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"Following the Physician: Magnet for Sinners"

Sept.21, 2014 Mt.9:9-13


Recently I had left the computer on with a browser open to a movie website while searching to rent Heaven is for Real. When I came back some time later, I found my wife had clicked on a totally different title - Moneyball. It stars Brad Pitt and is about baseball. Hey, when your wife picks something that's obviously not a "chick flick", far be it from this husband to object!

Here's a description of the movie from its website: "Oakland A's general manager Billy Beane (Brad Pitt) challenges the system and defies conventional wisdom when [he] is forced to rebuild his small-market team on a limited budget. Despite opposition from the old guard, the media, fans and their own field manager (Philip Seymour Hoffman), Beane - with the help of a young, number-crunching, Yale-educated economist (Jonah Hill) - develops a roster of misfits...and along the way, forever changes the way the game is played."

A roster of misfits... Rather than scouting out million-dollar stars, Beane's "sabermetric" approach seeks out undervalued players with hidden potential. So he acquires a "submarine pitcher" who most others feel throws like a clown. And a catcher whose arm is finished career-wise, but who can learn to play first base. Beane's common criterion in picking: they can get on base.

Most of his own scouts think he's crazy, but he stays the course with Oakland A's through the 2002 season. At first they lose a lot of games and it seems the strategy is foolish. But eventually they come into a 20-consecutive-game winning streak, a record in the history of the American League. (I won't spoil it for you by telling whether they win 'the last game of the season'!)

As we pick up Jesus' ministry in Matthew 9, we find Him scouting out hidden prospects for discipleship. He sees secret potential in a very unlikely place, and endures harsh criticism by religious experts. But His persistence in choosing a "roster of misfits" to be His followers demonstrates the triumph of His strategy of sheer mercy.


To set our reading in context: since the close of the Sermon on the Mount in Matthew 7, Jesus' ministry has been strewn with miracles that manifest His supernatural power. In Matthew 8 He heals a man with leprosy; a centurion's paralyzed servant; many in the town of Capernaum; two demon-possessed men; then at the beginning of chapter 9 a paralyzed man. He also calms a storm - no small feat!

Sandwiched in the middle of chapter 8 are a very few verses with teaching, emphasizing the cost of discipleship. Jesus warns a would-be follower in 8:20, "Foxes have holes and birds of the air have nests, but the Son of Man has no place to lay his head." Also in 8:22 He tells someone who wants first to go bury his father, "Follow me, and let the dead bury their own dead." So on the one hand we have here Someone capable of wonderful miracles, possessing supernatural power; but on the other hand, to follow Him requires radical commitment, greater even than one's commitment to the usual family ties.

So we come to Matthew 9:9: "As Jesus went on from there, he saw a man named Matthew sitting at the tax collector's booth. "Follow me," he told him, and Matthew got up and followed him."

He SAW a man... If most people saw this tax collector, they would have quickly looked the other way - possibly spat on the ground in disgust. Tax collectors were "the lowest of the low"; the lexicon notes they "were detested...both on account of their employment and of the harshness, greed, and deception with which they did their job." Not only did they collect taxes demanded by the Roman occupiers, they also "topped it up" to line their own pockets. John MacArthur notes this "made them not only thieves, but also traitors to the Jewish nation."

How do you feel toward thieves? Do I think favourably toward the person who stole my MP3 player out of my car over a year back? The person who recently jimmied my neighbour's door, trying to break in? Or the person who stole a van recently from an acquaintance in Blyth and crashed it dramatically on Wingham's main street, injuring a mother? Would you willingly associate with such a person? As for traitors - how would you view someone who was caught selling Canadian military intelligence to foreign regimes? Would you voluntarily invite them over for dinner? Probably not your first pick!

We may tend to look past such people as if they're invisible, or our fallen instincts might tend to look upon them like dirt. But Jesus SAW the man. He saw something hidden here, latent under the surface. "He saw a man named Matthew..." The name Matthew means "gift of the Lord". Here's a hidden treasure, something special. Remember, Matthew is the one writing this gospel, he's recalling and describing his own conversion to become Jesus' disciple. In Mark and Luke his other name "Levi" is used, but Matthew employs the name he became known by after becoming a Christ-follower.

Jesus saw much MORE than a tax collector. Matthew probably had a natural gift for record-keeping, tallying taxes - but later in life that same gift became useful for recording Jesus' sayings and miracles in the account that became known as the Gospel according to Matthew. Think of its significant position in our Bibles: here we have the Old Testament, spanning many centuries of God's interaction with the Jews; then 400 years of comparative silence; then God's own Son bursts onto the scene, introduced by this account carefully recorded by - who? A FORMER TAX COLLECTOR! Jesus saw not just a tax collector, a "write-off", but a gifted writer who would carefully blend the history of His miracles and teachings along with extensive Old Testament quotations that would especially help those with Jewish background to hear the Good News as part of God's overall saving plan.

Does the tempter whisper in your ear, "God could never use YOU!" Jesus sees the potential for you in His service. He wants you to follow Him, so He can draw out the unique "Gospel according to...[Ernest, Gary, Diane etc] that waits to be written in your life - a wonderful account that only YOU tell!

"Follow Me," Jesus said, and Matthew "got up and followed him." This was different than for the other disciples - Peter and Andrew, James and John. They were fishermen. They probably didn't have a whole lot of capital tied up in their operation: "have net - will fish." But Matthew was leaving behind a very lucrative enterprise, a plum of a job. He'd never be able to go back: the Romans would never trust him again. This was it. Do or die time. And Matthew got up, left it all behind, and followed - the essence of discipleship, renouncing all the world's charms for something better: life with the Master.

Matthew recognized this wasn't just an invitation to go for coffee. This would affect his whole life profoundly. It's like when Elijah called Elisha in 1Kings 19:19: "So Elijah went from there and found Elisha son of Shaphat. He was plowing with twelve yoke of oxen, and he himself was driving the twelfth pair. Elijah went up to him and threw his cloak around him." Elijah "cast his mantle" around one he was summoning to be his successor. And Elisha realized the significance of the action: do you remember his response? He sacrificed the oxen and burned the plowing equipment to cook the meat. He "burned his bridges behind him", as it were - no turning back. And that's how it would have been for Matthew leaving the tax collector's booth.

Have you decided to follow this wonder-working Lord? What's holding you back? Is there something you need to "leave behind" to become a more fully devoted follower of Jesus Christ?


Matthew must have been overjoyed that Jesus called and accepted him as His disciple, because his first action was to throw a big party and invite all his friends. "Come on over, you've just GOT to meet this guy!" V10 "While Jesus was having dinner at Matthew's house, many tax collectors and "sinners" came and ate with him and his disciples."

Guess what - Jesus wants your home for His pulpit! That's right - we preach at church on Sunday morning, but all the rest of the week, Jesus is just waiting for you to introduce Him to your friends and family, your "network", at your home and your workplace! Don't imagine you can say, "Lord, I'll gladly go and share with the savages in Timbuktu, but PLEASE don't ask me to offer to share about you or pray for my buddy!" Friendship evangelism is the most authentic kind - those who know you best will see the difference Jesus makes in your life, and want that.

We've mentioned Jesus' rising stardom due to His many miracles. He was attracting quite a following of spectators, including critics from the religious establishment. V11 "When the Pharisees saw this, they asked his disciples, "Why does your teacher eat with tax collectors and 'sinners'?"" Don't miss the significance in the Middle East of "eating with" someone: to have a meal together symbolizes trust, acceptance, a willingness to associate publicly with, even be identified with, the other person. So, "good religious people" wouldn't be caught DEAD eating with those locally known as tax collectors and "sinners".

Pharisees especially would never associate with such "low-lifes". MacArthur states, "The Pharisees were a small (about 6000) legalistic sect of the Jews. Their name means 'separated ones', not in the sense of isolationists but in the puritanical sense, ie, they were highly zealous for ritual and religious purity according to the Mosaic law as well as their own traditions that they added to the Old Testament legislation." So, here's a group whose whole identity is based on "separating from" rather than associating with those guilty of breaking the least command or tradition, such as the ritual hand-washing before meals.

What about our church: do we pride ourselves on being "separated ones", a "cut above the rest"; or are we rubbing elbows with Matthew and his friends, hanging out with those some might be suspicious of? Does our church have a "fortress mentality"? Where do we find Jesus? Hmm...

When the Pharisees ask, "Why does your teacher eat with tax collectors and sinners?" they're not really expecting or even wanting an answer - it's a rhetorical question, to make a point. It's implying, "Any respectable teacher wouldn't go near such a place, much less eat with such despicable people!"

The Pharisees are the "respectable" folks; Matthew and his ilk are clearly the "rejects". Where do we find ourselves in this scenario? At table with Jesus and the "sinners", or at a distance scornfully looking down our noses? Would the "rejects" feel they can come to us for help if they have a problem? Can they call up if their water pipes start leaking in the middle of the night? Would they be able to unburden their woes on you if they had a miscarriage, or would you pass by on the sidewalk while they carry on with their bottled-up secret? Do we really CARE about the 'down-and-out', or dismiss them with some saying like, "they made their bed - let them lie in it".

The Pharisee asks, "Why would Jesus invite such SCUM?" Instead we may need to be asking, "Why would Jesus invite ME - when I have such a scummy attitude to those He's seeking?"


Pauline Esther Friedman Phillips founded the newspaper column "Dear Abby" in 1956, and wrote under the pen name Abigail van Buren. She wrote: "The church is a hospital for sinners, not a museum for saints."

Here's another metaphor for the church from someone who devotes even more time to it than Dear Abby: namely, Pope Francis. In an interview he said, "The thing the church needs most today is the ability to heal wounds and to warm the hearts of the faithful; it needs nearness, proximity.I see the church as a field hospital after battle.It is useless to ask a seriously injured person if he has high cholesterol and about the level of his blood sugars! You have to heal his wounds.Then we can talk about everything else. Heal the wounds, heal the wounds...And you have to start from the ground up."

Hospital for sinners? A field hospital after battle? They may have something there. Let's look at Jesus' rebuttal to the Pharisees' protest, vv12f: "On hearing this, Jesus said, "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.""

He explodes the balloon of their puffed-up pride, their smug self-righteousness: pop-pop-pop! First with an everyday analogy; then with Scripture; then with a clarification of His overall mission.

The everyday analogy - "It is not the healthy who need a doctor, but the sick." Duh. So why are you criticizing if you're healthy - this doesn't really concern you! So Jesus' reply allows the Pharisees an "out" if they really consider themselves in good shape spiritually, not needing His services. But wait - are they really that "healthy"? Perhaps they can't see their illness, their proud religiosity, their stuck-upness. Perhaps they're like the church in Revelation 3:17 that Jesus warns: "You say, 'I am rich; I have acquired wealth and do not need a thing.' But you do not realize that you are wretched, pitiful, poor, blind and naked."

Who, after all, is perfectly "healthy" when it comes to spiritual matters? Had the Pharisees forgotten Psalm 14(3)? "All have turned aside, they have together become corrupt; there is no one who does good, not even one." Or as Paul put it in Romans 3:23, "for all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God..." Jesus as spiritual "doctor" has come to treat the sick - and that includes ALL of us, had we eyes to see it.

Next, from Scripture, He quotes Hosea 6:6 where God rebukes a nation that thinks religious rituals are enough, as if God were a vending machine where you put in your animal sacrifice and pull out your reward: He says, "I desire mercy, not sacrifice, and acknowledgment of God rather than burnt offerings." He wants us to KNOW Him, to resonate with His heart that aches to show mercy and see kindness done amongst people. Mercy that reaches even to dare to fellowship with tax collectors and "sinners", those that don't measure up to all the man-made traditions the religious types have added on to God's basic set of commands. God desires mercy - Hebrew "checed": kindness, lovingkindness, goodness.

In Luke 18 Jesus tells a story of two men going to the temple to pray, a Pharisee and a tax collector. The former prays in a very proud way broadcasting all his self-righteousness, but Jesus says it's actually the OTHER man whose prayer is accepted and who goes home put right with God. What's his prayer? He beats his breast and says, "God, have mercy on me, a sinner." Mercy is where it's at.

Take the apostle Paul as an example. He recalls to his protege Timothy: "Even though I was once a blasphemer and a persecutor and a violent man, I was shown mercy because I acted in ignorance and unbelief...Here is a trustworthy saying that deserves full acceptance: Christ Jesus came into the world to save sinners-- of whom I am the worst.But for that very reason I was shown mercy so that in me, the worst of sinners, Christ Jesus might display his unlimited patience as an example for those who would believe on him and receive eternal life." (1Ti 1:13,15-16)

Paul started out as a Pharisee named Saul, blameless with regard to the ritual law - but he ended up at the table with Jesus, aware of his shortcomings and violence, shoulder to shoulder with other "sinners". It was all about MERCY as far as he was concerned.

Paul said it was a trustworthy saying deserving full acceptance: "Christ Jesus came into the world to save sinners." How's Jesus Himself put it in the last half of v13? "For I have not come to call the righteous, but sinners." That's His mission, His agenda, what He's all about: calling sinners. If you think you're righteous, He can't help you, you're not ready for Him. You're still in "sacrifice" mode as Hosea would put it; "I earn it" is your approach toward righteousness. But if you know deep down inside you've blown it, you wrestle with unclean thoughts and sinful desires, if your conscience is less than absolutely clear, if your spirit is crying out: "I need help!" - then Jesus came precisely for the likes of you. Trust Him; acknowledge your need of God; start over with Jesus.

What's this look like on the social level? LAW or works-righteousness, the Pharisees' approach through my own self-sacrifice, tends to protect or reinforce the distance between the social strata, it magnifies the separation between "us" and "them" (those "sinners"). GRACE (or to use the Old Testament word, MERCY) tends to level the social strata, collapses the gap created by pride, lifts up the fallen, and reflects God's saving, reconciling heart.


Do you have certain classes of people you view as "on the wrong side of the tracks"? What about rap musicians? You'll probably never catch me listening to a rap album by choice! But are there Christian rappers? If God can use a tax collector like Matthew to write a premier gospel, can He use a rapper to reach a modern generation with His saving message?

Christianity Today reports that Christian rapper Lecrae was appearing on The Tonight Show with Jimmy Fallon this past week, September 18. Lecrae's "latest album, Anomaly, topped iTunes on the day it was released and took the No.1 spot on the Billboard Top 200--a first for a Gospel act."

In a 2011 interview, Lecrae shared some of the idea behind his album Rehab. "You're addicted to self, and everything other than Jesus becomes the drug of choice." CT noted his music took "traditional hip-hop themes--drugs, sex, money, fame" - and turned them on their heads. He replied, "There's something inherently wrong with created beings being the center of our desire.Let's deconstruct that perspective and then reconstruct it with the right one.People appreciate that because they're like, Man, I know.I understand what he's articulating. I just wasn't able to put words around it.I know there's emptiness, but I don't know what else there is.When you point out that they're pursuing something that is vain and empty, people relate to that."

Matthew had it made as a tax collector, he was "set for life" on the gravy train gathering taxes for the Romans and skimming ample for himself: but he must have sensed it was vain and empty, there was a yearning for something more that Jesus called out in him.

Matthew turned his record-keeping skill into a tool for the Kingdom by writing a gospel. Lecrae sees his livelihood as a vehicle for sharing Christ's good news with others: "...I think that God is glorified through my music, because it points to him as the Giver.Similar to nature--you walk outside and you're like, Oh wow, that's beautiful, and that points to the truth that there is a God.What it won't do is articulate how you can know this God, and the sin that keeps you from knowing this God.So my music is a soundtrack and it's a tool.I want to use this opportunity to resource a gospel-centered movement where people can come to understand who Jesus is and become Christians."

Unlike the Pharisees, Lecrae is not puffed up with pride, but sees the significance of God's mercy giving him a platform to share with others. He notes: "I think I have a unique story...The little noise that we've made has been by the grace of God.It hasn't been because we have an incredible marketing strategy or we're signed to some powerhouse label.It's just been God's grace placing us where we are."

Matthew wrote a Gospel. Lecrae produces albums. How might Jesus be inviting YOU to make "a little noise" by and about His grace? Let's pray.