Father Christmas, so it is said, only brings presents to boys and girls who have been good.
And Jesus, many people suspect, is not so very different from Father Christmas. In particular, he wants people to be good, If you want to know Jesus, there are standards to maintain, especially if you want to stay in his good books, be a proper member of his church.
Maybe that sounds exaggerated. But it’s not much. How often, when you think things are going well in your spiritual life, you’re being quite a good Christian, is it down to the fact that you’re doing alright. No major blunders recently. Regular at church. That kind of thing. And many of us have known that feeling that surely our behaviour has disqualified us in some way.
Which is why the story of Jesus calling Matthew is so refreshing. Refreshing, and at the same time, deeply challenging.
I’d like us to meet the cast of this little story from Matthew’s gospel.
Matthew – the notorious sinner
First up, we have Matthew, the notorious sinner. Matthew, the notorious sinner.
Verse 9: As Jesus went on from there, he saw a man named Matthew sitting at the tax collector’s booth.
Matthew was a tax collector. He probably had a customs booth by the roadside where you entered a different jurisdiction. It would have been his job to collect the import taxes. If you wanted to bring in goods to sell, you had to pay the relevant taxes.
Tax collectors were hated. Partly, they used to fleece you. They’d charge over and above the going rate, and pocket the difference. You could do nothing to stop them. Not only that, they worked for the occupying Roman forces, which meant they were turncoats. The Romans were hated, and here was one of their own, a fellow Jew, on their payroll.
Jesus had previously called fishermen to follow him. The religious elite may have looked down their noses at such coarse folk, but to the majority of the population there was nothing wrong with being a fisherman.
But tax collectors! It didn’t matter who you were. Pretty much everybody hated them. They were moral and religious outcasts.
Well, yet again, we see Jesus’ authority at work. He simply calls this thick-skinner businessman to follow him, and he leaves it all behind, and follows Jesus.
This calls for a party. So Matthew has Jesus back to his house, and he invites all his friends. Verse 10: While Jesus was having dinner at Matthew’s house, many tax collectors and sinners came and ate with him and his disciples.
They were having a roaring time. The trouble was the company Jesus was keeping. Matthew’s friends were a right bunch of crooks. All the undesirables in town threw a party, with Jesus as guest of honour.
Matthew’s life was turned around forever. In chapter 10, he’s listed as one of the 12 apostles. And he’s the Matthew who wrote this book we’re reading.
We have a bit of trouble today grasping just how inappropriate a tax collector was for Jesus to choose to be one of his disciples. Tax collectors may be unpopular today. They’re a bit like traffic wardens. Someone has to do it, and you keep your voice down when you admit that it’s you. But that’s about it.
But in that day, tax collectors really were in the gutter. I think the best modern translation for the word tax collector here is the word paedophile. Imagine Jesus calls Matthew the convicted paedophile to be one of his 12 apostles. And then Jesus goes back to his house, and has a party with all the other known paedophiles in town.
Matthew, the notorious sinner.
Pharisees – the model churchgoers
Next, we meet the Pharisees. I’m calling them the model churchgoers. Pharisees, the model churchgoers.
Verse 11: When the Pharisees saw this, they asked his disciples, ‘Why does your teacher eat with tax collectors and sinners?
Now again, we have trouble picturing these Pharisees. We’ve got so used to the stories in the gospels where they’re the bad guys that we think that’s what they were. But they weren’t.
They were quite simply the model citizens of the day. They took their religion seriously. They were regular to worship, and tried really hard to keep God’s laws. That meant they were people you could trust. They were honest. Kind. Considerate. Prayerful.
If you had a teenaged daughter, and she told you she’d just got engaged, you’d be delighted and massively relieved to learn that she was going to marry a Pharisee. What a relief – a pillar of society, an upstanding citizen, someone who’ll look after, lead her to worship God, take responsibility in life.
That’s why I say they were model churchgoers. If they were around today, that’s what they’d be. In church every Sunday. Smartly dressed. Generous givers. The pillars of the church, and of the community more widely. People that are respected and looked up to.
And the trouble is that all this fraternising is just too much for them. Why does Jesus insist on associating with such undesirable people?
Pharisees, the model churchgoers
Jesus – the doctor
Matthew. Pharisees. Then there’s Jesus. He’s described in three ways in this passage.
First we meet Jesus, the doctor. Jesus, the doctor.
Nothing to do with time lords. Verse 12: On hearing this, Jesus said, ‘It is not the healthy who need a doctor, but those who are ill’.
Here’s the reason why Jesus spends time with the likes of Matthew. He came to this earth as a doctor. Doctors heal people who are physically sick. Jesus did that too. But it pointed to his real mission, which is to heal people who are spiritually sick. And to do that, you have to get your hands dirty.
Now we mustn’t misunderstand Jesus. He’s not saying that some of us are healthy, while others are sick. Pharisees are healthy, while tax collectors are sick. The Pharisees were every bit as sick as Matthew and his friends. Sin is a disease that every one of us has. Deep within our hearts, we’re all spiritually sick, and it’s a disease that is killing us little by little. It’s just that the symptoms were present in a cruder way with Matthew, which got the Pharisees pointing their fingers and condemning him.
There’s no cure for that terrible disease of sin. It will kill us all. Except that there is one doctor who has the cure. It’s Jesus, the doctor, and his cure has 100% success rate.
It’s not that Matthew was sick and the Pharisees were healthy. It’s that Matthew knew he was sick, but the Pharisees lived under the illusion that they were not.
It’s the same with us. The difference between us is not whether we’re sick or healthy. We’re all spiritually sick. We’re all sinners. The difference is between those of us who know this, and those of us who believe we’re not.
Jesus, the doctor.
Jesus – the mercy-giver
Second, we meet Jesus, the mercy-giver. Jesus, the mercy-giver.
Verse 13: Go and learn what this means: ‘I desire mercy, not sacrifice’.
Jesus quotes from Hosea chapter 6, a bit of the Bible the Pharisees would have known well because they knew it all well.
They knew it, but Jesus sends them away to go and work out what it means.
The Pharisees were concerned to get their worship in good order. Their sacrifices, done in just the way God instructed.
God’s got something far more important on his heart. It’s what concerns Jesus. That’s showing mercy to those who need it.
Mercy is letting people off. It’s being lenient. It’s giving someone another chance. It’s being kind to someone who deserves the opposite.
That’s what God does, it’s close to his heart. It’s what God looks for in us. And it’s what Jesus was all about.
That’s why he spent time with people like Matthew. Giving Matthew the chance to have his slate wiped clean. That’s what drove Jesus, and it should have thrilled and excited the Pharisees. Instead, they turned all critical. The Pharisees are being tragically judgemental. How dare he spend his time with such people!
Jesus, the mercy-giver.
Jesus – the saviour from sin
Third, we meet Jesus, the saviour from sin. Jesus, the saviour from sin.
Look at how Jesus ends in verse 13: For I have not come to call the righteous, but sinners.
You’ll remember that Matthew’s gospel opens with Joseph being told to name the child Jesus, because he will save his people from their sins.
That’s what he’s doing here. Calling sinners to follow him. So he can rescue them, forgive them, change them, restore them.
We’ve already said that none of us is righteous. It’s just that we don’t all recognise that we’re sinners who need to be saved.
Jesus came to call sinners. He’s not saying that sin doesn’t matter. Sometimes, people quote stories like this and imply that we should never speak out against any patterns of behaviour. It doesn’t matter how someone lives their life. As long as they follow Jesus, he welcomes people however they behave.
That’s not how Jesus sees it. There is such a thing as sin. It’s in all of our lives. And Jesus is in the rescue business. He calls people who know they’re sinners, he forgives us, and he gently leads us in the process of becoming more the people God wants us to be.
Jesus, the saviour from sin.
It’s a brief story. But we’ve met Matthew the notorious sinner, the Pharisees the model churchgoers, Jesus the doctor, Jesus the mercy-giver, and Jesus the saviour from sin.
Many of us think of Jesus as not so dissimilar to Santa Claus. His main interest is in people who are at least fairly good.
That’s pretty poisonous.
If you have a low view of yourself, it’s paralysing. Jesus’ real concern is with good people, and therefore not with someone like me.
If you think you’re basically OK, it’s dazzling. Jesus’ real concern is with good people, so it’s reassuring to know that my life is on track. You’re blinded.
But the real Jesus is quite different. He scandalised the religious establishment by hanging out with all the wrong people. Jesus the doctor, the mercy giver, the saviour from sin.
We’re all sinners. We all need Jesus’ healing, his mercy, his saving.
The question is: Do we realise it?
And then have we done anything about it? Have we come to Jesus to be healed, shown mercy, saved?
And then have we remembered it as we think of all the other people we know, sinners like us, that Jesus would also love to know.