Jesus Calls a Sinner

Title: Jesus Calls a Sinner


Text: Matthew 9:9-13

Date: November 2nd, 2008

Today, we continue in our study of the Book of Matthew, with chapter nine, verses nine through thirteen, in a section that describes Jesus calling a sinner – Matthew the tax collector. Now we probably wouldn’t label a representative of the IRS as a sinner today; we might not like him because he wants to take our hard-earned money from us, but we wouldn’t judge him a sinner. But back in ancient times, the tax collector was a corrupt individual who got rich off collecting taxes for the occupying political power by charging people more than was required and then pocketing the difference. So in this sense, in the ancient world tax collectors were thieves committing legally sanctioned robbery. Now what really bothered the Jews with a person like Matthew the tax collector was he stole money from his own people, his own ethnic nationality. It was bad enough the Romans collected taxes, but here was a fellow Jew collecting taxes for the Romans and also cheating his own people out of their money. So we can understand why the Jews saw Matthew and his kind as sinners. And then of course, Matthew was a sinner because with the riches he amassed he also indulged himself in all the vices available to him at that time. So it wasn’t the case he was being unfairly categorized a “sinner” but rather he earned that reputation by his corrupt living as well. But Jesus calls Matthew to follow him, as Matthew 9:9-13 records: “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.’” Jesus demonstrates his own outreach strategy. He shows us his own evangelism plan. It’s surprising, but upon reflection it makes perfectly good sense. It’s surprising in the sense he engages and interacts with people who are typically classified as non-religious. Or at least everyone would agree that they are not practicing their religion if they followed any religion at all. Most of the people who lived in the land of Israel were Jews, although there were more pious Jews, less pious Jews, and all the rest who were in the middle somewhere in respect to their spiritual participation in Judaism. Tax collectors, if they were Jews at all, were on the far end of the non-practicing Jew classification. In other words, they were basically non-religious, not because they didn’t believe in God or didn’t follow any of God’s laws, but because they weren’t allowed to show their faces in the Jewish places of worship. Because of their occupation and corrupt lifestyle they were probably not allowed to attend a Jewish synagogue or participate in any of the Jewish festivals or celebrations in Jerusalem. But Jesus called Matthew to follow him – that’s surprising. But then again, it also made sense to recruit a sinner because after all they were the ones who definitely needed the life-change Jesus came to offer. But it’s no wonder why the religious people, the scribes and Pharisees, questioned Jesus’ approach. Instead of recruiting those already inclined towards religion, Jesus recruits the very opposite end of the spectrum, the sinners, the non-pious, and the non-religious. There was also the majority middle crowd, neither sinners nor saints, who he worked with also. But let’s look closer at this verse and see if we can’t understand further why Jesus called Matthew. It may give us a clue to fulfilling the great commission the Lord has commissioned us to carry out. Let me make a few observations.

First, Jesus recruits and calls sinners. Matthew 9:9-10, “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.” So we see Jesus calling sinners, not just good guys. And the amazing thing is that Matthew the sinner followed him! Did Matthew know what he was doing, or was he just so shocked along with everyone else, that he responded impulsively? Whatever the case he must have been pretty brave because usually “sinners” — or people who are doing what they know they shouldn’t be doing — don’t want to hang out with holy men. It tends to reveal the contrast between their lives of sin and a holy life and that is usually painful. So sinners generally and usually avoid hanging out with holy people, but Matthew violated that general rule and followed after the holiest of holy people – the perfect Son of God, Jesus the Messiah. There most have been something in Jesus that although he was holy, he didn’t come across as “holier than thou.” There must have been something in Jesus that was welcoming even to sinners, which would cause them to overcome their natural aversion to interacting with or engaging with a holy man. Again, it must have been the distinction in Jesus between being holy but not “holier than thou,” as the typical pious, religious person was at that time. That’s a good standard to test ourselves on today – am I holy without being “holier than thou?” Or do I come across as “holier than thou” or prideful of the fact that I’m religious? Sinners can tell the difference because Matthew is a good example of a sinner who could tell the difference. In our outreach and evangelism, are we communicating a prideful “holier than thou” attitude towards sinners, or are we able to communicate both humility and holiness at the same time? Are we able to communicate warmth and welcome towards sinners while at the same time maintaining holiness and obedience towards God? Jesus must have had the perfect balance of humility and holiness that attracted even sinners to follow him. Now that doesn’t mean that all sinners were willing to follow him; we know they all didn’t. But Matthew and his friends were no doubt attracted to Jesus even as the Lord never compromised to the sins of Matthew and guests. But all during this, we wonder what his disciples thought of eating with Matthew and other corrupt people? The disciples were neither “sinners” like Matthew, not “religious” like the scribes and Pharisees, but were rather in that vast middle majority of Jews who were semi-pious, who attended the synagogues and festivals in Jerusalem. They would have been uncomfortable eating with the likes of Matthew and his friends, but they too were willing to follow Jesus into new and uncomfortable situations in order to do the will of God. Are you willing to follow Jesus into the unknown to do God’s will? True evangelism outreach requires it.

Second, the religious people criticize Jesus. Matthew 9:11, “When the Pharisees saw this, they asked his disciples, ‘Why does your teacher eat with tax collectors and ‘sinners?’” Now before we judge the religious people too harshly, let’s give them their due. Maybe they were confused by Jesus fellowshipping with these corrupt people. Maybe they honestly wanted to know why Jesus was eating with the most notorious sinners. They were curious because they didn’t understand. Maybe the question was simply an effort to understand, to get answers. I don’t think that’s why they asked, but it’s a possibility, and we have to be fair. But really, it seems more likely the reason they asked was to give a subtle rebuke to Jesus. They were saying that they disagreed with what Jesus was doing; he shouldn’t be eating with those bad people. Now again, before we gang up on the religious people, let’s try to understand them first. I don’t know about you but as a child I was warned to stay away from certain people, certain bad and dangerous types who might influence me to do the wrong things. It’s called staying away from the wrong crowd. We’ve all heard that – and there’s much wisdom in that. After all, there is a Bible passage that teaches, “Bad company corrupts good morals.” So there is some truth to what the religious people were saying behind Jesus’ back. But they may also have thought hanging out with so-called “sinners” might leave the impression that their sinning was acceptable, ok. It might encourage sinners to continue on in their sin because after all Jesus didn’t seem to object. It might be seen as an endorsement of sin. It might also encourage other people to sin because after all Jesus didn’t seem to have a problem with Matthew and his crowd. It might communicate a permissive tolerance for sin and sinning. Maybe sin isn’t so bad because Jesus didn’t rebuke those sinners but rather fellowshipped with them. So there were some legitimate concerns those religious folks had with Jesus and his disciples eating with Matthew and his sinning friends. We must admit that by fellowshipping with Matthew and his kind Jesus did introduce some confusion and even some ambiguity into the minds of many. The question must have been, even in the minds of good, honest people: “What is Jesus thinking? Where is he going with this? What is he doing?” Without some kind of explanation it is possible for different people to draw different conclusions as to what Jesus’ actions meant. Was he dismissing the law of God? Was he belittling holiness and obedience to God’s will? Was he taking a casual attitude towards sin – and teaching his disciples and others to do likewise? He certainly was not rebuking Matthew and his friends for their sinful lives and practices, but what was he doing? Usually for the religious people, the first word towards a sinner is rebuke for sin, but Jesus’ first word towards these sinners was warmth and welcome. What is our first thought and word towards sinful people? Is it a rebuke? If so, Jesus has something to teach us, but what is that teaching?

Third, Jesus explains himself and his approach. Matthew 9:12-13, “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.’” Without this explanation we are left as confused as those people in the first century as far as Jesus’ actions. Without this explanation we are left to draw our own confused conclusion – and we probably get it wrong! But with this explanation we get an insight into the genius of the Messiah and Master Jesus Christ. He begins by explaining that the sick – that is, Matthew and his friends, sinners, need a doctor, that is Jesus. Or in other words, those who are sick with sin need healing from the healer of souls Jesus. Those who are healthy don’t need healing because they aren’t sick. Or in other words, spiritually healthy people, those with a right relationship with God, don’t need Jesus the healer to heal them of their sin sickness. Now did Jesus actually believe that there were actually any people who were healthy, that is, anybody who didn’t have a sin sickness? Perhaps he was thinking of his own disciples or people whom he had ministered to who were cured of their sin sickness before. That’s a possibility, but I don’t think so. I think he’s talking to the self-righteous religious people who think they are holy, who think they are free from sin, who think they are spiritually healthy. To those people, he says, tongue-in-cheek, that they don’t need him to heal their sinful souls because they are already healthy. The truth is that nobody is healthy, everybody is sick in their sins. The Bible teaches “All have sinned and fall short of the glory of God,” and “There is none that is righteous, no not one.” So in reality everyone is sick, everyone is a sinner, everyone needs saved from their sins – only some know they are sinners and some don’t. Jesus also said that he came to call sinners, not the righteous. Again, I think he’s talking about those who think they are righteous, the self-righteous. He came to call sinners to follow him, turning from their sins and turning to God. Everyone who comes to God must first realize he is a sinner. If he doesn’t realize he’s a sinner, he can’t be saved. Grace can only come to someone who sees his or her need for it. If someone’s thinking they are already righteous, then they can’t receive the true righteousness Christ offers sinners. Now, in order for Jesus the healer of souls to do his work he needs to get close enough to the sick sinner to administer the cure. That’s what Jesus was doing by eating and fellowshipping with Matthew and his sinful friends – he was getting close enough to them to help them. And that’s what we have to do in order to bring the gospel cure to this sin-sick world. We must be willing to get close enough to “sinners” to administer the gospel cure. That doesn’t mean that all sinners will receive the gospel; it doesn’t even mean that most will receive it; but some will receive it. In order to minister the gospel to sinners we must get close enough to them to help them. That’s what Jesus was doing. He wasn’t partying with Matthew in order to have a good time. He wasn’t joining in with this bad crowd in order to meet his own needs, he was doing so in order to help them. And that’s the attitude we must have when we go about the task of fulfilling the great commission to spread the gospel to everyone. We can’t reach anyone unless we are willing to get close enough to them.

The problem with the religious people of Jesus’ time was they were thinking only of themselves – their own purity, their own piety, their own holiness – but they weren’t thinking about lost sinners who needed rescue from their life of sin. Yes, it’s easier to stay out of trouble personally by ignoring everyone who is part of the “wrong” crowd. And we sympathize with parents who warn their children to beware of certain kinds of people and stay away from them. We also sympathize with parents who are cautious about who their children associate and hang out with in school. Parents don’t want their children falling in with the wrong crowd. A bad crowd can corrupt a good kid to do wrong. That’s a fact. But that’s for kids. When we get old enough we need to stop living a life of protectionism, fearing the corrupting effect of other people upon our lives. We need to start thinking in terms of how we can help other people, not just protect ourselves. We need to start thinking about how we can help our family members, our friends, our co-workers, and our neighbors, etc. overcome their sins and come to God. We need to begin to shift from thinking solely or primarily about our protection from corruption to thinking in terms of how we can help other people find freedom in Christ from their sins. That’s what Jesus means when he says, “But go and learn what this means: ‘I desire mercy, not sacrifice.’” Mercy involves thinking of other people, having mercy on the souls of other lost sinners. Sacrifice can be a very selfish religious ritual where I take care of my spiritual obligation before God, where I atone for my sins through offering right sacrifices, performing pious acts, living a holy life. It can even mean me acknowledging God’s grace in my life through the cross of Christ. But again, it can be a very closed, selfish thing – me doing my own thing to get myself right with God. But Jesus is challenging people to stop thinking only of their own personal relationship with God and begin to think about helping others have a right relationship with God. As Christians, we can get all caught up in our own spiritual practices and observances – daily prayer, daily Bible readings, weekly church attendance, etc. and neglect others who need to know how to have a basic relationship with God through Jesus Christ. How are they ever going to know about the gospel if we never get close enough to “sinners” to explain it to them? How can we get close enough to sinners to befriend them if we aren’t willing to eat and associate with them? By befriending them we aren’t saying we tolerate sin or we treat sin casually. By associating and fellowshipping with sinners we aren’t condoning their sins or joining in with them in sin – at least we better not. Yes, there are risks involved. Yes, there will be temptations involved. That’s why we should see our actions as a missionary would, as Jesus did. Yes, there will be misunderstandings and confusion on the part of other Christians. But let them ask questions of us, so that we can explain ourselves to them, and also so that we can be held accountable to them as well. Our goal is to influence the lives of lost and sinful people with the gospel of Jesus Christ. There is only one way to do that – get involved in the lives of “sinners.”


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