Scripture: Matthew 9:9-13
Newton’s first law of motion, one of the fundamentals of the science of physics, is that objects in motion tend to stay in motion. This is not just true in physics, it is true in human behavior as well. Once we get started with doing something, we tend to do a pretty good job at sticking with it. Once we get some area of our life in motion we tend to stay in motion and stick with it. The problem is that we can have a hard time getting started. A good example is what is happening right now. At the beginning of the year a whole bunch of people joined gyms to try to get started at physical fitness. Unfortunately, by the end of this month 28% of the people who did that will have given up completely, and by the end of May that number will be up to 80%. Each year less than 20% of people who sign up at the beginning of the year become a gym regular who stick with it in some capacity. There are a lot of factors that make sticking with something like physical fitness so hard. There are issues of personal motivation, making the time, and the financial commitment. There are also external pressures as well. One of the big hindrances for many people in being more committed to physical fitness is the act of going to the gym itself. Many people have a lot of anxiety and fear they are being judged negatively by other gym attenders when they go. These fears of judgement are not entirely unfounded. A survey found that 55% of gym regulars look negatively upon the waves of newbies who start in January. These fears of facing judgement and being looked down has a profound impact on a lot of people. A study from the United Kingdom found that for 75% of women the reason they do not exercise more regularly is they fear what others will negatively think about them. What keeps people away from going to the gym can be the other people at the gym. Instead of being a place where they can find support and help at getting in motion, they instead find confusion at not knowing how to do anything, judgment because everyone else looks healthier than they are, and isolation because everyone is doing their own thing while they feel clueless. When you throw on the other personal issues that can keep people away from the gym, it is no wonder that in feeling that way so many people do not stick with it. Unfortunately, the anxiety that people feel about how they will be treated at the gym, has a lot in common with how people feel about church. Often people not currently involved in church life come to a church because they know they need better spiritual health. Yet they are confused by songs they do not know and traditions that are unfamiliar, they feel judged because everyone else in the pews seems to have it all together, and they feel isolated because everyone else seems to already know everyone else. Throughout Lent, the season of the church in preparation of Easter, we are going to focus on the disciples. The disciples of the bible were the first people who willing to put themselves in motion to follow Jesus. By looking at the stories of how these first followers of Christ lived their lives, we can learn very practical things we should do as disciples. This morning’s scripture about the calling of Matthew is one that challenges us to remember why we as a church as exist. It is also one that can give us hope because it reminds us that the doctor is in.
As many of you know I recently got back on a trip from Israel and one of the ways that trip was most helpful to me is that I got a much better context of the area of where the ministry of Jesus took place. This morning’s scripture starts with “as he went from there”, and we know from verse 9:1 that there is Capernaum, the town that Jesus made his home base. Much of Jesus ministry took place along the northern side of the sea of Galilee, which is really an inland lake that is only 8 miles wide and 15 miles long. This means that much of Jesus ministry too place in a stretch that is only about 10 miles or so across. In being there and seeing it, one of the major realizations I had about this scripture, in being there and seeing the area, is that Matthew would have been well known the Jesus and the other disciples. Many of Jesus’ 12 disciples came from this area, and they would have interacted with Matthew as a tax collector on multiple occasions. The galilee region that this morning’s scripture takes place in was along a major road in that day called the Via Mallus, or way of the sea. This was a major trade route that connected Northern Africa with the inland middle east. It was something like the I-65 (or any other major interstate) of its day: A major highway, that was necessary to use if people wanted to do any serious traveling. Matthew as a tax collector, most likely worked along this road. His tax collector’s booth mentioned in verse 9 was likely a toll booth, so Jesus and the other disciples probably had to begrudgingly pay Matthew more than once when he did that line of work.
When we read the gospels, we get a sense that tax collectors were fairly hated. That is true, and this goes beyond the fact that nobody likes the IRS. The tax collectors in first century Judea were especially reviled for a couple of reasons. First, they were viewed as traitors. Israel in the first century was occupied by the Roman Empire. While they had a decent amount of autonomy they were not truly free. The Jewish tax collectors were agents of this occupying empire, and they were viewed as having sided with the powers that be against their own people. For this reason tax collectors were looked down, shunned, and spoken-ill of among their communities. What made this even truer is how tax collectors made their living. The tax collectors were not paid a salary by the Roman Empire. They were required to turn in a certain amount of taxes, and they got to keep the rest. Tax collectors purposely charged more than required so that they would get their cut. As long as they were not too out of line, there was very little regulation on how much they could charge extra. This meant that often tax collectors were wealthy at the expense of the people they collected taxes from. As you can imagine, that did not do much to put them on friendly terms with many people. This story is found in three of the four gospels. While none of them record it, we can easily imagine how the other disciples reacted when they heard that Jesus called Matthew to be a disciple. We can almost hear Peter saying something like, “This guy? Are you sure about him?” Jesus, of course, knew exactly what he was doing and he purposely called a tax collector, because if someone as hated and distrusted as a tax collector and can be saved and redeemed then truly grace can save all. As we consider this story of how Matthew, the gospel’s author tells how he came to be a disciple I think there are three takeaways that can have a profound impact on our own faith.
The first takeaway is the way that Jesus called Matthew. He simply said, “follow me”, what is amazing is that Matthew did it. Of course, it may not be as crazy as we think at first glance. Compared to the other disciples, Matthew was called late. In Capernaum alone Jesus had healed many. Remember, this area where Jesus performed these miracles was not a large geographical area only about 10 miles long. This is the area where Matthew lived, he would have heard the stories of Jesus healings. He probably heard people talk about, maybe even repeat some of the things that Jesus had preached. When Jesus called Matthew, he got up and followed him because Matthew had some idea about the character of Jesus. He must have a sense that Jesus was truly the real deal, that he was authentic and not just another pretender. Matthew probably had a sense and an opinion about the kind of person who Jesus was, and so when Jesus said “follow me”, Matthew had an idea what he was signing on for because something about the life, actions, and message of Jesus appealed to him on a deep, spiritual level. Matthew was so quick to follow Jesus, because he saw something in Jesus worth following. This is the first takeaway for us, do people see something in us worth following? Clearly, we can not live with the same level of authority, power, and perfection which Jesus lived. However, we can be authentic in how we live faithful lives. We do not have to go around making the lame to walk, the blind to see, or the deaf to hear. We can simply start by loving our neighbor as ourselves. When our faith influence and guides our actions in a positive way then we show the world something worth following. People will only follow someone if they believe they are capable of leading the way to where they are going. If we are going to invite people to follow us to church and into discipleship, then it is important for the actions in our lives to reflect our faith. In other words we should try to live as God’s holy people not just on Sunday, but on Monday morning, Saturday night, and every other day of the week as well. When we do this consistently, we set an example to the world around us that is worth following.
After Matthew agrees to follow Jesus did you notice what he did? Verse 10 of this morning’ scripture states, “While Jesus was having dinner at Matthew’s house many tax collectors and sinners came and ate with him.” Matthew threw a party! However, since most people wanted nothing to do with him, Matthew invited the only people he knew: tax collectors, sinners, and other undesirables. Even though it was clear that Matthew was turning over a new leaf, he did not automatically disown his old friends. Furthermore, Jesus did not ask him to, but instead Jesus sat down and broke bread with him. This is the second takeaway for us. Jesus was a friend of sinners, and we should be as well. Now, there are some people that can be unhealthy or band influences on us, and we should not put ourselves in those situations. However, if on a weekly basis the only people we have any meaningful interactions with are other church people, then we are missing out on our opportunity to follow the example of Christ. When Jesus called his first disciples he told them that they would be fishers of people. We can only influence people and share the changing love of God with them, if we spend time with people. It can be very comfortable to only spend time with other believers, but it is vitally important for us to spend time with the people that may be less than righteous, who have fallen off the wagon a few times, and who do not love God even though God loves them a great deal. It is important for us to do this, because that is what Jesus did and we will only share the saving grace of Christ with the world if we spend time with the people of the world.
Of course, when Jesus is seen eating with the sinners, the Pharisees throw a fit. They want to know why Jesus is eating with sinners. In the 1st century Middle East, even more than it is for us today, sharing a meal with someone is a strong sign of friendship and acceptance. The Pharisees, the faithful church people of their day, could not see why Jesus would stoop down to the level of the sinners. The final takeaway from this scripture, is that we should not be those guys. We should not be like the people at gyms who look down on the unfit as being beneath them. On more than one occasion I have heard someone who has not been in a church in years say something like ,”I am surprised the walls do not cave in on me”. My response is “why would they, you are in good company here!” It is unfortunate that sometimes churches have portrayed an image that they are places for those who have it all together. Jesus said it himself. The church of Jesus Christ is a hospital for sinners not a museum for saints. Did you catch the last verse of this morning’s scripture? Jesus said “I have not come to call the righteous but sinners.” Jesus calls out to the sinners. It is vitally important for all of those who consider themselves to be disciples that Jesus calls the sinners, because if you follow Christ then that means you are a sinner too. What separates us from the unrepentant sinners of the world is not our righteous actions or behaviors, is that we have been redeemed and made new by the blood of the lamb. We have been forgiven and our sins have been separated from us as far as the east is from the west. This means that our churches, that this church, should be a place where anyone no matter how deep the shame and guilt of their sin is a place where they feel welcome, where they know they are not being judged because they are in a place with people who are like them: Sinners on whom God has shown his great mercy.
In being a disciple, Matthew shows us to great examples to follow. First, we have to be in the world and interact with the people of the world so that we can share the love of God. We do this through our example, through being intentional at investing in and carrying for people, and by accepting people for who they are not what they have done. Second, the example of Matthew reminds us that all of us need the great physician. We are reminded that no matter how righteous we might be, Christ died while we were still sinners. It reminds us that we all need to be healed of the darkness that lurks in our hearts. It reminds us that doctor is in, and that through him we are all called by God’s great mercy to follow him.