Mark shares from his series on the Life of Jesus. Listen here.
Read Matthew 9:9-13 Within this little story is hidden the central difference between Christianity and all other religions. This is the first time that Jesus begins to differ from his Jewish faith. In this story he begins to set forth the fundamental message of what he came to give. We need to understand the background in order to see the radical nature of what Jesus is doing here.
Matthew is a tax collector who is also a Jew. He works for the Romans and he lives off of what he can overcharge the rest of his Jewish countrymen. There was in Jewish culture at this time no more hated person than a tax collector. He was not to be spoken to and he was to be despised. The Zealots who were the Jewish militant anti-Rome party at the time had a creed: 1. No tax but the temple tax, 2. No law but the Torah, 3. No King but the Messiah, and 4. If you get the chance; kill a tax collector!
For Matthew to be acceptable to the Jewish leaders [the Pharisees] he would have to repent, but his repentance could not be as a matter of his heart or his desire or even his will. To the Jews, repentance was not a matter of what he desired it was only true if he changed his behavior completely. To be acceptable under Judaism he would have to become what is called a “penitent”. This is someone who lives in a continual state of shame for his sins and who is doing good works to work his way out of his sinful state. It will last as long as the religious leaders think it takes and once enough good works have been done then the person may be acceptable to God.
The huge problem for Matthew was that it was a commonly held belief among the Pharisees that it was impossible for a tax collector to repent – to become a penitent! Matthew is therefore in a hopeless and impossible place and He knew it. Even if he wanted to repent, he knew it was impossible for him to be good enough to be accepted by God. I know what this state is like. For years in my late teens and twenties I wanted to be a Christian, but I knew I was not capable of the goodness it took to be one. I suffered greatly.
Jesus comes to this hopeless despised man and he says one thing to him, “Follow Me!” He does not say, “Repent and change and then Follow Me”.
Jesus calls him to himself plain and simple!
As he is without repentance and without change. Jesus gives him the acceptance of God before he says anything about repentance. The Jews say, “become a penitent and then you will receive the welcome of God”. Jesus gives him the welcome of God and that welcome makes him a penitent. The first makes a demand, but the second imparts life! The Jews taught that repentance leads to the love of God, but Jesus taught that the love of God leads to repentance. This is what Paul taught as well;
ROMANS 2:4 Or do you show contempt for the riches of his kindness, tolerance and patience, not realizing that God’s kindness leads you toward repentance?
The word “Kindness” here means “furnishing what is needed”, and together with the word, “leads” carries the meaning of “bringing about”. It is the love of God that empowers our repentance and he will give that love long before we repent!
The call that Jesus makes to Matthew and to all of us is not primarily to repentance but to himself. The repentance will follow for 2 reasons: 1. Being close to him and seeing his perfection, 2. The transforming power of his love. All of the world religions call men to repentance but only one calls us to Jesus. Jesus’ call to all people is to Him first and to the Kingdom of His Father. In the process of following Him repentance will be not just part of the beginning, but a lifestyle.
Jesus is making his point about God’s love and acceptance of the sinner first and the call to come to him first, by calling the one person that the whole town knew was the worst sinner – the one incapable of repentance. And the message got out: the first thing that Matthew does is to throw a party. He invites all his only friends, the other scum that are beyond the capacity to repent. Here at last is acceptance and love for those who are beyond hope of being loved. The blessing of Jesus call of Matthew to himself was the blessing not just for Matthew but for all those who do not believe that they will ever be good enough for a relationship with God! And the wonderful truth is that they know the truth: they will never be good enough for a relationship with God! But his love given before they repented will give them what they need to repent. And this power of love is not the power “to change” it is the power that “brings change”.
Inevitably this message of Jesus’ brings a backlash from the forces of legalism:
MAT 9:11; When the Pharisees saw this, they asked his disciples, “Why does your teacher eat with tax collectors and ‘sinners’?”
Why are you befriending these sinners who have not repented? No, this can’t be right, they must repent first! During this message some of you have had just this reaction to this message. No, God will only love you and give you welcome once you have repented! This can’t be right! This is the voice of the “old man” who lives under the law. The troll who lives under the bridge.
And what more forceful answer could Jesus give. He refers them right back to their precious law and he finds within it the prophetic longing that waited for Jesus to come and set things right. He quotes the very heart of God for his sinful people, MAT 9:13 But go and learn what this means: ‘I desire mercy, not sacrifice.’ For I have not come to call the righteous, but sinners.” To the Jews there was only one kind of mercy, this was the kind that came after a sacrifice. Jesus was showing that there is only one kind of sacrifice [himself] and mercy flows to all who know their need. Only Jesus can welcome sinners before they repent because only Jesus has paid for their sins before the welcome.
Why does Jesus call us to himself before repentance? Because the call to him is a higher and better thing than even repentance! Every religion calls people to repentance but only one calls people to Jesus. Relationship not religion!
This incident with Mathew was not an isolated occurrence; it was typical of how Jesus sees people. In Luke 19:1-10 we see Jesus initiate contact with another “write-off” – Zacheus. This man is even worse than Mathew. This story follows that same pattern. Jesus welcomes this “hopeless sinner” and the effect this shocking love is repentance. Jesus does not even bother to mention to Zacheus what a sinner he is and how much he needs to repent. Zacheus repents because he has been loved!
What is shocking about all of this is how different Jesus is from us. We look at people and seek the ones who we think will make good Christians. How often have you thought of someone, “She is such an amazingly kind and deep person, what a great Christian she would make”? Jesus looks at the same person and ignores all of her good qualities. He looks at her heart and asks the question, “Does she know she needs my love and forgiveness?” We see the rough rude aggressive jerk and think he is beyond hope. Jesus looks at him and says, “he’s next if only I can find a Christian nearby to love him”.