"The Teacher of Mercy"
(Delivered Sunday, October 2, 2005 at Bethany Bible Church. All Scripture quotes, unless otherwise indicated, are from the New King James Version.)
Did you know that the first book of the New Testament - in fact, the first of the four gospels of our blessed and holy Savior Jesus Christ - was written by someone who had been such a notorious and despised sinner that the decent and respectable people of his day would have had nothing whatsoever to do with him?
The apostle Matthew, you see, was a tax collector - or "publican" as he's called in some translations of the Bible. A tax collector, in Jesus' day, was a Jewish man who collected taxes from his own Jewish kinsmen on behalf the Gentile Roman government. He made his living by collecting not only the required revenue appointed by the Roman government, but by also collecting a percentage above that required amount as his own cut.
A tax collector was, at the core, a traitor to his own people. He was a sell-out to an occupying Gentile government. And he was doubly despised by his fellow Jews; because he not only collected taxes from his own people for the Roman occupiers, but also because his collection of that tax was characterized by greed, graft and abuse.
Tax collectors were considered by the ancient Jewish people to be both "legal-robbers" and "covenant-breakers". They were the "racketeers" of their day. They were classified as among the very worst of sinners - considered to be in the same category as harlots, gamblers and thieves. According to rabbinical teaching, a tax collector was to be excluded from any religious fellowship. Any money that may come from him was to be considered "defiled". He was not to be permitted to serve as a witness in a court of law. He was to be considered a moral "leper" - an "untouchable". From a strictly human standpoint, there was no hope for a tax collector to ever find favor with God. He was not only a sinner; but he was a particularly accursed sinner. In fact, He was not even worthy to be considered a normal sinner, but stood in a category all his own; which is why the Bible often quotes the phrase "tax-collectors and sinners".
And did you know that this was the kind of man God chose to write the first gospel account we have in the Bible? It makes you wonder if God doesn't view some very notorious sinners in a way that is quite a bit different from the way the rest of us typically do! He clearly viewed Matthew differently than the people of his day typically did!
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I find it very interesting that, when the other gospel writers tell the story of this particular apostle's call to Jesus, they use a different name for him. Mark and Luke, in their gospel accounts of his call, both refer to him by the name "Levi" (Mark 2:13-17; Luke 5:27-32). Many people in the Bible had two names; and so, when Mark and Luke wrote of his ministry as an apostle, they called him "Matthew"; but when they told the story of his being called while a tax-collector, they chose to refer to him by his lesser-known name "Levi". Perhaps they chose to do this out of respect for his apostolic ministry; and out of a desire to protect his ministry from the scandal of his dubious past.
But I also notice that Matthew himself had no such hesitancy. In telling his own story, he held nothing back. He told the story of his sordid past as "Matthew". In fact, even when he included his name in the list of apostles, he identified himself with his sin written out in bold letters: "Matthew the tax collector" (Matthew 10:3).
This man was a very notorious and very despised sinner - a sinner particularly hated by the Jewish people. But he was a sinner that our blessed Savior loved. He was a man that Jesus called to Himself, and that He pardoned and cleansed, and that He placed into his service, and made into one of His own twelve ambassadors to the world, and to whom He gave the privilege of penning the longest and most "Jewish" of the four gospels.
Someone has once said, "The church is the only fellowship in the world where the one requirement for membership is the unworthiness of the candidate."1 The Holy Spirit has chosen to include this story in the Bible, because it has great lessons to teach us about how merciful and loving our wonderful Savior is to those sinners that the world despises the most and considers the most unworthy. And though Matthew tells us very little about himself in it, it still must have been a moving experience for Matthew to write this portion of his gospel; because it displays his own unworthiness - and of the greatness of the Savior's love toward him.
As Jesus passed on from there, He saw a man named Matthew sitting at the tax office. And He said to him, "Follow Me." So he arose and followed Him. Now it happened, as Jesus sat at the table in the house, that behold, many tax collectors and sinners came and sat down with Him and His disciples. And when the Pharisees saw it, they said to His disciples, "Why does your Teacher eat with tax collectors and sinners?" When Jesus heard that, He said to them, "Those who are well have no need of a physician, but those who are sick. But go and learn what this means: 'I desire mercy and not sacrifice.' For I did not come to call the righteous, but sinners to repentance" (Matthew 9:9-13).
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Now, you may think that this story is meant to teach us about the wonderful mercy of Jesus; and about how great His love is for unworthy sinners. And of course, I believe that's one of the things that this story is meant to teach us. It's certainly meant to encourage those of us who are the deeply and painfully aware of our sinfulness - that Jesus loves even the worst of us, and is able to call us to Himself and put us into His service. It's a story that ought to bring great comfort to sinners - even really horrible sinners - that Jesus is able and willing and glad to love and forgive even us! Many of us can surely testify to that! But even though that's one of the outstanding points of this story, I don't think that's the main point that God is seeking to get across to us in it.
I believe that the main point is what we find Jesus telling, not the terrible sinners, but the comparatively "righteous" Pharisees! They were astonished that Jesus would allow such wicked, dirty sinners as Matthew into His presence - and that He would even go so far as to eat with them! And yet, in doing so, Jesus was illustrating to them that this is the way God is toward those that the world considers hopeless and irredeemable.
Jesus didn't come into the world to call the supposed "righteous" Pharisees to Himself; because they didn't view themselves as needing a Savior. Rather, He came to call the wicked, and sinful, and despised untouchables to Himself; because they are the ones who were without hope, and who need mercy and love and forgiveness the most. Jesus was illustrating in this story that this is the way God is - that God prioritizes acts of mercy and love toward the truly "unworthy" ones, over acts of religious sacrifice and devotion from the supposed "righteous" ones.
And in doing this, Jesus is showing how He wants you and me - His followers, who have already received His forgiveness and who are now called to be like Him - to behave toward those whom even the people of this world consider to be "sinful" and "defiled" and "unworthy". Our merciful Savior Himself prioritizes mercy over sacrifice; and He is showing us in Matthew's story that He wishes for us to have the same priority that He displays toward the needy sinners He places around us.
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Jesus then, in this story, is our Teacher. He is even called "Teacher" by the Pharisees. And here, He is particularly our Teacher of mercy. He teaches us by example how to show mercy to needy sinners - even the most despicable of sinners.
The first way He sets the example for us is by . . .
1. GOING TO WHERE NEEDY SINNERS ARE (v. 9).
Now in the story, as Matthew has been telling it to us, Jesus had been teaching people in a house in the city of Capernaum - by the Sea of Galilee. A paralyzed man had been lowered down to Him from the roof; and Jesus shocked everyone by forgiving the paralyzed man's sins. He spoke as if He had the authority to forgive sins that had been committed against God. And then, Jesus proved that He truly had such authority by healing the man, and commanding him to take up his bed and go home.
Jesus had just proven something very important. He had proven that He had the authority to forgive the sins of those who went to great lengths to come to Him. But what about those who are too ashamed to come to Him? What about those who, for whatever reason, feel that they are too bad a sinner to come to the Savior? I believe that this was Matthew's situation.
I believe that Matthew heard much about Jesus. He had to have heard much, because he was a tax collector in the city of Capernaum. In his line of business, he heard a lot about what was going on in his region. He must have heard all the stories and gossip about the things Jesus had done in his own home town: how Jesus had healed a leprous man of his leprosy, or of how He had healed the servant of a Roman centurion with just a command, or of how He had healed the fisherman Peter's mother-in-law. Matthew must have heard something about how He had stood up in a boat in the midst of a storm on the Sea of Galilee, and commanded the wind and the waves to be quiet. He must have heard about how Jesus had confronted the two demoniacs on the other side of the sea; and of how the evil spirits obeyed Him when He commanded them to come out of the men.
My suspicion is that Matthew heard a lot about all these things - and what's more, I'm sure Matthew did a lot of thinking about them. I suspect that all the stories and instruction he had received from the Scriptures - from the time that he was a little boy - began to come back to him. I believe he knew enough about the Old Testament prophecies to realize that this Jesus he was hearing so much about was, indeed, the long-awaited Jewish Messiah.
But I also suspect that the realization of who Jesus was had caused Matthew's heart to sink in despair. Somewhere along the way, Matthew had chose a life of sin. He had sold himself out to the offers of the Roman authorities, and had chosen to become a betrayer of his people for profit. He had chosen to make money his god. Perhaps he gained a good house and lots of material wealth because of his line of work; but he realized that he also sold his own soul in the process. I strongly suspect that Matthew had come to believe that there was no hope for heaven in his future. The Messiah's ministry may have been going on right there in his own home town; but he himself worked in a tax collectors booth - and there's no way for the two things to find a point of contact. Jesus may have been going around healing many people; but Matthew was sure that Jesus wouldn't even give someone like him the time of day.
I believe Matthew had even become like so many people today, who are lost and hopeless in their sin. He had simply resolved himself to his spiritual doomed - that he was going to die one day and go to eternal judgment; and was now just going through the motions of life - carrying on with his sin as if it didn't really matter anymore, and seeking to make the most of it all while he could.
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Now, I can't help but think that Matthew wrote the next words with a particular degree of emotion swelling up in his heart. He says that, as Jesus passed by, "He saw a man named Matthew sitting at the tax office". And given Matthew's spiritual condition, consider what a wonderful thing it is that Jesus "saw" him! He didn't just see him; but He saw him sitting in that place in which he would of thought Jesus never would have seen him - in that place from which he would have naturally expected someone such as Jesus to turn His head away!
Have you ever been so mad and so disgusted at someone's sin that you couldn't even look at them? I believe that Matthew was used to people looking away from him. He was a vile traitor - a notorious and hopeless sinner; and he had sort of hardened himself to people's averted eyes and sneering lips. But here was Jesus - the Messiah, looking right at Matthew!
Think of what must have gone on in Matthew's mind as he saw that Jesus saw him! And I don't think that Matthew could have possibly missed the love for him that he saw in Jesus' eyes. After all, Jesus knew what Matthew was. He was sitting there in his tax collector's booth. And so, there would be no other reason for Jesus to "see" him, except because He loved him. I believe that Jesus' look of love melted the hardness in Matthew's heart.
By the way; think of that the next time you drive by a bar. The people in that bar think that Jesus has nothing to do with them. They believe they are in a "No-Jesus Zone" - and that there is no hope for them. But did you know that Jesus knows the name of everyone in the place? The next time you drive past a strip-club, or a porn shop, or some other notorious place of sin, just remember: Jesus knows the names of everyone inside. He knows who owns the place, and who works there. He sees them every day. He knows how they ended up in such places. They think that they are so lost in their sin that He wouldn't want to have anything to do with them. But the truth is that He sees them and He cares very deeply about their souls. Their sins were on His mind when He went to the cross.
Do they see the love of Jesus' in our eyes when we look at them? Do we, with our look, communicate that Jesus knows about them and cares about them - that they are precious to Him? Or do we simply turn our heads away in disgust, and confirm them in their hopelessness?
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Jesus "saw" Matthew. What a shock that must have been to him. And what an even greater shock it must have been to Matthew when Jesus then - with His eyes locked in love upon him - extended His hand to him and said, "Follow Me"!
I hope you appreciate what a decisive invitation this would have been to take. Matthew knew that, if he arose and followed, there would be no turning back. If he left the tax office to follow Jesus, and then changed his mind later and tried to go back to his old business, he wouldn't be accepted back. His tax office would have been given to someone else; and the Roman government would never again allow Matthew to be entrusted with the privilege of collecting taxes for them again. And what's more, there would most likely have been no other vocational options for Matthew. If he tried to get another job later, who among his people would ever hire a former tax collector?
But Matthew tells us, ". . . He said to him, 'Follow Me.' So he arose and followed him." When Luke tells this story, he lets us know that Matthew "left all" to follow Jesus (Luke 5:28). At Jesus' call, he left his sinful profession and sinful life behind once and for all and followed.
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Dear brothers and sisters in Christ, Matthew wasn't like the man who was lowered down through the roof. Jesus showed mercy to that paralyzed man, because he and his friends sought Jesus out and took great pains to go to where He was. But here, Jesus came to someone who didn't dare seek Him! Jesus took the initiative and went to where a very notorious sinner was - in fact, right in the midst of his sinful activity - and called him. Jesus invited this sinful outcast to become His follower - even as he was hopelessly lost in men's eyes. Jesus took the initiative of mercy.
And do you know that that's why our merciful Savior Himself said He came? He doesn't sit around and wait for the needy to come to Him. He said, "For the Son of Man has come to seek and to save that which was lost" (Luke 19:10). Jesus, our great example, calls us to do the same toward the lost and needy sinners around us. We're to seek them out! We're to go to the places where THEY are - lost in the despair of their sin, and feeling sure that there's no hope for them. We're to show them mercy by "seeing" them, and inviting them to rise up and follow Jesus.
May God help us to follow the example our Teacher has set for us!
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Another way that our Teacher of mercy sets the example for us was by . . .
2. WELCOMING NEEDY SINNERS INTO FELLOWSHIP WITH HIMSELF (vv. 10-11).
Matthew left his wicked profession behind, and rose up and followed Jesus. And next, he tells us, "Now it happened, as Jesus sat at the table in the house, that behold, many tax collectors and sinners came and sat down with Him and His disciples" (Matthew 9:10). When Mark tells this story, he lets us know that this was Matthew's own house that Jesus went to. It must have been a very large house, considering that "many tax collectors and sinners" came and joined Jesus and His disciples in it. And Luke tells us even more - letting us know that Matthew was putting on a great feast in Jesus' honor (Luke 5:29).
Matthew had found the Savior; and I believe he wanted to have a bunch of his former friends over to meet Jesus and be introduced to the Savior too! When one hopeless and needy sinner discovers the mercy of the Savior, he wants to share that mercy with other hopeless and needy sinners!
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Now; I've tried to imagine what that scene might have looked like. What comes to my mind is a scene that looks something like the great masterpiece, "The Last Supper" - only, of course, it was a completely different meal. There Jesus would be at the table, in the position of honor; and all around him would be the disciples eating and drinking.
But in this case, I imagine additional faces sprinkled in with the disciples. Over to one side would be a couple of fellows that look an awful lot like first-century gangsters - chatting away with Peter and Andrew. Off to another side would be Philip and Thomas - serving a large plate of food to a small group of harlots. James would be pouring wine for a thief; and John would be receiving a slice of bread from a murderer. There would be a few kidnappers mixing and mingling with the other disciples, along with a few extortioners and drunkards and idolators. And of course, there would be tax collectors all over the place!
Did you know that Jesus was often criticized because of the kind of people He was found eating with? His opponents said that He was "a glutton and a winebibber, a friend of tax collectors and sinners" (Matthew 11:19). Those who watched Him would complain, "He has gone to be a guest with a man who is a sinner" (Luke 19:7). But it's fascinating to see how the most sinful of people seemed to be the ones who were most comfortable in His presence and the most eager to be with Him.
Why was it that sinful people seemed to flock to Jesus, and so loved to be with Him? I believe that there's several reasons. For one thing, they knew that He loved them. They certainly knew that they were sinful, and that He didn't condone the things they did; but they also knew that He loved them. They knew that He called them to begin following Him right then and there - right were they were; and that they didn't have to go away first and become perfect in order to "earn" the right to become His followers. They knew that, if they asked, He would forgive their sins and show them mercy. I believe they felt that He looked past what they were right then, and saw them for what He had come to save them to be in glory.
I believe that notorious sinners flocked around Him, because they felt the truth of His promise: "All that the Father gives Me will come to Me, and the one ho comes to Me I will by no means cast out" (John 6:37).
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Now, contrast this with the attitude of the Pharisees. They were the religious leaders of the day. They were having a fit about seeing Jesus and His disciples having dinner with such riff-raff. Matthew tells us, "And when the Pharisees saw it, they said to His disciples, 'Why does your Teacher eat with tax collectors and sinners?'" (It's a pretty safe bet that the tax collectors and sinners weren't flocking to the homes of the Pharisees!)
A couple of things fascinate me about this. First of all, I notice that the Pharisees chose to bring their complaint to the disciples. They didn't bring it to Jesus. I have a theory about that. I think that they didn't dare bring their complaint to Jesus! They'll beef about it to His disciples, but they were afraid to talk to Him about it. And that paints quite a picture to us of Jesus' great mercy to sinners, doesn't it? Those who are despised sinners - and know it! - are eager to come to Jesus when they hear about Him. They're drawn to Him. But those who are righteous in their own eyes not only prefer not to be around sinners - they also would prefer not to be around Jesus either!
And another thing fascinates me. When they spoke to the disciples, the Pharisees referred to Jesus as their "Teacher". This is very significant! The title "teacher" meant much more than just someone who passes knowledge and information on to students. It referred to someone who also taught by living example! A teacher sets an example for his students to follow. Jesus identified Himself to His disciples as that kind of a teacher. He once told them, "You call Me Teacher and Lord, and you say well, for so I am;" and then He told them, ". . . I have given you an example, that you should do as I have done to you" (John 13:13, 15). The Pharisees were complaining to Jesus' disciples that their "Teacher" was setting an unspeakable example to them - eating and drinking with tax collectors and sinners!
And they're right. Jesus did set an example for His followers. Jesus' close association with sinners is meant to be our example to follow. We are to love the poor, needy, despised sinners of this world so much that we welcome them into our presence so that they'll know that they are loved. We're to invite them to come and get to know our Savior, and taste of His mercy!
I'm curious - how welcomed do you think needy sinners feel around you and me? Do they feel loved by us? Can they sense the welcoming love and mercy of our Savior from us?
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A third way that Jesus proves to be our Teacher of mercy is in the example He gives of . . .
3. DECLARING IT TO BE GOD'S PURPOSE TO SHOW MERCY TO SUCH NEEDY SINNERS (vv. 12-13).
Now please don't misunderstand this. This isn't the same thing as saying that God doesn't care about sin. In order to convey God's love and mercy, we mustn't alter the message of God's word, or seek to soften the condemning power of God's law. God calls sin "sin"; and He warns that sin will be judged.
But as it says in John 3:17; "For God did not send His Son into the world to condemn the world, but that the world through Him might be saved." The big message that God wishes to convey to the needy sinners of this world is not that He condemns them. He does indeed condemn their sin; but His great message to them is that He has sent His Son to pay the penalty for their sin on their behalf, and that He is now ready and able to show mercy to them if they will come to Him for it.
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That message is the message that Jesus proclaimed. Look at how Jesus communicated this to the Pharisees. He communicated it to them in three ways.
First, He communicated it to them through what we might call the "logic" of His actions. Matthew tells us that, when Jesus heard that the Pharisees were complaining, He said to them, "Those who are well have no need of a physician, but those who are sick".
Could you imagine going to a doctor and complaining to him, "I've got to tell you, Doc. I don't care too much for the kind of people you associate with. You always seem to be around sick people!" Well, of course you wouldn't say that. Who else would you expect a doctor to be associated with? Similarly, who else would you expect the Savior of sinners to be associated with than sinners who need to be saved? Our church family should expect to be filled with people who are broken and damaged by the ravages of sin; because we proclaim the Savior of sinners!
Second, Jesus communicated from the scriptures that it was God's purpose to be merciful to sinners. He quotes the words of God to them from the Old Testament passage of Hosea 6:6. In fact, He even says it in a way that imitated the way they themselves talked to people - saying, "But go and learn what this means: 'I desire mercy and not sacrifice'".
Jesus wasn't saying, of course, that God did not require a sacrifice for sin. Clearly He did, as the Old Testament law given through Moses teaches us. And in fact, He still does! That sacrifice - and all that was being pictured for us of it in the Old Testament laws concerning sacrifice - is fulfilled completely for us in the sacrifice of Jesus on the cross. God gave the sacrifice of His own Son for us as an act of mercy. And Jesus - in quoting this verse - is teaching that the sacrifice was all about mercy! Mercy was the end, and the sacrifice was the means to that end. Jesus is showing that His Father places the priority of mercy over sacrifice; and that so should we.
And finally, Jesus communicates that it was God's purpose to be merciful to sinners from a clear affirmation of His own mission. He says plainly, "For I did not come to call the righteous, but sinners, to repentance." The Pharisees were those who saw themselves as "righteous". Those who don't see themselves as needy sinners have no interest in a Savior. The truth about their condition, of course, is quite the opposite. They're like the people described in Revelation 3:17; saying of themselves, "I am rich, have become wealthy, and have need of nothing" - not knowing that, in reality, they are "wretched, miserable, poor, blind, and naked".
Jesus came to save those who are sinners - who know that they truly are sinners, and who know that they have no hope apart from God's mercy through the Savior! And this suggest to me that, as Christians, we need to be very careful how we talk about the despised sinners of this world. Let's be very careful how we think of them - especially the really gross and seemingly hopeless sinners. Let's remember that they are the very ones for whom Jesus came!
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Dear brothers and sisters in Christ; let's rejoice in Matthew's story. His story reminds us of how deeply the mercy of our wonderful Savior can reach. It reaches to the salvation of even the most despised of sinners. As sinners ourselves, how glad we should be for this!
But let's be very careful that we also learn from the example of our Savior. He is our Teacher by example. And what He teaches us in this passage is that we are to show mercy to the despised sinners of this world, just as He did:
1Robert Munger; cited in Leon Morris, The Gospel According to Matthew (Grand Rapids: William B. Eerdmans Publishing Co., 1992), p. 222, n. 35.
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