Friday 28 May 2010

The Call of the Kingdom (Matthew 9:9-13)

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."

(Matthew 9:9-13)

It is tempting to focus on the one individual Jesus approaches and enlists as his disciple here in this passage. My NIV bible heads the section as "The Calling of Matthew". The other two gospels have "The Calling of Levi" (Levi being Matthew's other Jewish name) in their parallel accounts of Mark 2:13-17 and Luke 5:27-32.

Yet, in all three accounts, the controversy surrounds Jesus calling not one "sinner", but gathering around him many "sinners". Here in Matthew's gospel, verse 10, it is when many tax collectors and sinners come and eat with Jesus, that the religious leaders start to kick up a fuss.

This is not to say that Matthew's invitation by Jesus to join him in life and ministry is not important. Rather the calling of Matthew as an individual, soon gives way to the calling of a community made up of many individuals like Matthew, which forms the basis of a Kingdom proclaimed to many sinners like us. This passage progresses from:

  • The Call (Verse 9)
  • The Community (Verses 10 to 11); to...
  • The Kingdom (Verses 12 to 13)

1. The Call

Matthew is a tax collector. His profession is highlighted three times in the passage. In verse 9, he is sitting at the tax collector's booth. In verse 10, many of his tax collector friends join him at home. In verse 11, the religious leaders criticise the whole bunch of tax collectors as "sinners".

All his life, Matthew never forgot that. In the next chapter, Matthew's name is among the twelve chosen apostles of Jesus. Yet even there, he is called "Matthew the tax collector" (10:3). Being in the inner circle of Jesus, witnessing his miracles and listening to his teaching, even writing this gospel account Jesus' life, ministry and death - never changed the fact that Matthew would always be remembered for this one job he once worked. But what was so significant about being a tax collector?

It is often taught in Sunday School that tax collectors were greedy businessmen who imposed harsh taxes on the people of Israel, forcing them to pay more than they could afford to line their own pockets. But the hatred of tax collectors goes deeper than even that.

2000 years ago, Israel (and much of the Western world) was ruled by the mighty Roman empire who enforced their power and influence through a strong military presence. The only way to finance the large number of troops needed for such a massive operation was tax. Money was collected to pay for soldiers, arms and supplies. Jewish businessmen bid for contracts to collect tax on behalf of the Roman government from their own nation. In effect, these tax collectors were financially enabling the occupation of their own country.

Tax collectors were seen as political traitors. But the label of "sinners" goes one step further to say that theirs was a moral offence against the God of Israel. Working in close proximity with Gentiles made them "unclean" - they couldn't come into the presence of God. Colluding with a foreign nation was an affront to the Kingdom of God - they stood under the wrath of the Almighty.

For Jesus to call Matthew, a tax collector, to follow him as a disciple is surprising, if not offensive. Not least because Jesus could have had his pick. Huge crowds followed him wherever he went. Many came seeking miraculous healing. Large numbers gathered to hear him preach. Not a few approached him to be discipled. In the previous chapter, Jesus had a learned scholar coming up to him to offer his services. "Teacher," he said, "I will follow you wherever you go." Jesus rebuffed him, "The Son of Man has no place to lay his head." Or later in chapter 19, when a rich man claiming to have kept the commandments of the God's law sought after Jesus, only to end up leaving sorrowful, having been asked by Jesus to sell his possessions.

Jesus could have chosen the best, the brightest and the influential. Instead, he chooses Matthew - a traitor, an outcast and a sinner. Matthew: who was not there in the crowd that day but stayed in his office minding his own business. He doesn't even bother to get up when Jesus finds him "sitting at the ... booth". But Jesus sees Matthew, Jesus calls Matthew, and Matthew responds.

"Follow me," he told him, and Matthew got up and followed him.

To be called of God, is to be invited by Jesus. Personally. Irresistibly. To get up from wherever you are in your life right now, and join Jesus by walking with him and living for him alone. This is what it means to follow Jesus. This is what it means to become a Christian.

And Jesus says the reason he came is to call people like Matthew. He came to call sinners.

2. The Community

The religious leaders did not understand this. When Jesus is in Matthew house with Matthew's friends, the Pharisees gather outside to condemn Jesus for the company he is keeping.

When the Pharisees saw this, they asked his disciples, "Why does your teacher eat with tax collectors and 'sinners'?"

But notice that the point of contention is not just Jesus' company, but also his activity. Jesus is eating with these sinners. The issue is defilement. A sinner is unclean, and eating with a sinner makes you unclean. It was bad enough for Jesus to enter Matthew's home. But to eat his food? Doesn't Jesus realise he is contaminating himself not just externally but internally now?

Later in Chapter 15, Jesus would say to them, "Listen and understand. What goes into a man's mouth does not make him 'unclean,' but what comes out of his mouth, that is what makes him 'unclean.' " In Chapter 23, Jesus would condemn them for their concern with outward appearances but ignorance of their inner hypocrisy: "Woe to you, teachers of the law and Pharisees, you hypocrites! You clean the outside of the cup and dish, but inside they are full of greed and self-indulgence."

The Pharisees raise their objections to Jesus' disciples. Perhaps they are trying to be polite (yeah, right!) by passing the message along. More likely, the religious leaders are standing outside Matthew's house, unwilling to risk defiling themselves by entering in. Yet there they are, standing on the outside, refusing to join in the celebration, and looking down disapprovingly on all who do.

The scene reminds me of Jesus' parable of the wayward son and his older brother in Luke 15 which ends similarly with a big party. The youngest son who had insulted his father by demanding his share of the inheritance only to leave home and squander it all on "wild living", returns home sheepishly only to be welcomed with open arms by his loving father. The father throws a huge celebration in honour of his youngest, much to the displeasure of his oldest son, who comes home after working all day in the estate, and starts kicking up a fuss. The older brother refuses to even step into the house. "No! I won't!" Like a small brat he throws a tantrum, blaming his father, blaming his brother, all the while insisting on being in the right.

And here in Matthew's gospel, outside Matthew's house, the Pharisees act like the older brother - who complain against the wayward, sinful brother; who pour scorn on their joy; who criticise Jesus for associating with these outcasts; and who still see themselves as righteous, holy and acceptable. It is worth asking at this point: why were they so confident of their rightness and Jesus' wrongness? What was it about the Pharisees and religious leaders that made them think so lowly of the tax collectors, indeed, of Jesus for mixing with the tax collectors?

It was their goodness.

Sunday School kids are often taught, "Don't by like those Pharisees, those hypocrites! They are the bad guys!" We imagine Pharisees to be spoilsports, mean-spirited, grumpy old men. But actually, the Pharisees were the good guys. They read their bibles. They followed the rules outlined by God's law. They looked forward to God's kingdom. They were religious, respectable and biblical. They were the kind of people you wanted teaching your kids in schools. They were the kind of people you wanted to run your churches - serious about sin and fervent about God's word. Pharisees were the good guys.

And Jesus shocks them by saying he didn't come to look for the good guys. He's come for the bad.

"For I have not come to call the righteous, but sinners."

Ironically, it was not their badness that kept the Pharisees away from Jesus, it was their goodness. What about us? Are we tempted to think God will love us more because we have kept the rules? By maintaining a regular appearance on Sundays in church? Through our grades? What is our measure of goodness? A job? Cleanliness? What makes us look respectable, acceptable before other men? Our education? The number of friends on our Facebook page?

While we are at it: what is our modern equivalent of badness? Who are the sinners in our day and age? Who are the people we stay away from? The criminals? The hypocrites? The poor? The rich, maybe? The proud and arrogant? Are we tempted to think that they deserve God's judgement for what they have done, more than we do?

The issue at heart of it is prejudice. Everyone agrees it is bad. Yet, everyone has prejudices; everyone discriminates based on their subjective judgement of what is good or bad, what is beneficial or unprofitable, what is useful or harmful. We might try to legislate against the act of prejudice - by enacting laws against hate crimes, unfair hiring practices or discrimination in schools and workplaces. But how do you legislate against the heart? How do you imprison hate? How do curb envy?

You see, even the Sunday School teacher, summarising a passage like today's by saying, "Kids, don't by like the Pharisees!" is essentially doing the exact same thing the Pharisees were doing. "We are good, they are the ones who are bad!"

Which makes Jesus' reply to the situation all the more radical. He brings the matter back to God's judgement. But more pointedly, he brings the matter back to his own mission. Jesus' call would be the true measure of righteousness and acceptability in the Kingdom. For Jesus is the King who has come to bring in the Kingdom. Jesus is the Judge who determines God's judgement on who gets into the Kingdom.

3. The Kingdom

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."

There was something very significant about Jesus sitting down and eating with these tax collectors, and the Pharisees could see that. It wasn't just the food, though it was a possible issue of defilement. And, it wasn't just his friends, as hated as these tax collectors were. It was what the food and the friends represented together - a fellowship. Jesus was giving a glimpse into the new community that he would establish as God's new kingdom.

Every week, Rock Fellowship meets to study the bible and a big part of our coming together regularly each week, is meal we share beforehand. It is such a blessing to be able to do this as a fellowship, as a church and as a family. It really isn't just about the convenience of not having to grab dinner at McDonald's after work, or saving money, or even savouring a good hearty Chinese meal (though that helps!). Eating together is something you do regular with people you share your lives with. You eat with your friends. You eat regularly with your family.

The early church did this. In Acts Chapter 2, three thousand people became Christians in one afternoon. And from that day on, Acts 2 says these three thousand believers did three things. Every day, the met to study from the bible, to pray, and to eat together. They ate together as a sign of their new life together in Jesus.

So we as the Chinese Church gather on the first week of every month to share the Lord's Supper. It is simply a meal, consisting the bread and the cup of wine (well, cups - plural... filled with of Ribena), representing the body and blood of Jesus. We do this to proclaim his death for us, as one body in him. Often, you will hear us refer to this as "Communion" - our coming together as a community, to share this symbolic meal, as a reminder of the cross.

The bible speaks of heaven as a huge banquet. It is a feast prepared by God and shared with God's people. We looked at one such parable of Jesus on Valentine's Day recently when we studied Matthew Chapter 22 - The Parable of the Wedding Banquet. Here in Matthew's gospel, Jesus points forward to that hope of God's presence, blessing and salvation; he foreshadows that new reality - when we gathers these "sinners" around him and eats with them.

The Pharisees could see this. Theirs was a loaded question. They were essentially saying, "Why is Jesus choosing them over us?" The following passage reinforces this, where in verse 14, John's disciples, aligning themselves with the Pharisees also question Jesus' allegiances. "How is it that we and the Pharisees fast, but your disciples do not fast?" Notice, how complaint still has to do with food? One party feasts while the other fasts? And notice, how the issue is essentially about taking sides? We and the Pharisees - as opposed to - you and your disciples (which may have also been a dig at the tax collectors - ohh, so these sinners are your disciples now are they, Jesus?).

Jesus' reply engages them at three levels.


The first is need. "It is not the healthy who need a doctor, but the sick." Jesus says the reason people don't come to him is because they don't see their need for him.

For all the objections I've heard for years about the claims of the bible, about who Jesus is, about what he did for us on the cross, about the existence of God and the so-called problem of evil (which is really more a problem for the atheist that the Christian who actually believes that there is such a thing as good and evil, and a God who determines what is good and evil) - for all the effort that rightly goes into explaining and defending the truth of the gospel; what Jesus says here really hits the nail on the head. The number reason people aren't Christians isn't because they don't think it is true. It's because they think they don't need this truth.

Healthy people don't need a doctor. Good people don't need Jesus.

Jesus uses a very powerful analogy, doesn't he? Sickness as picture of sin. Now understand here that Jesus is not equating how you sick you are with how sinful you are (we will look at this in more detail in the next study). What Jesus is showing us is how aware we are of our sickness, yet how blind we are to sin.

That's because we don't ignore pain. We don't delay in dealing with our suffering. I have a headache, I take a few pills. I have a tootache, I immediately make an appointment to see a dentist. But we don't see our sin. We don't realise how it is killing us. We don't see how it affects the people around us. We don't realise how God is angry with our sinfulness.

Not all pain is a curse. God ordains some pain and hardship to open our eyes to the fact that we live in a sinful world. God sometimes uses pain to open our eyes to the reason for pain - our sinfulness and God's judgement over our sinfulness. There will come a day when God release this world from the bondage to decay. But until then, we cannot forget that heaven is not yet here, and Jesus has not yet returned. Seeing our pain, and recognising the pain of others ought to drive us to pray. It should remind us that we need God's grace to survive in this broken world, and ask him daily for grace, and long for daily for his Kingdom.

At the same time, not all health is blessing. Our wellness, our wealth, our privilege in life might very well be God's judgement in condemning a rebellious world in its blindness to the true source of life, treasure and joy in Jesus. It is one of the real dangers of the prosperity gospel over-emphasising blessings in this life. It spoils our appetite for Jesus. We don't need him as much as we need stuff from him.

Jesus says the healthy don't see their need, and they would not seek him to fill their need.


Secondly, Jesus emphasizes God's mercy. He says, "But go and learn what this means: 'I desire mercy, not sacrifice.' "

Here Jesus quotes from the Old Testament book of Hosea, and you find that it's such an important verse, Jesus quotes it twice in Matthew's gospel. Here as well as Chapter 12. Both times, he is speaking to the religious leaders. Both times, it is about condemnation that they bring against Jesus and his followers. Both times, it stems from a misunderstanding of God's will in his word, which is why Jesus points to Scripture to clarify the situation.

And Jesus mentions two good things, yet one is better.

Jesus talks about two godly things, but one one is desired.

What is the mark of a true community of God? Isn't it tempting to say "sacrifice"? "Wow, look at that guy - he is giving so much of his time, and money, and energy to serve in this church! He has sacrificed so much!" Isn't sacrifice a virtue we value in the Chinese culture? The kind of thing we look for in our leaders? The mark of a true Christian?

Friends, I suggest to you that maybe we lack one thing. Mercy. I mean, think with me for a moment. What would it even look like? When I think of the brothers and sisters in our fellowship, in our church, it is easy to recall how sacrificial we have been for one another. That is truly a blessing. That is truly commendable. But what would an instance of mercy look like in our group, I wonder?

You see, "mercy" means not one of us deserves to be here. Mercy means I deserve God's judgement, not his love. Mercy means I am a sinner; we are all sinners. When Jesus calls Matthew and hangs out with the tax collectors, he isn't denying that stand under God's anger. He identifies their sickness that needs healing. He acknowledges them as "sinners".

But Christians are a special subset of sinners. We are forgiven sinners. We are to be repentant sinners. In the other gospel accounts, we learn that Matthew leaves his job. He repays all he has cheated. He leaves his life of sin - of living his life for himself - and follows Jesus, living his life to serve Jesus.

God shows mercy by pouring out his mercy on undeserving sinners. That is what Jesus does with Matthew and his friends. He is showing them what it means to be loved by God. Not surprisingly, the original quotation in Hosea could be rightly translated as "I desire love, not sacrifice". The word in Hebrew is chesed - a rich description of God's covenantal, faithful, everlasting love.

A community of Jesus that displays mercy, is a community that displays God's love. It means constantly forgiving one another, having received forgiveness from God. It means loving one another with the love we have received from Jesus.

Jesus' Call

Finally, Jesus sums up by pointing to himself - his authority to call sinners to himself. "For I have not come to call the righteous, but sinners."

To see the weight of Jesus' conclusion, we need to first notice a shift in pronouns. Previously, Jesus was quoting from Hosea where it was God who was speaking. "I desire mercy, not sacrifice," declares the God of the bible. In Hosea, it is God speaking to his people who have rejected him again and again. God desires that his people love him, with the love that has been shown them. A love that is constant, unchanging and steadfast.

And almost immediately, Jesus shifts to the first person. He says of God "I desire". Then Jesus says of himself, "I have come". One is the expression of God's will. The other is the fulfilment of God's love.

Jesus says the whole reason he came - into ministry; into this creation - was to call sinners. But more than that, he underlines the focus of his call by emphasizing the negative. He did not come for the righteous. There is a serious lesson here we need to take on board. Jesus did not take on flesh, to walk as man, to die on the cross, to be raised from the dead - just to give us a pat on the back for all the good things have done for God. He came to seek sinners who could not possibly help themselves. He came to save those who could not possibly save themselves. He came to die so that we would not have to face the final judgement of death ourselves.

This is in fulfilment of Hosea 6 - Jesus displays God's ultimate, merciful love to those who do not deserve it and could never earn it.

But it is also a display of Jesus' ultimate authority as God. For God the only righteous Judge can show such mercy in forgiving sinners. Only God has the ability and the authority to love the unlovable. The Pharisees for all their religion could not - their goodness could not save themselves, much less those around them - they lacked the ability and they lacked the will. But Jesus did. He had the authority to call sinners because he had the authority to lay down his life for sinners. That is the reason he came.

By quoting Hosea 6, Jesus offers a glimpse into the source of his divine authority - his sacrifice. Our sacrifices can never make us acceptable. Our goodness can never make up for our sinfulness. But Jesus can. On the cross, Jesus offered himself as a sacrifice for our sin, by taking God's judgement for our sin upon himself. He gave his life as a sacrifice for us, that we might receive mercy from him.

If you are a sinner, this means Jesus came for you. He died so that you could receive God's mercy, love and forgiveness. There nothing for you to do, nothing that you could do - because Jesus has done it all for you through his sacrifice on the cross. All you can do is respond. By obeying his call and by following him as your Lord and as your Saviour.

Hear the call of the kingdom
Lift your eyes to the King
Let His song rise within you
As a fragrant offering
Of how God rich in mercy
Came in Christ to redeem
All who trust in His unfailing grace

King of Heaven we will answer the call
We will follow bringing hope to the world
Filled with passion, filled with power to proclaim
Salvation in Jesus' name

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