A sermon preached at Covenant Presbyterian Church of Fort Smith, Arkansas on November 18, 2018.
As Jesus passed on from there, he saw a man called Matthew sitting at the tax booth, and he said to him, “Follow me.” And he rose and followed him. And as Jesus reclined at table in the house, behold, many tax collectors and sinners came and were reclining with Jesus and his disciples. And when the Pharisees saw this, they said to his disciples, “Why does your teacher eat with tax collectors and sinners?” But when he heard it, he said, “Those who are well have no need of a physician, but those who are sick. Go and learn what this means: ‘I desire mercy, and not sacrifice.’ For I came not to call the righteous, but sinners” (Matt. 9:9- 13).
Before we consider the calling of Matthew and the subsequent feast with sinners, let us consider Jesus’ ministry up to this point. Following His baptism and temptations in the wilderness, Jesus began preaching, “Repent, for the kingdom of heaven is at hand” (Matt. 4:17). He called His first disciples, two sets of brothers, all fishermen. He went throughout the Galilean region “teaching in their synagogues and proclaiming the gospel of the kingdom and healing every disease and every affliction among the people” (Matt. 4:23). He calmed a life-threatening storm upon the sea as He travelled to Gadara to deliver two demon-oppressed men. He sailed back to the Promised Land to fulfill the promise to Abraham in the life of a young paralytic.
Startling the scribes in His presence, Jesus the Son of Man, did what only God can do, saying to the paralytic, “Take heart, my son; your sins are forgiven” (Matt. 9:2). Serving as a testimony that the Son of Man has authority on earth to forgive sins (Matt. 9:7), Jesus healed the forgiven son of Israel. Understanding this context is important to understanding our passage today and considering the call to follow Jesus.
Some would have us believe that Christianity consists in doing what Jesus did in working miracles, as if it is a defining characteristic of faith. And yet this error not only defies the evidence of church history, it also confuses the testimony of Jesus’ power and authority as the Word of God with Christian obedience to the Word of God. We are not called to be miracle workers; we are called to be disciples of Christ, following Him in obedience.
Others would have us believe that Christianity consists in transforming culture through a social gospel. Not a call to repent and believe the gospel of the kingdom of heaven, but a transformation of the earthly kingdom through good works.
Yet, as we consider the ministry of Jesus, we see that His miracles and His mercy ministry are pointing to His message, a message that says, “Take heart, my son; your sins are forgiven.” As we witness Jesus heal the sick, we are taught that we have a greater need than health. For, “Those who are well have no need of a physician, but those who are sick.”
Come ye sinners, poor and needy
Weak and wounded, sick and sore
Jesus ready stands to save you
Full of pity, love, and power
By God’s grace alone through faith in Christ alone to the glory of God alone we are called to forgiveness, which begins, as it did with Matthew, with a call to follow Jesus.
Called to Follow
As Matthew the tax collector sat at his tax booth, not only was he confronted by Jesus but called to follow Him. Historians tell us that given his profession Matthew was the unlikeliest of recruits. Unlike the faithful, hard-working fishermen called before him, a tax collector held the notorious reputation of a traitor. The tax collector was an agent of the pagan government of Rome, commissioned to collect Roman taxes from Israel. He was likely an outcast socially as well as religiously.
Contextually we know something of his lifestyle in the feast that he hosts, not with a house full of the religiously zealous but with “tax collectors and sinners,” terms that seem to be synonymous. Therefore, it should seem odd to us that upon Jesus’ call to “Follow me,” Matthew “rose and followed him.” That Jesus called Matthew is stunning. Why should the Son of God call the unqualified? That Matthew followed Jesus is equally stunning. Why should a sinner follow the Son of God?
Yet, as we consider Matthew as the unlikeliest of disciples, we hear Jesus’ words to the Pharisees: “I came not to call the righteous, but sinners.” And, in these words we rejoice! For we, like Matthew, were content in our tax booths of sin until the call of Christ, as He is freely offered to us in the gospel. Far worse than Matthew, we were “separated from Christ, alienated from the commonwealth of Israel and strangers to the covenants of promise, having no hope and without God in the world” (Eph. 2:12). By the grace of the Holy Spirit, we were convinced of our sins and misery, our minds were enlightened in the knowledge of Christ, our wills renewed, and persuaded and enabled to embrace Jesus Christ (WSC 31).
This call to follow Jesus is more than a social engagement, or an intellectual agreement, or an emotional attachment. It is a spiritual transformation in which we turn from darkness to light and from the power of Satan to God, receiving forgiveness of sins and a place among those who are sanctified by faith in Christ (Acts 26:18). And in calling us by grace through faith, having been called to follow Jesus He calls us to feast.
Called to Feast
As surprising as the call of Matthew is, so also is the after-party. Jesus goes not with the faithful to the synagogue but with sinners to a feast. Later accusations against Jesus of gluttony and drunkenness likely begin here. To be clear, this is not Thanksgiving dinner with the in-laws; this is Friday night with the outlaws. These are the “outsiders” that the Apostle Paul refers to as the sexually immoral, the greedy, the swindlers, the idolaters (1 Cor. 5:10-12).
What in the world is the Son of Man doing eating dinner with these folks? This is certainly what the Pharisees wanted to know. So, they ask: “Why does your teacher eat with tax collectors and sinners?” Why indeed!
Did not God command His covenant people, “You shall be holy, for I the LORD your God am holy” (Lev. 19:2)? We are commanded to be obedient children, no longer being conformed to the passions of our former ignorance, but holy in all our conduct (1 Peter 1:14-15). As the church, we are commanded to “Purge the evil person from among you” (1 Cor. 5:13), and “not to associate with anyone who bears the name of brother if he is guilty of sexual immorality or greed, or is an idolater, reviler, drunkard, or swindler—not even to eat with such a one” (1 Cor. 5:11). Rightly do we fence the Lord’s table strictly cautioning, “Whoever, therefore, eats the bread or drinks the cup of the Lord in an unworthy manner will be guilty concerning the body and blood of the Lord” (1 Cor. 11:27). We are directed by Scripture to guard Christ’s table, to guard His church, to guard our moral lives in holiness.
What then do we make of Jesus eating with sinners? Our danger within the church today is not too different from the Pharisees of Jesus’ earthly ministry. There is a temptation to feast on the bountiful blessings that are ours in Christ and forget that there are spiritually starving souls just outside the kitchen door. I wonder if the modern church in its efforts to feed the homeless and the hungry, neglects the spiritually starving.
Rightly do we gather every Lord’s Day, “not neglecting to meet together, as is the habit of some” (Heb. 10:25), rejoicing that our sins are forgiven in Christ. But wrongly do we confuse life inside the church with outside it, neglecting to tell others of the feast that is ours in Christ. Sadly, we may be guilty of trying to make the world the church but instead just get a worldly church. In seeking a social transformation at the expense of the repentance and faith, we elevate the sacrifice of religious service over the mercy of the free offer of the gospel, we have not learned, “I desire mercy, and not sacrifice.” When we ignore the lost and dying in this world, we are ignoring the agonizing screams from hell.
Jesus dined with sinners, not to engage with them in sin, for “He committed no sin” (1 Peter 2:22), but to call sinners to repentance and faith in Himself. May we guard against being an ingrown church, and let us go outside the walls of church into the highways and hedges of this worldly kingdom, crying:
Come ye thirsty, come and welcome
God’s free bounty glorify
True belief and True repentance
Every grace that brings you nigh.
We invite others to the feast that is ours in Christ Jesus because we too were first called to forgiveness.
Called to Forgiveness
The Pharisees stand in their righteous indignation in contrast to Matthew and his fellow tax collectors and sinners. Yet they are confronted not with legal compliance to the law of God but with His mercy. In seeking to merit God’s favor in compliance, they have disregarded His grace and mercy, but the prophet still cries, “What does the LORD require of you but to do justice, and to love kindness, and to walk humbly with your God?” (Micah 6:8). So also is our guilt, when outside the church we condemn the lost and dying rather than confessing, “But for the grace of God go I.”
This is not an appeal for indulgence in worldliness; nor is it permission for licentiousness. It is, however, an encouragement to remember that we who have been called to follow Jesus, who have been called to the feast that is ours in Christ, have been called to forgiveness, a forgiveness that we know only by the mercy of God. So let us share this call to forgiveness with others confessing:
I will arise and go to Jesus
He will embrace me in His arms
In the arms of my dear Savior
Oh, there are ten thousand charms.
Indeed there are for all who are called to forgiveness.