Sermon: Matthew 9:9-13
Pentecost 6 – July 16, 2006 – Rev. Steven J. Radunzel
We are not at all strangers to financial scandals. They happen all the time. They happen on Wall Street. They happen in businesses. They even happen in churches sometimes.
You may remember Bernie Madhoff a few years back who recklessly invested the life savings of thousands and ended up losing all of it, ruining the financial futures of people who trusted him. He’s in jail now and will probably be there for the rest of his life.
Or go back some more years and you may also remember the Enron scandal. Enron began as a monumental success but soon ended as a tragic and monumental failure. Enron failed largely due to the mismanagement of the financial officers of the company. Thousands of people lost their jobs, their pensions, and all their savings because of the financial dishonesty of people. One major and well established accounting firm in Chicago went out of business as a result of the Enron collapse.
The disciple Matthew, the 7th disciple in our sermon series, was someone who was financially dishonest. He was one of those notorious publicans or tax collectors that the Jewish people despised and shunned. He was from the wrong side of the tracks.
But Matthew was not so hardened to his financial dishonesty that he had no sense of guilt. He needed God’s mercy and forgiveness. Not only did he find that mercy and forgiveness in Jesus, but Jesus actually called him to be one of his disciples.
Today we consider
MATTHEW, THE DISCIPLE FROM THE WRONG SIDE
OF THE TRACKS
Publicans and tax-collectors were really bad people. The Roman government had the practice of granting to certain Jewish men the privilege of collecting all kinds of taxes, duties, and tariffs in a certain area. Some of the taxes were legitimate as they are for any government. However, these tax collectors were notorious for imposing unnecessary taxes and demanding too much tax from their fellow Jewish citizens and handing part of the money over to the hated Romans and pocketing the rest for themselves. They were scoundrels and thugs of the worst kind.
For that reason they were outcasts. They were the lowest of the low. They were denied access to the synagogue and would never have the privilege of associating with acceptable society. They were lowlife from the wrong side of the tracks.
You just know Jesus would pick one of these lowlifes from the wrong side of the tracks to be his disciple. And he did. Jesus was in the early part of his ministry working in the city of Capernaum on the north shore of the Sea of Galilee. He performed a number of miracles and had a rather extensive ministry there.
Capernaum was a somewhat busy commercial center for the area. That meant commerce and trade. Business. Money. Taxes to be collected. Matthew was one of the tax collectors in Capernaum. He was sitting at his tax office one day. Jesus came along and said, “Follow me.” Matthew got up and followed him. And he never looked back.
It appears that there are a number of details left out of Matthew’s call to be a disciple. During Jesus’ somewhat extended stay in Capernaum Matthew had probably heard his preaching. Jesus’ many miracles there attracted everyone’s attention including hard-edged tax collectors. It could possibly be that Jesus had even talked to Matthew preparing him for this moment of call to discipleship.
Now that moment had come. It seems that underlying Jesus’ simple call to Matthew, “Follow me,” was the message, “OK, Matthew, enough of this life. You know this is wrong. It’s time to follow me.” And he did.
Matthew’s name is a little intriguing. It means “gift of God.” It’s possible that he was given that name after he became a disciple. But if that was his name from birth, it could indicate that he had godly and reverent parents. Furthermore, Matthew is also called Levi likely indicating that his family descended from the tribe of Levi. The men from this tribe were the ones responsible for the temple and its furnishings. Men from this tribe served as the priests of Israel and Judah.
It could be that Matthew was from a respected and godly Jewish family. That would mean that he was one of those who wandered away from his upbringing to the wrong side of the tracks. Whatever the case, Matthew’s financial sins, theft, and dishonesty eventually were burdens too heavy to bear. He turned to the One who spoke about forgiveness and who backed up his authority to grant forgiveness by making the paralyzed walk and raising the dead. The tax-collector became a disciple.
In thankfulness to Jesus for his goodness and mercy Matthew had a dinner at his house and invited Jesus. When you have a party or dinner, whom do you invite? You invite the people you know, the people you’re familiar with, the people you’re comfortable with. Matthew invited tax collectors to his party. A bunch of them. And a whole lot of other people that polite society called “sinners.” People from the wrong side of the tracks.
Jesus accepted Matthew’s invitation. The Pharisees who were already questioning Jesus’ authority to preach and teach now questioned Jesus’ credibility as a rabbi for attending this dinner with so many unacceptable people. They asked Jesus’ disciples, “Why does your teacher eat with tax collectors and ‘sinners’?”
Even though they didn’t question Jesus directly, Jesus answered them directly: “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.” Jesus was really saying, “I know these people are sinners and from the other side of the tracks. But they are the very ones who need God’s mercy and forgiveness. You Pharisees think you’re spiritually healthy and therefore don’t think you need me or God’s forgiveness.”
The Pharisees needed to learn two important lessons. The first one is that they were sinners too. On the surface they looked like very respectable religious people. And they were very religious and very carefully kept the Law of Moses. But inside they were not really repentant. They needed God’s mercy and forgiveness as much as Matthew and all the sinners at his dinner.
The Pharisees also needed to show mercy and compassion to others. That’s why Jesus quoted from the prophet Hosea, “I desire mercy, not sacrifice.” All their sacrifices offered at the temple, their offerings, their prayers, and their worship were not really meaningful because they were not really sorry for their own sins. And because they didn’t see their own sin, and because they didn’t see their own need for God’s mercy and forgiveness, they were not merciful or forgiving to others. God wanted to see hearts filled with repentance and mercy for others rather than hypocritical hands carrying sacrifices to the temple.
I don’t think there’s anyone here that might be considered socially from the wrong side of the tracks. It’s rather childish and cruel to even think that way. But what I do know is that spiritually we were all from the wrong side of the tracks. The moment Adam and Eve sinned we were all on the wrong side of the tracks. From the perspective of a holy and righteous God we’re all from the wrong side of the tracks. Our sins have separated us from God.
But Jesus came to call sinners like us from the wrong side of the tracks to repent of our sin and find forgiveness and mercy from God. And from God there is much mercy, compassion, and forgiveness. Jeremiah the prophet once wrote while he sat in the ruins of Jerusalem destroyed under the judgment of God: “Because of the LORD’s great love we are not consumed, for his compassions never fail. They are new every morning; great is your faithfulness.” From the ruins of Matthew’s life Jesus raised up a forgiven disciple who served him the rest of his life. From the ruins of our sin God’s compassion and mercy raises up forgiven children of God.
Jesus once told a story, a parable, about another tax collector. Most of you know this parable. Two men went to the temple to pray. One was a Pharisee, the other was a tax collector. The Pharisee prayed about himself. He expressed how he was so thankful he wasn’t like other sinners. He was quite proud of all the good things he had done and how he had kept the Law of Moses. On the other hand, the tax collector was so ridden with guilt and sorrow over his many sins that he couldn’t even look up to God. He simply stood there, beat his chest in sorrow, and could only utter, “God, be merciful to me, a sinner.”
The irony is that it was the tax collector, Jesus says, who went home justified, that is, not guilty, that day. Not the Pharisee. The Pharisee didn’t see his need for God’s mercy. The tax collector did. The only thing he could do was place himself before God’s mercy. And God was merciful to him and forgave his sin.
There are two things we want to avoid. We don’t want to be like the Pharisee in this parable or the Pharisees at Matthew’s dinner. We want the Holy Spirit to convict us day by day of our sin. We want to be honest and repentant not just for the individual sins that we know but also about the sinfulness that lurks inside of us, in the heart. We also don’t want to be sinners who just continue carelessly in sin as if it’s not that serious.
In the parable of the Pharisee and the tax collector Jesus is telling us to be like the tax collector, to day by day stand helplessly before God, repentant about our sin. As we begin and end each day of our life there’s nothing better that we can do than honestly stand before God and say, “God, be merciful to me a sinner.”
And God has been merciful to us. He has given his only Son Jesus Christ to be a Savior for us, to atone for our sin and for the sin of the whole world. Sin placed all of us on the wrong side of the tracks. But God’s mercy in Christ is new every morning and forgives us.
Matthew the tax collector learned that lesson. He wrote the 1st of the four gospels. We don’t know for sure where he served or how he died. But he faithfully followed Jesus who had mercy on him, even on him who was from the wrong side of the tracks. Amen.