church one of the women who’d worked for me and had remained a part of our lives for over a decade… a woman who I’d found left her Christian heritage due to what I can only call overbearing, chauvinistic, spiritual abuse by church leadership, said something like this to me. “If you can start a church where I can walk in the door and feel as safe as I do in the front seat of your truck or in your home, I might consider coming.” And that has been a part of my personal vision for Grace since day one. A place where people feel safe… a place where we can offer the tax collectors of our world both the opportunity to repent and rise up and follow Jesus as well as a trustworthy, safe community that will celebrate their new life. In August we are going to be focusing on what it looks like for us to be an ‘invitational culture.’ You will hear a lot more about this soon. But for now I cannot think of a better way to prepare for that coming sermon series and its emphasis on bringing others into our community and into an opportunity to follow Jesus than for all of us to do what this passage calls us to do: the work of looking deeply into our own hearts and seeing what we need to learn… and if we find that we need to learn some things, then having the courage to let Jesus’ words change us and turn us into people who offer all in need the mercy and the new life that only Jesus can give to them.