As you are already aware, this is Ash Wednesday. The start of the Lenten Season. A time of self discipline and self-denial which causes us to remember the sufferings of Jesus on our behalf. Tonight is also the beginning of the Lenten sermon series which focuses on the invitation of Jesus to simply follow him. We want to begin by looking at the account of Jesus calling Matthew to follow him as it is recorded in Matthew 9:9-13. Now in the verses just prior to these verses Jesus has just forgiven and healed a paralyzed man when we pick up the account at v9:
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,
Now, it is important for us to recognize that Matthew was a tax collector and we need to understand where tax collectors stood within the society of that day. Being a tax collector was not an elected office; it was office sold to the highest bidder! In this case, it was a Hebrew, appointed by the ruling Roman governor to collect taxes from his fellow Hebrews with those taxes to be turned in to the occupying Roman government! It was taxation without representation long before that became the rallying cry for American independence! Being this type of tax collector was a very profitable position, even if it made one extremely unpopular with your fellow Hebrews! In fact, to say that these tax collectors were unpopular is a gross understatement! They were disliked. No, they were detested! They were seen as traitors who were now working for the enemy; the oppressive, occupying, Romans! These tax collectors were the lowest of the low as seen by their fellow Hebrews! Now here Jesus is inviting this tax collector to follow him! It is interesting to note what Jesus did not say to Matthew the tax collector. Jesus did not say, Matthew, if you will stop collecting such unreasonable taxes, you can follow me. Jesus did not say, Matthew, if you will stop doing _______ and start doing _______, you can follow me. You and I have already heard or said what can fill in the blanks. But Jesus did not say any of those types of things. Jesus simply invited Matthew to follow. We can only imagine what the disciples of Jesus must have been thinking. What? Oh no!, Jesus! Not a tax collector! Why in the world do you want to have a tax collector as one of your followers? We are already a ragtag group of outcasts, but we do still have some self-respect! You don’t really want to invite a tax collector to follow you, do you Jesus? But that was exactly what Jesus did:
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.
Jesus invited Matthew, this tax collector, to come and follow him; AND HE DID! Can it really be that simple? Can it be simple enough that all one need do is accept the invitation of Jesus to follow Him? Again, we can only imagine the reaction of those who were already following Jesus. The 12 that we tend to call the Disciples had not yet been chosen. In fact, any who followed a rabbi were known as his disciples so the crowd that were following Jesus at that time were known as his disciples. But we can be sure that good old Peter was in the forefront of that group. And he could not have been happy with Jesus inviting a tax collector to join them! Its possible that the group that was following Jesus at that time had already become selective about who the did and did not want to join them. They may not have come to understand Jesus and his loving care for ALL people! Yet, all throughout the Gospels, Jesus invites all sorts of people to follow him. Many of them being the types of people that the society of the day considered to be “undesirables”; people that good folks just wouldn’t associate with. But repeatedly Jesus invites them to follow him. So Jesus invites Matthew and Matthew accepts the invitation and they go to Matthew’s house for dinner. And look who Jesus had dinner with:
10 While Jesus was having dinner at Matthew’s house, many tax collectors and sinners arrived and ate with him and his disciples.
Oh no! tax collectors and Sinners!! Well, what’s that old saying about birds of a feather flock together! Tax collectors and sinners, sounds like birds of a feather! But we need to know that in the Jewish faith, those who did not attend Temple and practice the sacrificial system of prescribed sacrifices for certain sins; those who neglected their religious duties and observances were labeled as “sinners”. What you and I have come to know from the scripture is that all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God, there is none righteous, no not one. The religious people of the day, the most religious being the Pharisees, were always watching Jesus, watching and waiting for him to break one of the religious laws as they understood them. These Pharisees practiced a religion based upon rules and regulations so they were watching and waiting for Jesus to break the rules. We see this in verse 11 where they have made note of Jesus dining with these “undesirables”:
11 The Pharisees saw this, they asked his disciples, “Why does your teacher eat with tax collectors and sinners?”
These “religious” leaders, these Pharisees were puzzled by the fact that Jesus was sharing a meal with such folks as tax collectors and sinners and yet not with these religious folks! From their perspective, Jesus was associating with all the wrong people! I find myself wondering at times if Jesus would be having dinner with all of the good, church going folks of our day or with the folks at the soup kitchen, or those in the prison system, or with those runaways who sleep in the park. Perhaps we can become too selective about who it is that we share our time and talents with. Jesus has a response to the question the Pharisees asked in verse 12:
12 On hearing this, Jesus said, “It is not the healthy who need a doctor, but the sick.
We can only speculate what sort of feelings this statement of Jesus may have aroused among Matthew and his tax collector, sinner, friends. It’s not the healthy that need a doctor, but the sick. Its uncertain if Jesus was referring to the Pharisees outside as being healthy but it is pretty clear that he was implying that those with whom he was dining were the sick. I want to think that Jesus may have been using some sarcasm here to address the Pharisees and all the religious folks of the day. If they thought that they were healthy and had no need of a doctor, they were delusional! It is those who are self-righteous that feel they are spiritually healthy and in no need of a doctor: or a Savior! Ah but we, the sick, we who recognize that we are spiritually sick, we readily admit our need for a doctor, our need for a Savior. When we are honest with ourselves, we tend to recognize all the ways in which we are sick; all the ways we need a doctor; the ways in which we need to be healed. That’s when we need to humbly be grateful for the fact that we, the spiritually sick, are exactly the ones for whom Jesus came! We are the ones who Jesus invites to simply follow.
Jesus has some final words for the Pharisees in this scene when he says in verse 13:
13 But go and learn what this means: ‘I desire mercy, not sacrifice.’ For I have not come to call righteous, but sinners.”
“I desire mercy, not sacrifice.” In part, Jesus is referring to the religious practice of a prescribed sacrifice for a particular sin as was mentioned earlier. I can’t help but believe that what Jesus was comparing was a religious ritual and a compassionate act of mercy. God-in-Christ is far more interested in the actions of our heart than in the religious ritual we perform. And his words about the call of the righteous and the sinner are an echo of what we said earlier about the healthy and the sick. If you feel that you are healthy, if you feel that you are righteous, you will not feel the need for a doctor or for a healer, or for a Savior.
Four things about following Jesus:
1. Being a sinner does not disqualify you. It is a prerequisite!
Do you realize that every person who has ever decided to follow Jesus was a SINNER! Even those first followers who we have come to know as the Apostles, were sinners! In fact, if you are not a sinner, you do not qualify to be a follower of Jesus! As Jesus said in our text, he did not come for the righteous, but for the sinners! That’s you & me! We, and all folks like us, are exactly the ones that Jesus invites to come, and “follow”.
2. Being an unbeliever doesn’t disqualify you. None of the earliest followers of Jesus believed!
I don’t know for certain, but I would guess that there has never been a single sole who was born as a believer! So that being the case, every believer began as an unbeliever! So starting as an unbeliever does not disqualify you from following Jesus! In fact, I believe that only by following Jesus will the unbeliever become a believer!
3. The invitation to follow is an invitation to relationship.
Becoming a Christian is not an invitation to live life according to a set of rules & regulations. Accepting the invitation of Jesus to follow him is an invitation to relationship–a relationship with Him! You have been in relationships, you know what happens when you care about, when you love someone; your behavior changes! When you start loving Jesus, you will start doing different things; you stop doing different things! The great good news is that Jesus invites us into this loving relationship with Him; just as we are! The changes in us will come as a result of our relationship with Jesus, if we will simply follow him.
4. Following Jesus forces me to focus on where I am rather than where you are not.
This speaks to our focus. When we live by a set of rules and regulations, we tend to measure ourselves against others. So we tend to focus on how others are keeping the rules and regulations so that we can compare ourselves to those that perceive as not doing as good a job of keeping the R&R’s as we are. But when we focus on following Jesus we are focused on Jesus and how well, how closely we are actually following him.
The question that we need to ask ourselves is simply this:
Am I following?
It’s not a question of have I done enough? Or, am I doing the right things? Or, do I believe the right things? Or, have I been acting in the proper way? The question that will provide the resolution to all such questions is simply:
Am I following Jesus?