Sunday, January 3, 2016
As many of you know, from the earliest days of church history, the church began venerating certain people, especially martyrs, as being more holy than others. They were special, and came to be canonized by the church, which means they attained sainthood. Matthew was one of them – St. Matthew. You might be interested to know that Matthew became the patron saint of tax collectors and bankers. Having been a banker, I’m offended to share my saint with IRS agents, but that’s the way it goes.
What picture comes to mind when you think of St. Matthew? Go to any number of impressive cathedrals throughout Europe. There are mosaics and paintings and stained glass everywhere. Lots of images of the apostles, including St. Matthew. You can see the picture in your mind, right? There he is standing, hands folded, eyes lifted heavenward, looking pious. The picture is complete with robes and, that’s right, a halo – he is, after all, St. Matthew.
But who is this Matthew? I have to say – I think Matthew would be the first to throw a rock through the stained glass window bearing his image. St. Matthew? Who was he? He’s introduced to us in our text this morning, found in Mark 2. Go ahead and turn there.
While you’re turning, let me remind you where we are in our study of the book. Mark’s purpose is clearly to present Jesus as the Christ, the Son of God. After an introduction through the first part of chapter 1, Jesus began teaching and doing miracles – all designed to prove who He was. He was doing things with authority – last week, even divine authority. His teaching was unlike the scribes – it was with power. His miracles were incredible – He began by declaring war on the forces evil – driving out a demon right there in the synagogue.
In this Gospel, He began His healing ministry by healing Pete’s mother-in-law. Then, we’re given a summary statement – He healed many people of various diseases. In fact, the chapter ended with Him healing a man from the dreaded disease of leprosy. Unbelievably, He touched the man – and rather than Jesus becoming unclean, the man became clean.
From there, we jumped into chapter 2, where we saw Jesus do something amazing – something that caused the religious leaders to have a hernia, and the people to proclaim, we’ve never seen anything like this before. Yes, He healed a paralytic – the man stood up right there in front of everyone. But more, Jesus forgave this man his sins. The religious leaders were aghast – this is blasphemy, no one can forgive sins but God. And they were right on one count, and wrong on another. Yes, it’s true that only God can forgive sins – but this was not blasphemy, because Jesus was God – He had the authority to forgive sins.
Through these miracles, Jesus is teaching some specific truths – we’ve called them messages in the miracles. Probably the two most outstanding messages have been these: first, Jesus is the Christ, the Son of God. He has demonstrated His divine power by healing people of every disease, driving out demons, and ultimately, forgiving sin. In all these miracles, Jesus deals with the effects of sin – things like disease, demons and death. All points to His ability to deal with sin itself. Jesus has the power to say the words, “Your sins are forgiven.”
But a second, very important message in the miracles has been is this: Jesus was building a kingdom of people you would never expect. He doesn’t fill it with religious people – righteous people – He fills it with broken people – like demon possessed and women and lepers and paralytics and this morning – tax collectors and sinners. You see, His message of the kingdom doesn’t belong to self-righteous, self-sufficient, arrogant, religious scribes and Pharisees. Some of you remember years ago when we looked at the Sermon on the Mount in Matthew 5 – there, Jesus said the kingdom belongs to poor in spirit, broken, mourning, hungry, thirsty people. It belongs to people who know they’re sinners, who know they need a Savior. It belongs to people who know Jesus is their only hope. So, we’ve seen Jesus heal the marginalized of society – because they’re the ones who came to Him.
If you came to Jesus any other way, then you don’t get it. If you came to Jesus because it was the family thing to do, the cultural thing to do, the cool thing to do, then you don’t get it. If you came because you were essentially a good person, and you thought Jesus would be lucky to have you on His team, then you don’t get it. Jesus will only have the broken – the spiritually destitute – sinners in His Kingdom.
Last week I told you we’ve begun five stories where Jesus does something, and the religious don’t like it. So this morning, we’re going to find Jesus calling broken sinners into His kingdom, and the religious will not like it. I believe we have in these verses today the very heart of the gospel – the truth nearest to God’s heart – that Jesus Christ came into the world to save sinners, of whom I am the worst. Jesus came to save people who are sick and know they’re sick. People who are sinners, and know they’re sinners. Let’s read the text – Mark 2:13-17. Read.
Let me break the text into four parts:
- First, we’re going to meet St. Matthew.
- Second, were going to go to Matthew’s party.
- Then, we’re going to look at the response of the Scribes – and we see they also Pharisees – to the party – and that’ll be a real shocker.
- And last, we’re going to look at Jesus’ response to the Pharisees.
- Let’s begin by meeting this Levi. Who was he? The other gospels tell us his name was also Matthew, and he was the son of Alphaeus. We see here that he was sitting in the tax collector’s booth. So, St. Matthew was a tax collector. Now, immediately, you may think – well, as much as I don’t like paying taxes, IRS agents aren’t that bad. I don’t hate ‘em – if I lived next to one, I’d probably be nice to him – maybe.
Well, feelings about tax collectors in Matthew’s day were a thousand times worse, and for good reason. During this time, Palestine had been under the oppressive rule of Rome for almost a hundred years. And one of the worst aspects of Roman oppression was their system of taxation. It was methodical, it was relentless, it was ruthless.
This is how it went. Roman senators and other high-ranking officials would buy from the central Roman government at public auction the right to collect taxes in a given region at a fixed rate for five years. It was like having a franchise – to tax. Those who held these taxing rights were called publicani – from which we get our word, publicans – not republicans, publicans. The publicani would hire others, usually citizens of the country being taxed, to do the actual collection of the money. So, if you had the franchise for tax collection in Palestine, you’d hire a Jew to do it. Now, this is important – why would you pay for a tax franchise? Because whatever the publicani collected above that fixed amount, was theirs.
Now, these hired tax collectors had the same arrangement with the publicani as the publicani had with Rome – whatever they managed to collect above the amount demanded by their bosses, they kept as profit. Are you getting the snowball effect here? Both the publicani and the tax-gatherers obviously had a strong motivation to collect as much tax as possible – they extorted the people, knowing they were backed by the full authority of Rome.
It gets worse. Many tax collectors would accept bribes from the wealthy to reduce their taxes. So, the tax collectors had to tax the lower classes even more to make up the difference. Are you starting to see why they weren’t very popular?
Now, there were two categories of tax collectors hired by the publicani. First, there were the gabbai. The gabbai collected general taxes, like property and income taxes. They were just like our property and incomes taxes – don’t like ‘em, but everybody pays them. There was also a poll or registration tax that was paid by every boy over 14, and every girl over 12.
But the second kind of tax collector was the mokhes. They collected a wide variety of taxes – sales taxes, import taxes, toll taxes, boat docking fees, business licenses – things like that. They had almost unlimited authority – they could tax anything they wanted. They were allowed to stop you, go through your packages, and tax anything of value. When you came off the Sea of Galilee, they could tax the boat, the fish, and the dock you used. If you were traveling, they could tax your donkey, any slaves you might have, and all your goods. They were not very well liked.
Now, there were two kinds of mokhes. You still with me? There was the great mokhes. He hired other people to do his dirty work. He didn’t actually collect the taxes – he hired other people to extort you. Then there were the small mokhes. These guys didn’t want to pay a middle man – they didn’t want to hire someone else. So, they did their own dirty work – they did the assessing and the collecting. They were always in contact with the people, who hated them. Guess which one Matthew was? He was sitting in the tax collector’s booth – he was the small mokhes – he was lower than the gum on the bottom of your shoe. He was despised.
As a result, like his fellow tax collectors, Matthew was barred from the synagogue. He was forbidden to have any religious or even social contact with fellow Jews. He was ranked with unclean animals, which a devout Jew wouldn’t even touch. He was in the class of pigs. You see, because of his position, he had to deal with those dirty Gentiles. And, because he was seen as a traitor, a liar, and a cheat, he wasn’t even allowed to give testimony in a court of law. He was an extortioner, a traitor, he was greedy, unclean. St. Matthew was a weasel. He was ranked with the lowest of human society – with sinners, prostitutes, and Gentiles. He was completely ostracized by his own countrymen, and understandably so.
And to this man, this slug of society, this dirty-rotten, low-life sinner, Jesus said, “Follow me.” And Matthew became not only one of His followers, but one of the Twelve. And here we are, 2000 years later, reading, studying, learning and being encouraged by his story. The first book in your New Testament was written by him and carries his name. And you say wow, that’s incredible – he was awful. That’s right. Because you see, this is grace.
Why did Matthew leave everything, right there in the tax collector’s booth, and follow Jesus? I have a theory. You see, Matthew was from Capernaum. He had been there the entire time Jesus was doing all His miracles and His teaching. He’d heard about Peter’s mother-in-law. He’d heard about everyone else healed. He’d heard about the paralytic – and the unbelievable claim – Jesus could forgive sin. It’s even possible Matthew had heard some of the teaching. But – He was a tax collector. Even though the message of repentance and forgiveness sounded good, certainly it didn’t apply to him. St. Matthew? Hardly. He didn’t deserve the time of day.
And Jesus actually looked at him and said – follow me. I can see Matthew looking all around, looking over his shoulder – what, you mean me? Yeah, Matthew – you – follow me. And he couldn’t get out of the booth fast enough. When forgiveness was offered, he ran for it. Luke tells us he left everything to follow Jesus. I don’t see him gathering up the days profits, stuffing them in his robe as he ran out the door. He left it all. And once he left his post, he left it for good – there would be no turning back.
But that was okay. You see, sinners who know they’re sinners are quick to respond to the call. They know they’re unclean – they know they’re dirty. They know they need forgiveness. Jesus was willing to accept when others were quick to reject. In fact, I would say it like this – Jesus is quick to receive people many churches would frown upon if they came in their front doors. Jesus is constantly in the business of calling into His kingdom people we would never pick. They aren’t clean, they aren’t respectable. And those kind of people respond – you see, people who are most acutely aware of their need will respond most quickly. You have to be aware of your need before you’ll ever seek the solution – Matthew was a sinner, and all of society kept it before him. But Jesus said – you meet the requirements of My kingdom – you would never be the subject of stained glass – Follow me.
Maybe that’s you this morning – you know your life, you know your sin. And you think yourself too bad to be a follower of Jesus. I’ve got good news for you – you’re exactly the kind of person Jesus is looking for to fill His kingdom.
- Which brings us to our second point – Matthew’s party, verse 15.
Matthew had found grace. He’d found forgiveness. He was clean for the first time in his life. And he threw a big party – he wanted everyone to know what he had. That’s what rescued people do. So he invited all his friends. What kind of friends do sinners have? Other sinners. The place was full of tax collectors and your general run of the mill pagans – sinners – quite possibly murderers, robbers, drunkards, prostitutes – the irreligious and ungodly riff raff of the area. One thing of which we can be sure, there were no religious people there. The word “sinner” at this time was a technical term to refer to anyone who didn’t follow the law of Moses or the tradition of the elders. These were sinners just like Matthew who knew they needed a Savior, and they were there to meet Him. Can you imagine what kind of party it was? No doubt lots of laughing and crying at the same time. Can it possibly be true? Can we possibly know what it means to find forgiveness?
Let me ask you a question. When’s the last time you found yourself in a room full of sinners? Joe Aldridge, in his book Lifestyle Evangelism, says it takes the average new Christian about 18 months before he has no non-Christian friends. It takes about that long for us to separate from those dirty pagans, and immerse ourselves in the Christian sub-culture, and become so religious that we never have to rub shoulders with unbelievers. You would never find most Christians at a party with tax collectors and sinners. After all, we might get contaminated.
It was probably because of party’s like this that Jesus gained the reputation of being a glutton and a drunkard, a friend of tax collectors and sinners. Could that be said of you? You say, of course not – I’ve never stepped foot inside a bar – I’ve never been to a frat house – I’ve never been to this kind of party. You would never find me at some of those places on King street on Friday or Saturday night. Is that right? I believe that’s exactly where we’d find Jesus – He went to where sinners were – He kept Himself from clean, self-righteous people who would never realize they need a Savior. I want to be clear here – Jesus wasn’t a glutton – He wasn’t a drunk. But He went to where sinners were, because sinners know they need a savior.
- Which brings us to our third point – the Response of the Scribes to the Party. Surprise, Surprise, verse 16, “When the scribes of the Pharisees saw that He was eating with the sinners and tax collectors, they said to His disciples, ‘Why is He eating and drinking with tax collectors and sinners?’”
That wasn’t a question, by the way – it was an indictment. As we are seeing, the religious oppose the work of God. The Pharisees weren’t inside the house – you’d never find them there. They were outside looking in. They were separated from sinners, and therefore Jesus, condemning everything going on. That’s what self-righteous people do. They condemn others – it makes them look better in the process.
These were the guys who were thankful they weren’t like other sinners. These were the guys who kept all the rules and thought they were doing it right. The fact is, these guys were resentful that Jesus never showed them such favor. If He really were a man of God, certainly He would throw them a party and commend them for their religious piety. They were expecting a Messiah who would crush the sinful and support the righteous – they had little place for one who accepted and transformed the sinner and dismissed the righteous as hypocrites.
- Even though it was more of an accusation than a question, Jesus answered their question. And He did it in two ways – two ways are absolutely vital we catch.
First, He answered it with a physical analogy. He said, “It’s not those who are healthy who need a physician, but those who are sick.” Think about it – how much sense would it make for a doctor to go through years of medical school and residency, which I hear is a breeze, and never spend time with sick people? Never go to the hospital? That doesn’t even make sense. What kind of doctor would spend all his time with healthy people, and refuse to associate with sick people? Sick people need doctors. People who are well don’t need them, except maybe for a good round of golf.
Too many churches across this country are for clean, shiny people. People who have it all together, and who just add Jesus to their already good lives. And sinners feel completely out of place, there. That’s not a church. Jesus is saying, I want My church to be a hospital – where spiritually sick people can come to find grace and healing and forgiveness. Because that’s what we’re to be – spiritual doctors who, having received grace, dispense grace, for free. The church doesn’t need to be a place that condemns sinners – we need a place that accepts – more, seeks out sinners.
In Matthew’s gospel – remember – Matthew wrote it, so he would know what Jesus said, and he records Jesus said, I desire compassion, not sacrifice. God wants us to show compassion to sinners. In fact, how we treat “sinners” is evidence of the fact that we have received grace. We can spend hours here every Sunday singing wonderful songs of praise and worship. We can spend hours praying together and talking about the wonderful truths of God’s word. But if we don’t love sinners – if we don’t have compassion for them – then we are wasting our time.
The second way Jesus answered the question is the very core of the gospel – the very central truth of His first advent: “I did not come to call the righteous, but sinners.” In other words, Jesus was saying to the pharisaical scribes, you need to understand something – I didn’t come to call you, I came to call them – sinners. Now, it’s important we understand, Jesus is not saying there are two kinds of people on earth – righteous and sinners – those who need saving, and those who don’t. No – the book of Romans makes it clear there are none righteous – not one. Rather, Jesus is saying, there are two kinds of people on earth – sinners who think their righteous, who think they don’t need Me, and sinners who know they’re sinners, and know they need a Savior. And they come in their brokenness, mourning over their sin, hungering and thirsting for righteousness. I came to save them.
Paul said it this way, “It is a trustworthy statement, deserving full acceptance, that Christ Jesus came into the world to save sinners, among whom I am foremost of all.” It’s when we realize that, we understand the gospel, and can be rescued.
The bottom line is this: the gospel of Jesus Christ is not for good people. It is for bad people who know they’re bad. People who know they’re broken, and need fixing. People who know Jesus is their only hope. And they follow Him.
There are perhaps three groups of people here this morning as we close. First, there are those who are saved. At some point in the past, you realized you were bad – you were a dirty rotten sinner, just like St. Matthew. And you came to Christ, by faith, seeking His forgiveness. And you chose to follow Him. For you, this morning, my message is simple. Aren’t you glad? Aren’t you thankful? We’re going to observe Communion together in a few minutes. It’s a time for us to remember, and give thanks.
A second group of people here may be modern day Pharisees. You’ve never really thought yourself that bad. You’ve kind of depended on doing it right to make you acceptable to God. You’ve gone to church, you’ve crossed all the spiritual i’s and dotted all the religious t’s. And you feel pretty good about yourself. In fact, you feel pretty superior to others. You’re not nearly as bad as other people, and not nearly as bad as you could be. You think you’re pretty good. My message for you this morning is this. Jesus didn’t come to call the righteous – He came to call sinners. If you’re relying on your own goodness – you won’t make it. The gospel is not for you. It’s for people who realize their own sinfulness. When you realize you can’t do it on your own, that despite all your external acts of righteousness, you’re rotten to the core, the gospel then becomes your only hope.
And finally, a third group is this. Maybe you’re here this morning and you feel like Matthew. Not St. Matthew – tax collector Matthew. And you’re sitting in the tax collector’s, the sinner’s booth, feeling dirty and sinful and rotten. And you’re feeling beyond the reach of God’s grace. I have good news this morning. Would you hear the words of Jesus speaking to you right now – follow me. You can be clean. You can be forgiven. God will give you a brand new heart, if you ask Him to.