Text: Matthew 9:9-13
Gospel Reading for St. Matthew’s Day
Grace to you and peace from God our Father
and the Lord Jesus Christ. (Eph. 1:2)
At first blush the calling of Matthew might feel kind of sudden, don’t you think? The short story begs the question: Why Matthew? Why did Jesus approach and call this man seemingly out of the blue? Well, this calling isn’t quite as random as we might think at first. Think for a moment what life would have been like for Matthew, day after day and year after year. Matthew would sit in his hot little booth, likely set up on the shore of the Sea of Galilee, waiting for travellers to pay the toll as they passed from one province to another. It is not like Matthew hadn’t heard anything about Jesus. Matthew certainly would know more than most people about what was going on in town. Everyone in the nearby cities had at least heard about Jesus. But Matthew just sits at his booth. Apparently he’s uninterested in this Jesus fellow. But one afternoon this Jesus, who is mobbed by a crowd that is showing lots of interest in him, walks up to a random, uninterested fellow sitting at a toll-booth, and says, “Hey you! Follow me.” And this tax collectors leaves his booth and follows Jesus.
The Sinners who are called
Now, if you were a tax-collector in the ancient world, or for that matter in our world, you would get used to people being angry with you. In Matthew’s world it was just assumed that tax-collectors could be lumped together with ‘sinners’. Now, all Jews knew that everyone is a sinner, so what do the Pharisees mean when they talk about “sinners”? Well, if they were talking about a Jew, it would be like saying that this particular person was no better than a pagan. These were notorious sinners, social outcasts, people like prostitutes, thieves, murderers and others who lived lives openly against God’s Law. Tax-collectors were lumped in with sinners because, first, they were collaborators, who worked with the hated foreign government, and, second, because they made a little extra on the side, taking money for themselves by collecting too much.
Matthew is retelling his own story because he wants us to know what type of person he was. He was a tax collector, a greedy, perhaps corrupt, tax-collector. That’s the type of person Jesus approached and called. The story we have here is not so much about how Matthew was converted, but who was converted. Matthew, the tax-collector, is telling the story of his own calling, and he sandwiches his story in the middle of a whole bunch of healing stories. He is connecting his own story with the healings of Jesus. Why would he do that? Because, for Matthew the tax collector, when Jesus calls him, it felt exactly like a healing, a spiritual healing. The greedy, godless, guy at the tax office is given a sudden burst of new life, a resurrection even.
Jesus is interested in sinners. Sinners from all walks and ways of life. Even those sinners who we think are beyond the pale, outside the bounds of acceptable behaviour, Jesus calls them. Jesus calls those sinners whose way of life makes us uneasy. He calls those sinners who we think don’t deserve an ounce of our time or energy. He calls the outcasts, the riff-raff. He calls gay, straight, conservative, liberal, black, white. It doesn’t matter who you are, if you are a sinner, Jesus is calling you.
The Physician who calls
The pharisees, on the other hand, thought it was their duty to keep themselves in quarantine, away from possible sources of moral and spiritual infection. They did their best to encourage other Jews to join them in the same kind of rigorous purity. They hoped that if enough Jews were to go through the decontamination process and join them in spiritual quarantine, then Messiah finally could come, overthrow the Romans, and establish God’s Kingdom.
Why did the pharisees find Jesus table fellowship with tax-collectors and sinners so scandalous? Because these “sinners” haven’t gone through their spiritual decontamination process. They in fact had been excluded from the synagogue and respectable society. But here Jesus is, eating with them. Here is Jesus, reclining with the reprehensible, dining with the detestable, communicating with the unclean, eating supper with the scum of society. Here is Jesus, the messiah of Israel, sharing a meal, the most intimate social custom in Jewish society with unclean Jews. He’s offering to them fellowship with God. The outcasts are being invited back in, and that makes the Pharisees angry.
They’re angry at Jesus because he’s claiming that these outcasts are now acceptable and spiritually clean because of their association with Jesus. Jesus is claiming to be the embodiment, replacement, the fulfilment of the Temple, the sacrifices, all those laws which Moses had commanded. Why did Jesus eat with tax-collectors and sinners? Because, Jesus saw himself as a doctor who’d come to heal the sick. There’s no point in a doctor staying in quarantine. He’ll never do his job. The worst sinners make the best candidates for God’s mercy because, unlike the “righteous”, the religious person who can’t seem to find any blemishes on their background check – the sinner knows his need and longs for a cure. Jesus came to call sinners, not after they had gone through spiritual decontamination. Fellowship with Jesus is the spiritual decontamination. What he’s doing is on an agenda which is drastically different from the Pharisees. The Pharisees want sacrifice and purity, temple and law. Jesus comes with mercy, forgiveness, and hope.
Jesus eats with tax-collectors and sinners because he has come to offer them forgiveness. Their sins have excluded them from God’s people, and from God’s presence in the Temple. But Jesus has come to forgive them. He forgives them without the need for a sacrifice because he is the sacrifice – His own blood shed, his own body given! He is the Lamb of God who takes away the sins of the World. And if he takes away the sins of the world, that means he has taken away yours as well. This sacrifice, this blood avails for you! No matter what you have done, the worst was done to Jesus upon the Cross and by that God offers you pardon, peace, and forgiveness.
That forgiveness means that He has come to restore and rebuild their broken relationship with God. All of us have experienced the pain and fallout of broken human relationships. But our relationship with God has been broken, and Jesus has come to restore it. He has come to make them part of God’s own people. Now, they have access to God once again. They don’t need the Temple, because Jesus himself is the very presence of God. God himself is with them and is eating a meal with them. As such, they are now part of God’s family, the Church. God is with us here. He is with us through his Word and Sacrament. He is with us under the bread and wine for us to eat and drink. We are his people gathered together to receive his gifts. We can call God our Father and can rejoice that we’ve been included among his people.
That means that Jesus has offered these people salvation. There is the hope of a new world: a new restored earth, a new heavens. There everything that has went wrong with this world will be set right again. There death and sickness and dying will be no more. There sin will be a thing of the past. Reunited with loved ones. Everlasting life. Most of all: a life lived with the Lord as our God, a life lived in his presence as he intended.
And so, Jesus calls us sinners to work with him in his Kingdom. Jesus called Matthew to be an apostle, and Matthew followed Jesus. He wrote this gospel which we have, and he preached as a missionary to pagan lands and there he was martyred. You might not be called to write a gospel and be a martyr, but you are called by God to work in the kingdom. You are called to extend the love of Christ to your friends, family, co-workers, and neighbours. If you, a sinner, have been shown such mercy, how could you not tell others about it?
Jesus called Matthew the tax collector because Matthew was a sinner. Jesus came to call sinners. That is the main point of this passage. That is what should be flashing before your eyes. If you are a poor, miserable, sinner, then Jesus came to call you. Today, dear friends, Jesus is calling you. He is calling you to repent, and be forgiven. He’s calling you to enjoy the blessings of God’s Kingdom. That’s a kingdom where you are part of God’s own people, adopted into the very family of God. That’s a kingdom that will never end. And it is yours, because Jesus calls sinners.
The peace of God, which surpasses all understanding,
guard your hearts and your minds in Christ Jesus. (Php. 4:7)