I never suffered with allergies until I moved to Georgia. Along with the beauty of the mountains, there is something in the air, some strain of pollen or grass that triggers a river to begin flowing within my sinuses. My throat gets sore. My eyes itch. My head aches.
Eventually, when I just couldn’t take it anymore, I went to a physician and pleaded for help.
Upon arrival at the doctor’s office, I discovered that I wasn’t alone. just one in a long line of patients with the same condition.
Thankfully, he knew exactly what I needed and prescribed Flonase.
At the time, I didn’t know what I needed.I just knew I needed something.
That really is the first step toward healing and wellness. Admitting the problem. Confessing a need for help that must come from outside of yourself.
Most of the medical problems we face deal with physical issues, where something is broken, torn, or strained or where the physical symptoms may be traced to a viral invasion, a bacterial infection, or a chemical imbalance.
What do we do when the root condition in need of treatment is not physical but spiritual. What if our primary need is not the treatment of a congenital physical defect but is a congenital defect in the soul?
This defect manifests itself with clearly identifiable symptoms which can be detected very early in humans.
- Temper tantrums express an uncontrollable inner anger and self-centeredness.
- The refusal to share a toy manifests the natural greed in the human condition.
- The need to bully reveals a profound lack of love rooted in personal insecurity.
Eventually these seeds of moral dysfunction grow into larger manifestations of the condition ranging from domestic violence, to sexual perversion, to road rage, to international conflicts, to self-medicating numbing addictions like over-shopping, to binge watching cat videos, to gluttony, gossip and on and on.
Here is the deal. Outward and observable sin, whether small scale or large scale, is merely a symptom of a congenital and eternally terminal spiritual disease.
You and I, and our children, and the rest of the world, manifests these unpleasant symptoms because we all are infected and afflicted. Each one of us is born into this condition. It is a congenital moral disease that needs a spiritual cure.
What we discover in Matthew 9:9-13 is that Jesus is the Physician who has come to provide that cure for people who are willing to admit they need it.
So, the question is: Am I sick enough to need Jesus?
This is the question that we need to keep in mind as we walk through this passage, where in verse 9, we meet…
A MAN NAMED MATTHEW
9 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.
There are two things I want to point out about this encounter between Jesus and Matthew.
First, Jesus sees Matthew. But not in the way we expect.
Tax collectors in Israel during the first century were Jews who worked for the Roman government to collect taxes from their fellow Jews — money that went to support the hated occupying regime.
What is more, tax collectors often took in more than necessary in order to line their pockets with extra income, often becoming very wealthy on a system that essentially legalized extortion. While tax collectors were wealthy, they also were despised by their fellow Jews, who considered tax collectors traitors to Israel.
Most all of us have someone we loathe — whether it (sadly) is a racial or ethnic loathing, a religious loathing, a political loathing, or just a loathing of a rival university. It could be a guy in the office or someone in your own family.
When we “see” them, what emotions are stirred? What is our mental disposition toward those whom we despise?
Any ordinary Jew who saw Matthew would have looked upon him with loathing.
This makes what happens next so unexpected and dare we say, scandalous. Not only does Jesus see Matthew…
Second, Jesus calls Matthew to be one of his disciples. Jesus was a Jewish rabbi. Rabbi is the Hebrew word for teacher. When a rabbi summoned an individual to formally become a “disciple” of the rabbi, he was inviting them to become part of the rabbi's inner circle of students with whom he would live life, teaching by precept and by example.
Jesus would only call twelve into this special relationship, men who were not chosen haphazardly but through prayer and with purpose.
But no rabbi would ever, ever choose a tax collector as a disciple.
The only way for us to grasp the magnitude of his scandal may be imagine Jesus approaching the person whom we loathe — an inner city gang banger, a meth dealer, a politician from the other side of the isle, the owner of a strip club — imagine Jesus walking up to that person and inviting him or her to join his inner circle of friends.
If I have not come to a place where I recognize that my soul is as morally corrupt and in need of the same mercy as the person I despise, I simply don’t get the gospel.
If I have not come to a place where I recognize that my soul is as morally corrupt and as much in need of mercy as the person I despise, I simply don’t get the gospel. I’m still just religious. Much like the Pharisees who saw the sins of others so clearly but were blinded to their own.
In verse 10, the scandal just gets worse, where we see Jesus not just with one, but with...
A CROWD OF SINNERS
10 While Jesus was having dinner at Matthew’s house, many tax collectors and sinners came and ate with him and his disciples.
First, notice how Matthew responds to Jesus’s call to discipleship.
By opening the doors of his home, Matthew invites Jesus all the way in. Not just into the foyer to sit and have a formal conversation, but he invites Jesus into the dining room to share a meal, which was symbolic not only of cultural hospitality but of personal intimacy.
Notice also that he doesn’t rush home to clean up in order to put his best foot forward by showing Jesus how clean and orderly he is. Matthew is saying, the totality of my life is yours. Just as I am. Mess and all.
Remember, Jesus didn’t say, “Matthew, if you are willing to leave your life as a Jewish traitor and extortioner, then you can come and follow me.”
No. The call to discipleship preceded any change that would take place in Matthew’s life.
What we see over and over again is that Jesus calls people just as they are (in the midst of their mess) but he doesn’t leave them just as they are.
Theologically, we say that those God justifies he sanctifies.
In other words, it is not change that leads to grace, it is grace that leads to change.
It is not change that leads to grace, it is grace that leads to change.
Notice also the ripple effect. Word travels fast.
We are not sure if Matthew sent word for his friends to join the dinner party or whether folks just heard about Jesus being at Matthew’s house and showed up, like the Dwarves at Bilbo Baggins’s house in The Hobbit.
However folks heard about the goings on at Matthew’s house, a large crowd of “many sinners” gathered to meet and spend time with Jesus.
And this is not necessarily a crowd of gutter dwellers. Matthew and his tax collector friends would be some of the wealthiest Jews in the community. Wealthy but unwelcome among the religious crowd.
The designation “sinner” would refer to anyone who was known to be outwardly and wantonly immoral or who didn’t practice Judaism with the rigor and scrupulosity of the Pharisees.
What I find most telling in the narrative is that it is the “sinners” who are drawn to Jesus. Not the religious people. These “sinners” are not forced or compelled to attend dinner at Matthew’s house. But so many show up. Folks who would never darken the door of the Temple or a synagogue.
What if our Sunday gatherings were like that? What if word got out to our community that if your life is a wreck, you need to show up at the high school. Be sure to take a seat before the service begins because right at the start you are going to be drawn to the Lover of your soul, to the One who is able to heal, forgive, and restore, lavishing grace upon the broken and hope to the sinner.
To this end, our welcome statement in our worship guide reads:
To all who are weary and mourn; to all who are weak and struggle; To all who fail and feel worthless; to all who fear and doubt; To all who sin and need a Savior; we open wide our doors and our hearts.
The Pharisees would not have been fans of that welcome. In fact, in verse 11, as the crowd of sinners gathers, they ask...
A CONDESCENDING QUESTION
11 When the Pharisees saw this, they asked his disciples, “Why does your teacher eat with tax collectors and sinners?”
Did you notice that this question was not asked directly to Jesus but to his disciples. It was not a question looking for an answer, but a question intended to create suspicion and sow dissention among Jesus’s followers. It was an accusation in the form of a question.
By talking about Jesus rather than to him, the Pharisees reveal how the enemy attacks the church today. One of the most insidious practices is talking about someone else’s issue rather than speaking to them about the issue.
At any rate, it is here we see the essence of the scandal. Jesus wasn’t just talking with sinners, keeping his distance, he was eating with them.
Why was eating such a problem?
Pharisees were members of a strict group of Jews who were concerned with moral purity — at least the outward appearance of moral purity which for them was a source of their moral superiority.
For the Pharisee, this moral superiority was obtained through a combination of obedience to the Jewish moral and ceremonial laws, the keeping of a variety of religious traditions, and through their separation from having an association with "sinners."
For a Pharisee, to eat with a sinner was the opposite of separation.
In ancient cultures, eating was not merely functional. It was practically sacramental. This meant that to share “table fellowship” was to identify yourself as their friend.
To the outrage of the Pharisees, Jesus was genuinely befriending the sinners in this community.
Another question that arises is this: How was Jesus so comfortable with the sinner crowd?
One secret may lie with the observation that he didn’t demand that they change their ways in order to be known by Jesus and to experience his kindness, warmth, and friendship.
Again, it is not change that leads to grace, it is grace that leads to change. It is not change that leads to friendship. It is friendship that leads to change.
The apostle Paul would put it like this in Romans 2:4 where he writes that “it is God’s kindness that leads us to repentance.”
After all, it is only when we know we are safe to confess our need that we will confess our sin. If pardon is promised first, we are far more likely to come clean and tell the whole truth about our involvement in the crime.
It is only when we know we are safe to confess our need that we will confess our sin.
What we observe is that Jesus was willing to “be with” and “befriend” sinners because it takes proximity and time in order to develop the kind of friendship that builds trust and leads to the opportunity for dealing with matters of the soul.
Jesus didn’t treat people like projects to fix but as people to love and heal.
I wonder if, over time, we have gotten this backwards and accidentally become more like Pharisees than we’d want to admit. It just seems to me that members of Bible believing churches tend to demand sinners change before we will befriend them with the kindness, warmth, and compassion of Jesus.
We really need to turn that back around.
What may help us is found in the final two verses of our text, where we discover...
A FUNDAMENTAL PRINCIPLE
12 On hearing this, Jesus said, “Those who are well have no need of a physician, only those who are sick. 13 But go and learn what this means: ‘I desire mercy, not sacrifice.’ For I have not come to call the righteous, but sinners.”
The principle is so fundamental and so simple: sick people need a doctor.
When a patient shows up at a physician’s office, the doctor is not surprised to discover that the individual is sick. A doctor does not shame or ridicule or despise or loathe someone who needs medical care.
It is the same way with Jesus. As he steps in to answer the Pharisees’ question, he uses the analogy of a physician to explain why he befriends sinners.
Sick people need a doctor.
Of course, the sickness Jesus is alluding to here is not an allergic reaction to pollen or even a more serious medical condition.
It is our congenital sickness of the soul.
In verse 13, when Jesus highlights mercy as what God desires from his people rather than sacrifice, he is quoting from the Old Testament prophet Hosea 6:6, which, in its original 8th century B.C. context, describes the sacrifices being offered in Israelite worship as duty-driven, heartless, and empty religious traditions.
Obviously, this was a direct rebuke of the Pharisees, who were anything but merciful.
What they are we are to “go learn” is that those who have received mercy should be those who show mercy.
If I have received compassion for my sickness, I should have a similar compassion for someone else’s sickness — whether that sickness is of the body, the mind, or the soul.
While the Pharisees claimed the moral high ground, in truth they were as sick as the most desperate sinner at Matthew’s dinner party. They just couldn’t admit it.
For the Pharisee, righteousness was obtained through outward personal morality. Their salvation was found in their sacrifices for God.
Salvation is not found in our sacrifice for God but in his sacrifice for us.
But in the gospel, salvation is not found in our sacrifice for God but in his sacrifice for us.
We cannot be healed by our morality.
We can only be healed by God’s mercy.
Dateline NBC is a television news magazine that has been on the air since 1992. One segment of the show from several years ago revealed how their are continually thousands of people on the transplant waiting list in the U.S.
This particular episode focused on Ward 7E at Mount Sinai Hospital in New York City, where nine men and women were waiting for a new heart.
Towards the end of the show, one of the patients receives word that a heart is available and that he was getting a transplant. You can imagine the elation and joy. He was moved to tears, as well as his family. They had waited and wondered. Now, a heart was finally available and he was next in line.
However, their joy came at a cost. As you know, for a heart patient to receive a transplant, someone else has to die.
When I get sick enough to need Jesus and receive healing for my soul, I will start having compassion on others the way he has had compassion on me.
When Jesus called sinners like Matthew to follow him, he intended for them to follow him all the way. Not merely past the foyer to the dinner table, but past the demands of the law, past their failure, past their shame, all the way to the cross, where Jesus willingly and purposefully endured the death and judgment our sickness deserved. He received my heart of sin so that I could receive a new heart — his heart of perfect righteousness.
The truth is that each one of us is born on a heart transplant waitlist. But in the gospel, our congenital spiritual defect finds a cure, and you are the next in line.
The question is whether or not I am willing to admit my need and, in repentance, appeal to the kindness of God for the healing, forgiveness, and reconciliation with God that is available through the Great Physician, the crucified and risen Jesus.
Here is a bonus.
When I get sick enough to need Jesus and receive healing for my soul, I will start having compassion on others the way he has had compassion on me.
And at that point, I will possess the mind and heart that God desires for his people to have as we engage the world, not with Pharisaical hypocrisy, but with the genuine humility of those who have been saved by grace, and by grace alone.