The Sermon for Matthew 9:9–13
Good Shepherd Lutheran Church; Hoopeston, IL
Rev. James T. Batchelor
No matter who you plan to vote for in the next election, there is one tactic that seems to come up in every political campaign. Sooner or later one or more candidates will ask us to judge the other candidates by the company they keep. Do the other candidates have connections to corrupt politicians or lobbyists? Does anyone on their campaign staff have a questionable background? What special interest groups make donations to their campaigns? If their family members go out on the campaign trail, what about them? Every candidate’s organization will be out to find the skeletons in the other candidates’ closets.
As the saying goes, “Birds of a feather flock together.” Of course this does not only apply to politics. When we learn about a person’s questionable companions, we usually lower our opinion of that person. We often judge others by the company they keep. Today’s Gospel tells us that Jesus also dealt with this issue. His opponents did not like the company that He kept.
Jesus had just chosen a tax collector to be one of His disciples. If you understand just a little bit about the culture of that time and place, you would understand that this is absolutely incredible. Tax collectors were among the most hated people in society. Even today, tax collectors are not the most popular people, but back then, they were fiercely hated.
You see, back then, tax collectors put in a bid with the Roman government for the right to collect taxes. Whoever was the highest bidder would then turn around and collect taxes from the general population in order to make good on that bid. Whatever he collected over and above the bid was his to keep.
Strictly speaking, there was no such thing as a corrupt tax since the tax collector had every right to squeeze whatever he could get out of the population. They could decide who was to pay taxes and how much they had to pay. In most cases, the tax collector really stole his wealth from the population, but the Roman government didn’t care as long as they got their money. So although taxation methods were often unethical and immoral, strictly speaking, they really couldn’t be illegal – at least not by Roman standards.
Then, of course, the tax collector was acting as an agent of an occupying army, the Roman legions. That means that he was also a traitor as well as a thief. Furthermore, the Romans were ceremonially unclean. You may remember that the temple authorities who brought Jesus to Pontius Pilate would not enter his house. They wanted to be ceremonially clean so that they could celebrate the Passover. By associating with the Romans, the tax collectors were also unclean.
The list of offenses that most people had against the tax collectors was long. That is the reason that the terms tax collector and sinner went together so often.
So Jesus was already bucking the trend when He chose a tax collector to be His disciple, but then Matthew decided to use some of his ill-gotten wealth to honor Jesus with a dinner. Of course Matthew invited all of his old friends to this dinner. He wanted them to meet Jesus as well. So Jesus and His disciples found themselves at a tax collector’s house eating a meal with some of the scum of society.
As if that weren’t bad enough, remember that people in that time and place did not sit at a table to eat. They lay on couches next to low tables. Typically, three people reclined on each couch. This meant that when Jesus ate with tax collectors and sinners, He was lying down among them. Back then eating dinner together was a much more personal experience than it is today.
Perhaps now you can understand the reason that the Pharisees were absolutely astonished that Jesus went to this dinner. You can see why they said to his disciples, “Why does your teacher eat with tax collectors and sinners?” This simply went against the accepted guidelines for devout rabbis. When Jesus heard what they were saying, 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.” With these words, Jesus tells us the He is a physician of the soul.
Here Jesus asks us to compare His work as savior to the work of a doctor. If you go in for a routine physical and the doctor finds nothing wrong, he might say, “Well, you don’t need anything from me. I’ll see you at your next physical.” If, on the other hand, the doctor says, “I am writing out a prescription and I want to see you again sometime next week,” you know something is not right. Doctors don’t spend a lot of time with healthy people, but with people who are the sickest.
There are many people who see Jesus lying down to eat with tax collectors and sinners and think that Jesus was validating their life style. Nothing could be farther from the truth. Jesus was saying that they needed a doctor for their souls. He was saying that these people had a disease that needed a cure. He was saying that something was wrong with them and He was there to fix it. He offered a cure to these people.
The sad part of today’s Gospel is the Pharisees. They too were sinners. They too desperately needed the mercy of God that Jesus earned for them on the cross. Unfortunately, they rejected the mercy that Jesus offered.
They were like a seriously sick man who is too proud to admit that he is sick. His family, his friends, and his doctor love him and want him to recover. They tell him that he is sick and that there is a simple cure for his disease – something that is simple, effective, reliable, and has no side effects. Never the less, this man, because of his pride, refuses to listen and even becomes angry at those who love him. Eventually, his pride kills him because he will not admit to his disease. In a similar way, the forgiveness that Jesus offers does no good to those who refuse to admit that they are sick with sin.
The cure Jesus offered to the sinners in today’s Gospel is the cure He offers to all people – His body and blood sacrificed on a cross for the forgiveness of our sins. He took all the sins of Matthew and his friends onto Himself. There He satisfied the justice of God’s holy wrath against sin. Jesus separated the sin from the sinner so that God was able to condemn and destroy the sin without destroying the sinner. Instead, God offers mercy to the sinner.
Christ’s sacrifice on the cross is good for our sin also. We, like Matthew and his friends, are sinful people. We may not have cheated people out of their taxes, but we have all cheated. We have all stolen. We have all lied. We have all been unfaithful. We have all murdered. We deserve the same punishment that Matthew and his friends deserved. We need the same cure that Jesus offered in today’s Gospel and we have it. As the Holy Spirit inspired John to write in his first epistle: [1 John 2:2] “He is the propitiation for our sins, and not for ours only but also for the sins of the whole world.”
Jesus still offers the same mercy that He offered to Matthew and his friends. He offers this mercy to the whole world. He has the only cure for our spiritual disease. We receive the benefits of His cure as the Holy Spirit shows our sin to us and creates the faith that trusts in Jesus only for our salvation.
Jesus is in the business of transforming things. He transformed the defeat of the cross into a victory over sin, death, and the devil. When He rose from the dead, He transformed death from a door to eternal death into a door to eternal life. He transforms sinners into saints.
The table fellowship of first century Palestine was normally a place to solidify and reinforce the role of people in the society. For those of the upper class, table fellowship demonstrated their superior station in life. For those of a lower class, it demonstrated their inferior station in life. The meal was the event that made sure everyone knew their place.
Jesus changed all that. Jesus reached out at meals to transform and convert people. Jesus used these meals as opportunities to reach out to the lost sheep of Israel. He used these meals to offer grace, mercy, and peace to all who came. With His table fellowship here on earth, He pointed to the eternal feast of heaven – the wedding banquet of the Lamb. It is at this feast that we and all who believe will recline with Matthew and his believing friends. There we will enjoy eternal, perfect, table fellowship with Jesus Christ our Lord and our Savior. Amen.