Calling Sinners

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Matthew 9:9-13 (The Pharisees)

INTRODUCTION: We are studying Matthew 8-9 together, and our message series is called Ten Miracles of Jesus. However, as we learned at the beginning of this series, not every passage in this section of Scripture is about miracles. Among the ten miracles recorded in these two chapters, we also find interspersed four dialogues about discipleship.

We already looked at the first dialogue on discipleship back in Matthew 8 where Jesus explained the cost of discipleship to two would-be followers. Now in today’s passage we come to the second dialogue on discipleship where Jesus explains his association with sinners to the Pharisees.

We saw last week that this is also the second of three controversy stories that open up Matthew 9. Both last week’s passage and this week’s passage involve controversy between Jesus and the Jewish authorities.

There is also a similar theme between last week’s passage and this week’s. Last week’s passage was about Jesus’ power to forgive sin. Today’s passage is about Jesus calling sinners. (Read Matthew 9:9-13 and pray.)

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What is the relationship between Christians and sin? Do you have to give up sin before you become a Christian? How about afterwards?

What about other people who are holding on to their sin? What should your relationship be with them?

Even more importantly, how does God view sin and sinners? How did Jesus view sin and sinners when he was here on earth?

These are all important questions. Today’s passage has to do with sin and associations and relationships. There’s a right way to view sin and sinners. And there’s a wrong way. And although you may think you know the right way, this passage just might surprise you.

We are going to look at this passage in three sections this morning. 1) Jesus calls sinners. 2) Jesus associated with sinners. And 3) Jesus came to help sinners. So let’s get started.

I. Jesus calls sinners (9)

First, Jesus calls sinners. Matthew gives us an example of Jesus calling sinners in verse 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. (Matthew 9:9)

Matthew tells us this happened “as Jesus went on from there.” On from where? From healing the paralytic, as we saw last week, where Jesus demonstrated his authority to forgive sin. And right after Jesus demonstrates his authority to forgive sin, what does he do next? He demonstrates his mission by calling sinners to follow him.

And the first sinner he sees is none other than Matthew himself! Matthew, the writer of this gospel, also known as Levi, is writing about himself here in the third person. He is writing about his own call to follow Jesus. And there are a couple important things we can learn from Jesus’ call to Matthew here in verse nine.

   A. Jesus calls you as you are
      – Romans 5:8

First of all, Jesus calls you as you are. Now Matthew was an unlikely person for Jesus to call because he was a tax collector. Matthew most likely collected taxes on goods that people were bringing into town. That’s why he was sitting at the tax collector’s booth. Think toll booth nowadays, except there were no set fees, which meant Matthew could charge a little extra here and there and skim a nice profit for himself.

So, Matthew was a Jew working for the Romans against his own people and likely stealing from his own people to line his own pockets. Doesn’t sound like the kind of person you want on your team. And yet Jesus still called him.

And where was Matthew when Jesus called him? Sitting right there at the tax collector’s booth! Matthew didn’t need to leave the tax collector’s booth before Jesus called him. Jesus calls him while he is still sitting there. Jesus doesn’t wait for Matthew to change first. He calls him as he is, while he is still sitting at the tax collector’s booth.

Now here’s the important part for us. Jesus does the same thing for you and me. He doesn’t wait for you to clean up your act or get your life together first. He calls you as you are.

We read in Romans 5:8: “But God demonstrates his own love for us in this: While we were still sinners, Christ died for us.” (Romans 5:8) What an amazing, beautiful verse! How do you know God loves you? Because Jesus died for you while you were still a sinner! He doesn’t wait for you to change your life first. That’s the first thing we learn from verse nine. Jesus calls you as you are.

   B. Jesus calls you to follow him
      – Ephesians 4:22-24

The second thing is this. Jesus calls you to follow him. That’s what Jesus said to Matthew sitting at the tax collector’s booth. “Follow me.” And Matthew did. He got up from the tax collector’s booth and followed Jesus. He left the tax collector’s booth behind. There was no going back for Matthew. The gospel of Luke tells us he left everything. (Luke 5:28) He left a cushy job that made him wealthy. He left his life of sin and stealing. He left all this and more in order to follow Jesus.

Jesus calls you as you are, but he doesn’t leave you as you are. He doesn’t call you to stay where you are. He calls you while you are still in your sin, but he also calls you out of your sin. He calls you to follow him. He calls you to be his disciple, to walk as he walked, and to live as he lived. As we read in Ephesians 4: “You were taught, with regard to your former way of life, to put off your old self, which is being corrupted by its deceitful desires; to be made new in the attitude of your minds; and to put on the new self, created to be like God in true righteousness and holiness.” (Ephesians 4:22-24)

Those two simple words, “Follow me” are a call to discipleship. They are what Christianity is all about – following Jesus. Christianity is not like other religions. Christianity is intensely personal. When you come to Christ, you are following a person, not simply a set of rules or a way of life.

What does this verse about Jesus calling Matthew teach us? Jesus calls sinners. You do not need to get your life together before coming to Jesus. Jesus calls you as you are, but he doesn’t leave you as you are. He calls you to follow him. That’s the first thing we learn from this passage in Matthew. Jesus calls sinners.

II. Jesus associated with sinners (10-11)

Secondly, we learn that Jesus associated with sinners. Look at verses 10-11 with me now:

While Jesus was having dinner at Matthew’s house, many tax collectors and ‘sinners’ came and ate with him and his disciples. 11 When the Pharisees saw this, they asked his disciples, “Why does your teacher eat with tax collectors and ‘sinners’?” (Matthew 9:10-11)

After Matthew left everything to follow Jesus, he threw a party for Jesus at his house. And, of course, he invited his friends. Well, when you’re a tax collector and you are despised by your own people, who are your friends? Other tax collectors and other people who are despised by the people. And so many tax collectors and other ‘sinners’ came and ate with Jesus and his disciples.

It’s important to understand what Matthew means by the word ‘sinners’ here. He’s not saying that some people are sinners and some people are not. We’re all sinners. But the general populace used this word for those people who participated in what they felt were the very worst of sins – the tax collectors and drunkards and prostitutes in town. They called them ‘sinners,’ because they felt that these particular sins were so much worse than their own sins.

So Matthew throws a party, and many tax collectors and ‘sinners’ come and eat with Jesus and his disciples. Jesus is having dinner with the worst of the worst – notorious sinners who are blackballed and despised by the people.

Now some people read this passage and use it to excuse sin. They say this passage shows that Jesus doesn’t care how you live. He accepts you as you are, and he is glad to be with you, sin and all. And then they say we also should accept people just as they are, without saying anything about their sin. After all, isn’t that what Jesus did?

But that is not what this passage is saying at all. We already saw from verse nine that Jesus calls you as you are, but he doesn’t leave you as you are. And we will see shortly that Jesus came to help sinners, not just to leave them in their sin.

But if this section is not teaching us to leave sinners in their sin, then what is it teaching us? Two things in particular.

   A. Don’t avoid those who need Christ
      – 1 Corinthians 5:9-10

First of all, don’t avoid those who need Christ. Jesus did not avoid sinners. Jesus associated with sinners. How else could he help them or call them to follow him?

There’s an interesting passage in the New Testament in the book of 1 Corinthians. The apostle Paul had just written the Corinthians about not associating with believers who were living immoral lives. But then he adds an important clarification. Look at 1 Corinthians 5:9-10. Paul tells them: “I have written you in my letter not to associate with sexually immoral people – not at all meaning the people of this world who are immoral, or the greedy and swindlers, or idolaters. In that case you would have to leave this world.” (1 Corinthians 5:9-10)

Paul is telling them not to associate with believers who are living immoral lives, not unbelievers who are living immoral lives. We shouldn’t be surprised when unbelievers are living immoral lives. They’re not believers! Paul even throws some humor in here. He says if you couldn’t associate with unbelievers who are immoral, in that case you would have to leave this world!

And so that’s the first thing this section teaches us. Don’t avoid those who need Christ. Jesus didn’t avoid sinners, and neither should we.

   B. Be prepared to receive criticism
      – Galatians 1:10

Now here’s the second thing. When you don’t avoid those who need Christ, when you associate with sinners like Jesus did, be prepared to receive criticism. Because that’s exactly what happened to Jesus, isn’t it? Jesus and his disciples are sharing a meal with the tax collectors and ‘sinners,’ and the Pharisees get all bent out of shape.

You see, the Pharisees did avoid sinners. In fact, one of their sayings was this: “Keep far from an evil neighbor and do not associate with the wicked.” (Aboth 1:7) That was one of the principles they lived by. The Pharisees did not associate with the wicked. They stayed far away from the tax collectors, the drunkards and the prostitutes. They did not want to be “contaminated” by those whom they deemed sinners, and so they avoided them like the plague.

So when Jesus sat down for a meal with the tax collectors and the sinners, guess what? He got criticized by the Pharisees. You can just hear the disdain in their voices when they ask Jesus’ disciples, “Why does your teacher eat with tax collectors and ‘sinners’?” (Matthew 9:11)

Be prepared to receive criticism when you reach out to those who need Christ. There will be some modern-day Pharisees who think that you shouldn’t be hanging out with “those kinds of people.” But it’s vitally important that you don’t avoid those who need Christ. How else will they come to know Christ and follow him?

When you’re criticized for doing the things God calls you to do, you need to remember these words of Paul from Galatians 1:10: “Am I now trying to win the approval of men, or of God? Or am I trying to please men? If I were still trying to please men, I would not be a servant of Christ.” (Galatians 1:10) Don’t worry about criticism from others when you are being obedient to God. Serving Christ comes first. Jesus associated with sinners. That’s the second thing we learn from our passage this morning.

III. Jesus came to help sinners (12-13)

1) Jesus calls sinners. 2) Jesus associated with sinners. And 3) Jesus came to help sinners. Look at verses 12-13 with me now:

On hearing this, Jesus said, “It is not the healthy who need a doctor, but the sick. 13 But go and learn what this means: ‘I desire mercy, not sacrifice.’ For I have not come to call the righteous, but sinners.” (Matthew 9:12-13)

Jesus responds to the Pharisees’ criticism with three brief, striking statements, each of which highlight the fact that Jesus came to help sinners.

   A. It is not the healthy who need a doctor, but the sick
      – Ezekiel 34:15-16

First of all, Jesus tells them: “It is not the healthy who need a doctor but the sick.” (Matthew 9:12) Notice that Jesus associates with sinners not as a fellow sinner nor as one who leaves them in their sin. Rather he associates with sinners as a doctor associates with those who are sick. He is there not to condemn or condone, but rather to help and to heal.

Imagine you’re a doctor and you have the choice of going to Town A or Town B. In Town A everyone is healthy, and no one ever gets sick. In Town B everyone is sick and in need of care. Where do you go? Obviously Town B, and yet the Pharisees didn’t seem to get that when it came to Jesus calling sinners and associating with sinners.

And yet that has always been the heart of God, even back in the Old Testament. For example, we read in Ezekiel 34 where God says: “I myself will tend my sheep and have them lie down, declares the Sovereign Lord. I will search for the lost and bring back the strays. I will bind up the injured and strengthen the weak, but the sleek and the strong I will destroy. I will shepherd the flock with justice.” (Ezekiel 34:15-16)

But the Pharisees didn’t get that, and so Jesus gives them the illustration of the doctor and the sick. It is not the healthy who need a doctor, but the sick.

   B. God desires mercy, not sacrifice
      – Hosea 6:6; Matthew 23:23; Ephesians 4:32

Now the reason the Pharisees didn’t get it is because their attitude was wrong. So, the second thing Jesus tells them is this: “But go and learn what this means: ‘I desire mercy, not sacrifice.’” (Matthew 9:13) Jesus is quoting from Hosea 6:6. Why does he choose this particular quote? Because we cannot help people if we do not have mercy on them. Our attitude towards sinners should not be acceptance or avoidance but rather mercy. As followers of Jesus we neither accept the sin nor avoid the sinner. Rather in mercy we seek to lead them to Christ who can help them.

When Jesus tells the Pharisees to “go and learn what this means,” he uses a phrase that means to go back and study the text more closely. Maybe they missed something the first time. Maybe they missed the fact that as important as the sacrifices were, the attitude of the worshiper was even more important.

Jesus will address the Pharisees on this same subject again in Matthew 23 when he tells them: “Woe to you, teachers of the law and Pharisees, you hypocrites! You give a tenth of your spices – mint, dill and cummin. But you have neglected the more important matters of the law – justice, mercy and faithfulness. You should have practiced the latter, without neglecting the former.” (Matthew 23:23)

Yes, sacrifice is important. Obedience to God’s commands is important. But if you don’t do it with love and mercy in your heart, you’re not doing it right. God doesn’t want mercy instead of sacrifice and obedience. Rather he wants mercy along with sacrifice and obedience.

Jesus is saying that because God is merciful towards us, we also out to be merciful to each other. As Ephesians 4:32 tells us: “Be kind and compassionate to one another, forgiving each other, just as in Christ God forgave you.” (Ephesians 4:32)

   C. Jesus did not come to call the righteous, but sinners
      – Romans 3:10,23; 1 Timothy 1:15

Jesus told the Pharisees three things in response to their criticism. 1) It is not the healthy who need a doctor, but the sick. 2) God desires mercy, not sacrifice. And then finally 3) That he did not come to call the righteous but sinners. (“For I have not come to call the righteous, but sinners.” Matthew 9:13)

This is good news for us, because the Bible tells us there is no one righteous. We read in Romans 3: “There is no one righteous, not even one … for all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God.” (Romans 3:10,23) We all have sinned. We all fall short of God’s glory. But praise God, Jesus calls us anyways, because he did not come to call the righteous, but sinners.

Think about it. The only qualification you need for Jesus to call you is that you are a sinner. You know what that means? We all qualify! We all qualify, because we are all sinners. And we’re all really bad sinners, too. We should all be able to echo what Paul said to Timothy in 1 Timothy 1:15: “Here is a trustworthy saying that deserves full acceptance: Christ Jesus came into the world to save sinners – of whom I am the worst.” (1 Timothy 1:15) I’m the worst sinner I know. How about you?

CONCLUSION: So what does this passage mean for us today?

1) First of all, it means that anyone can come to Jesus. It doesn’t matter how badly you’ve sinned against God or failed other people in your life. You do not need to get your life together before coming to Jesus. Jesus calls sinners, so if you’re a sinner, you qualify. The worst sinner is the very best candidate for salvation.

2) Secondly, it means that you must confess your sin to God. Jesus did not come to call the righteous or those who think they are righteous. If you think you are too good to need a Savior, then you cannot be a Christian. You cannot follow Jesus if you don’t know that you need him. You must confess your sin to God.

3) And then thirdly, it means that we should be merciful to sinners, even as God was merciful to us. All of us are just beggars telling other beggars where to find bread. Jesus saved you not so that you would think you are better than others, but so that you would be merciful to others in their sin and point them to Christ who can save them from their sin.

We said at the beginning of the message that today’s passage is one of the four dialogues on discipleship rather than one of the ten miracles of Jesus. And yet perhaps this passage contains the biggest miracle of them all – that Jesus calls sinners like you and me to follow him.

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