January 21-23, 2012
Second weekend after Epiphany
Pastor Tim Smith
Summary: The two points to keep in mind here are the grace of Jesus’ call—to ask a tax collector to join him, which was beyond belief to the Pharisees and a selection that was unspeakable. To call Galilean fishermen was to them a poor choice and maybe comical, but a trusty of the Romans like a tax collector? Unspeakable. Worse than David dancing before the ark.
The second point is the response of Matthew himself, who gave up everything—everything—to follow Jesus. In the eyes of the Romans and of the other tax collectors, Matthew had thrown away his franchise and his income; he may even have committed a crime in the eyes of some by walking away from his booth.
Jesus reached out to us all, despite our sins, and called us into his fellowship. This didn’t lessen Jesus in any way (as the Pharisees thought it would). Rather, it raised all of us. What will our response be?
Children’s devotion: Many kinds of medicine for many sicknesses. Jesus is the only medicine for the sickness of our sins. Nothing else—no one else—could ever cure us. But because of Jesus, we have healing and eternal life in heaven.
13 Once again Jesus went out beside the lake. A large crowd came to him, and he began to teach them. 14 As he walked along, he saw Levi son of Alphaeus sitting at the tax collector’s booth. “Follow me,” Jesus told him, and Levi got up and followed him. 15 While Jesus was having dinner at Levi’s house, many tax collectors and “sinners” were eating with him and his disciples, for there were many who followed him. 16 When the teachers of the law who were Pharisees saw him eating with the “sinners” and tax collectors, they asked his disciples: “Why does he eat with tax collectors and ‘sinners’?” 17 On hearing this, Jesus said to them, “It is not the healthy who need a doctor, but the sick. I have not come to call the righteous, but sinners.” (NIV)
This story has three points of view, like three different cameras recording the same scene. One perspective shows us Jesus, with the crowd all around, walking along and teaching, and coming deliberately up to Matthew’s tax booth. “Follow me,” Jesus says.
Another perspective shows us Matthew himself—he’s called Levi in our text, but we’re more familiar with his name “Matthew” because he wrote the first Gospel and we call it by that name. There he was, doing his job which was distasteful and hateful to many of his countrymen, but he was just trying to make an honest living—okay, a living, anyway. Then the Savior himself approached him. Matthew didn’t hesitate a second when Jesus invited him. To Matthew, did it sound more as if Jesus had said “Follow me instead”?
But there’s another perspective here, one that we’re shown a lot of in this chapter. That’s the point of view of the Pharisees. They were astonished at Jesus’ choice. Imagine what the Pharisees thought about Jesus. They weren’t pastors, the Pharisees. They were laymen, although some of them were well-educated, and some of the Pharisees were scribes, some were Levites; some were priests. But most of them were not. But all them were into a kind of “in your face” separation from most people.
The Pharisees wanted to make themselves holy and to be sure of their sanctity for God’s service, and so they didn’t associate with anybody who didn’t live up to their standards. For the Pharisees, that meant that they didn’t associate with many people at all, at least not people who weren’t also Pharisees.
Before this, the Pharisees eyes opened wide when Jesus called three or four Galilean fishermen o be his special disciples. It wasn’t a choice any of them would have made. It was almost silly, like a world-class conductor announcing the new orchestra he’s going to form, and then watching him start with the local middle school band and a guy he finds on a street corner playing the harmonica.
But to call a Tax Collector! This isn’t silliness. This is something else. This is unspeakable. Disgusting. This was an enemy of the people, as the Pharisees saw it. How could Jesus call a man like Matthew?
Let’s look at what Matthew was, and what he left. In the winter of 1990, the restaurant where I worked was sold. It was a national chain restaurant—a franchise. A franchise is a large corporation and it sells the daily local operations of its business to many different people—all of whom pay the overall corporation a fee for whatever it is the corporation gives them—in our time, that’s usually the trademark of a well-known company like the one I used to work for. But franchises in Roman times bought other things, like legal rights to operate.
That’s what happened with tax collecting. Palestine had three main tax-collecting centers in Jesus’ day: Caesarea, Jericho, and Capernaum. Matthew worked a booth in Capernaum. The main tax-collector, who once was called of all things a “farmer general” would buy the rights to collect all taxes in his region. He couldn’t do all the work himself. He couldn’t even oversee all the cities and towns. So he would sell the rights to tax individual cities and towns or clusters of villages to district “chief publicans,” who would then hire lower ranking “publicans” or tax collectors to actually collect the taxes. The lower-ranking men—like Matthew, for example—had to pay large fees and meet a quota, and they faced increases all the time, and they probably suffered from all the symptoms of stress that we’re aware of today. Their bosses had to send money up the chain to their higher bosses, who had to send the taxes to Rome.
That means that when Matthew got up to follow Jesus, he left behind his business. Now, you might think “Sure—Peter, James, John and Andrew were all fishermen, and they left their businesses behind for Jesus, too.” But we see those men getting into a boat later on and doing a little fishing here or there. They could always start up again, as long as there was a boat to rent and people to buy fish. But Luke’s Gospel tells us that Matthew “left everything” (Lk 5:28). He couldn’t go back once he abandoned his franchise. His whole way of making a living was done forever. I wouldn’t be surprised to find out that Matthew made enemies of the Romans on this day.
Matthew’s sacrifice for Jesus was like the one made by the widow of Zarephath when the prophet Elijah asked her to give him something to eat. She had only enough for her own last meal and that of her son. Once she gave it to Elijah, there was nothing more she could ever get as far as she knew. Matthew gave Jesus everything by giving up everything he had to follow him.
We could all dig into our lives and think of things that are gifts of God that we would surely give up to keep hanging on to Jesus. What child wouldn’t think of a favorite toy? What sports fan wouldn’t cringe deep down to ask: Would I give up football for Christ? Many of us would gladly lay down our very lives if it meant staying faithful to our Savior.
But what about our sins? What about the things we know we shouldn’t think, we know we shouldn’t do. Those things that are private temptations that we’re terrified even to mention when we’re silently confessing our sins to God—we know he knows. We know he’s aware of them, but when we come to him in prayer, we’re terrified to mention our unmentionables even in the private silence of our thoughts, where even the devil can’t go, but God knows. God is there. Do yo keep confessing a certain sin, do keep asking forgiveness for that sin, but then you go back and keep on embracing that sin?
Would you give it up? Would you hand over even the private contents of your heart and make your conscience as truly clean and straightened up and as inviting as your would make your own living room for an important guest?
Jane Goodall is a research scientist from Great Britain, but she lives and works in the Africa nation of Tanzania. Why? The answer seems simple enough: Jane Goodall researches the habits and the lives of chimpanzees, and Tanzania is where the chimps are.
Jesus Christ did not come into the world to research the human race. He already knew all about us; he already knew our greatest need, and he brought the antidote for our otherwise incurable disease. Jesus came to earth, because we carry around sin in our hearts, and because we’re the ones who are so very sick.
Jesus is the medicine that helps us to see beyond our turned-up Pharisee noses and gets us to get the gospel out beyond our comfort zones and into hearts that are dying to hear it. Jesus is the medicine that had cured the death grip of our sinful hearts and minds and has ripped our tag-along temptations from our clinging fingertips and turned us with clean hands and hearts to our Savior God. Jesus is the Physician, the Cure, the Nurse, the Neurosurgeon and Jesus is the whole hospital itself for our sins. Apart from him we would have nothing, but with him, with the one who carried us into his recovery room and who has given us the permanent IV’s of the sacraments—with Jesus our great Physician, we have hope and peace and eternal life.