The Rev. David Collins
Maitland Presbyterian Church
Scripture: Matthew 9:9–13
As Jesus was walking along, he saw a man called Matthew sitting at the tax booth; and he said to him, “Follow me.” And he got up and followed him. And as he sat at dinner in the house, many tax collectors and sinners came and were sitting with him and his disciples. When the Pharisees saw this, they said to his disciples, “Why does your teacher eat with tax collectors and sinners?” But when he heard this, 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, not sacrifice.’ For I have come to call not the righteous but sinners.”
Over these past 11 months, there have been a number of shortages. We started out with a shortage on Toilet Paper, remember that one? It’s weird that that one came before the shortage of hand sanitizer and Lysol wipes, isn’t it? But then all PPE was in short supply.
But do you know what’s never been in short supply?
People to look down on.
There has never been a shortage of contempt. Any conversation you have, if there’s a lull, all you need to do to reinvigorate it is bring up someone you know you both dislike. This is the one thing that unites us all as a nation! No matter what side you’re on, you get to feel better about yourself by talking about the other. We might hate each other, but we love talking about each other.
There’s just something about us that loves that feeling. It’s an itch we love to scratch, and everyone knows it. The channels we watch want to keep us watching, so they keep scratching it. And it works.
As a species, we just can’t get enough. This is nothing new. The quickest way to feel better about yourself is to feel better than someone else. Always has been.
But it doesn’t have to be that way.
We don’t have to be that way.
You don’t have to be that way.
In fact, that’s one of the biggest things that Jesus came here to show us. He taught it, but more than anything, he lived it. He modeled it. He built his ministry around it.
Today we’re starting a new sermon series called Follow, and today we’re going to start by looking at one person in particular that Jesus called to follow him, and what that says about Jesus, and what it says about all of his followers, including you and me.
Let’s take a look.
“As Jesus went on from there, he saw a man named Matthew sitting at the tax collector’s booth.” (Matthew 9:9)
Jewish tax collectors were the scum of the earth at the time. We often hear them referred to as publicans, which loosely translates as “tax-farmer”. The Romans imposed an income tax as well as a land tax on the Jews.
They paid 10% on their property tax and 20% of their wine and fruit. And then, there were tolls on roads, gates, bridges, boundaries between districts, harbor taxes, town taxes, import and export taxes. So many taxes.
But to keep their costs lower, the Romans “farmed out” the tax collecting to the lowest bidder among whoever could get the job done. It was like one of the first Multi-Level Marketing schemes. But instead of hearing about it from that girl you haven’t talked to since high school, Jewish tax-collectors collaborated with the foreigners who had conquered their homeland.
And then they could subcontract out the collection of these taxes to others. I don’t know if they all referred to themselves as business owners or not, but you get the gist. Imagine instead of just trying to sell you vitamin supplements until you block them, they could show up at your door and have you arrested if you didn’t pay them?
Taxes were a constant reminder of Roman oppression and occupation, and those who collected them were much more than just looked down on. They were hated.
You’d hate them too.
So Jesus finds Matthew sitting in the Roman tax collection booth on the highway of this port city legally stealing from his own people. Jesus had already started to call people to follow him at this point. Peter, Andrew, James, and John were already there. Others were following too, no doubt.
They didn’t know everything about Jesus yet. They were just happy to have been invited to follow a rabbi. So they’re seeing all of this in real time. When the current disciples see Matthew, they see a man they may have had history with. Matthew may have collected tax from them before or someone they knew. And they hated him.
You see, Matthew was one of those subjects you could always fall back on to liven up a flagging conversation. “Tax collectors, amirite?” “Oh don’t get me started.” Just looking at him, Jesus’ other followers felt a boost to their ego. Just looking at him, they got to scratch that itch of contempt.
And then they got to watch their rabbi, their leader, walk right up to him. “Oh man, look! What is he going to do? What is Jesus going to say?”
And Jesus walks up to him and says . . .“Follow me.”
Not “How could you?” But follow me
Not “You should be ashamed.” But follow me.
Not “I’ll pray for you.” But follow me.
Jesus also didn’t tell him everything that it would mean for him first. He didn’t put any conditions on his offer at all!
Jesus didn’t tell him, “If you are willing to quit this job, and apologize, you can follow me.”
He didn’t say, “You can follow me, but know that I’m going to require lots of changes in your life if you do.”
He just said, “Follow me.”
And Matthew said, “Yes.”
Jesus has been inviting people to follow him ever since. This was Jesus’ invitation throughout the Gospels, to women and men of every age, from all kinds of backgrounds, . . . both the righteous and the unrighteous, those inside the club and those who were rejected from it.
It’s a really simple invitation.
It’s the best picture of what the spiritual life is all about. It’s not about what you know, or who you know (other than Jesus), it’s not about how often you go to church, how much you do when you’re there, or how much all the people there like you.
It’s not even about whether or not you identify as a Christian.
So what is it all about?
The only question worth asking is this:
Am I following? Right now?
Am I following Jesus? NOT “Is anyone else?” NOT “Am I better than anyone else?”
Just, “Am I following Jesus?”
Matthew was asked that question directly and he said “Yes”. I don’t think he promised to follow Jesus forever that day. He just said yes and did it that day. And even that was a pretty big deal too, as Jesus was an up-and-coming rabbi, so that night, there was a party.
“And as he sat at dinner in the house, many tax collectors and sinners came and were sitting with him and his disciples. When the Pharisees saw this, they said to his disciples, “Why does your teacher eat with tax collectors and sinners?” (Matthew 9:10-11)
Or maybe what they were really asking was, “How come Jesus doesn’t want to eat with us? We seem to have more in common with him than they do? And we are much much better people than they are!”
“But when he heard this, he said, “Those who are well have no need of a physician, but those who are sick. (Matthew 9:12)
Now, if Matthew and his friends heard this, they might have been the offended ones now. Is he talking about us?
But I don’t think they were offended in the same way. Sometimes when someone points out something about us that we know is wrong, it hurts a little, but we’re also so grateful that someone is willing to talk about it with us, right?
Matthew knew something was wrong. He knew what people said about him. And he might have agreed. But once you start down the wrong path, sometimes you just keep going until something, or someone stops you, and gives you an alternative.
And that alternative is Jesus.
Now, look what Jesus says next . . . this is for us.
“Go and learn what this means, ‘I desire mercy, not sacrifice.’ For I have come to call not the righteous but sinners.” (Matthew 9:13)
Who does Jesus call to follow him?
Not the righteous. Sinners.
Who does Jesus call follow him?
Not the people who think they don’t need to, but those who know they do. We see over and over in the gospels, and in the world around us that people who are not aware of their need for Jesus don’t usually make a point of following him.
Who does Jesus call?
People who missed the mark and know they missed it. People who know there’s something wrong with the world and know that they play a part in that.
And listen to this... Jesus doesn’t call sinners just because he wants to fix them. Jesus calls sinners because he enjoys hanging out with them. He loves them.
He loves you.
The Pharisees were upset outside of that party because they wanted others to change first, and then... maybe they would grant them the honor of their company. They play that game that so many of us are so guilty of, “Who am I better than?” “Who is the worst?” “Who is worthy of my time?”
But not Jesus. Jesus invites people like Matthew to follow him.
So what does Jesus show us today about following him?
1. Being a sinner does not disqualify you. It’s a prerequisite.
Jesus only invited sinners to follow him. He invited them BEFORE they got better and even before they committed to try!
Jesus invites people who know something’s wrong, with themselves, with the world, but aren’t sure what to do about it. That never changes. It’s a day by day following.
2. You don’t have to believe IN Jesus to follow Jesus.
None of Jesus’ earliest followers believed IN him. We’ll see that during this series. Jesus was constantly calling out his disciplines for their unbelief, but he never told them to “get out” because of it.
3. Jesus doesn’t need you to do anything.
He doesn’t call you to follow because he can’t lift the couch by himself. The invitation to follow is an invitation to have a relationship with Jesus.
In our scripture today, Jesus went home with Matthew and had a party well before he asked Matthew to make any changes in his life. And any changes Jesus called out in him were in the context of a real relationship with him.
He does the same for us today. You can belong here long before you believe any of the things we believe. And you can doubt and question them after you’ve come to believe them, too.
Last, and this ties in to where we started today.
4. Following Jesus forces me to focus on where I am, rather than where you are not.
Whenever you find yourself feeling superior to someone else, that’s a good sign that you’re not following Jesus in that moment.
That doesn’t mean that when you follow Jesus that you think everything everyone does is wonderful. It doesn’t. But it does mean that you identify with others in our mutual status as sinners, knowing that there are things Jesus helped you with, and you sure hope he will help others too.
There seems to be a shortage of Jesus followers like that today.
But there doesn’t need to be.
Jesus is calling you, right now. Just like he did with Matthew. He says to you, “Follow me”. You don’t have to be sure. You just have to get up and try. That’s all any of us have to do.