When to Hang Out with Sinners

“When to Hang out with Sinners”

Robert M. Thompson, Pastor

February 2, 2014

Jesus parties with tears in his heart so he can show sinners God’s mercy.

Artist: Jan Cornelisz, Vermeyen (circa 1504-1559)
Artist: Jan Cornelisz, Vermeyen (circa 1504-1559)

Matthew 9:9-13

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. 10 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?”12 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.”

An invitation from sinners

This passage about Jesus eating dinner with Matthew and his friends brought to mind two social invitations I received 2-3 years ago.  One was for the celebration of the marriage of two men, one of them a rather prominent local businessman.  The wedding had taken place out of state, obviously, because North Carolina did not and does not issue marriage licenses to same sex couples.  The other invitation was for a commitment ceremony for two lesbians – again, not a wedding, but a religious ceremony joining them together followed by a reception.

For many reasons, I wrestled with whether I should go to either one.  If you know me, you know that I believe God created sex as a gift for marriage between a man and a woman, and any sexual desire or activity outside marriage is sin.  So yes, I believe homosexual lust or action is sin.  I also believe that heterosexual desire outside of marriage is sin, as is cohabitation, adultery, or any erotic behavior outside of marriage.  I don’t mind the “s” word, and believe that coveting, greed, gossip, avoiding the payment of whatever taxes the government requires, abuse of power, harm to the environment, lack of compassion toward the needy, failure of employers to pay a livable wage, resentment toward those who make more than I do (need I go on) is all sin.  So is thinking my sin is lesser than someone else’s.

I will not tell you whether I accepted those invitations, because I think it would short circuit the reflection God is calling you to make today.  You may or may not have received an invitation similar to mine, and you may or may not agree with me about homosexuality.  For today, that’s beside the point.  You probably have, however, been invited to events where you know alcohol would be abused, where a lot of people attending are just trying to “hook up” for a one night stand, where the purpose of the gathering is for “haves” to complain about being forced to help the “have nots,” or where hypocritical “haves” gather to pat each other on the back for a charity event to give a token gift to the poor while they continue to live in their mansions leaving immoral carbon footprints.  You’ve been invited to gatherings of the addicted, of the greedy, of the spiritually blind, of the selfish and indulgent, of self-righteous church people.  You’ve been invited to hang out with sinners.  Did you go?  Should you?

Today we ponder the century-old clichéd question, “What would Jesus do?”  Matthew 9 will help us.

Matthew’s self-portrait

The first gospel is anonymous, but Christian tradition credits Matthew with writing it.  If that is true, then Matthew 9:9-13 is all we know about the author of this book.  Matthew is giving us a verbal self-portrait, without saying directly, “This is about me.”  It will help us appreciate this story if we read it as Matthew’s autobiography.

Matthew informs us in verse 9 that he was a tax collector before he was a disciple of Jesus.  There were several varieties of taxes and therefore several related occupations.  Given the mention of his “booth” and his location, Matthew was probably a customs official who required passersby to pay some of their wares and/or cash at a strategic intersection on the north shore of the Sea of Galilee.

Tax collectors were despised for several reasons.  First, they collected taxes.  It wouldn’t really matter if the top tax rate were one percent, or whether tax collectors were kind and honest or abusive and deceitful.  We wouldn’t like them because they take money we’d rather spend ourselves.  Second, they were considered traitors.  The Romans hired locals to collect taxes, but that turned your friends into co-conspirators with the occupying Army.  Third, tax collectors were ritually impure.  A good Jew was supposed to avoid contact with Gentiles, and even avoid contact with those who contacted Gentiles.  Fourth, the reputation of tax collectors was one of dishonesty.  I’m sure not all of them were crooks, but the Romans allowed them to add their own cut to the taxes required by the government, and some used their power to extort far more than what was fair.  Finally, their extortion made most of them wealthier than the average guy, and it often breeds resentment when someone you know gets rich.  On a religious scale, tax collectors and prostitutes ranked the same (Matthew 21:31-32).

So Matthew was a tax collector, and one day while he was sitting at his customs booth, Jesus walked by and said, “Follow me.”  “Follow” is one of those words our culture has redefined.  Another one is “friend.”  I have 1072 “friends” on Facebook, but some of them I’ve never met, others I haven’t seen in over thirty years, and some of my closest friends aren’t even on Facebook.  I have 213 “followers” on Twitter, but all that means is that they might occasionally be mildly interested in a 140-character message I post.  When Jesus said, “Follow me,” he meant, “Drop what you’re doing, leave home, and hang out with me 24/7 listening to whatever I say and doing whatever I tell you every day from now on until I release you.”

Matthew reports in verse 9 that he “got up and followed him.”  We assume immediately.  He doesn’t tell us that he had previous contact with Jesus, but it seems likely that he had heard of Jesus’ miracles and perhaps heard his teachings.  Tax collectors needed to be in touch with what was happening in their territory, and Jesus had become quite popular.  Perhaps guilt had been eating at him for some time, and he was just waiting for a prompt to stop doing what he despised (and what made others despise him) and find a fresh start.  In the end, we credit the Holy Spirit for this work in Matthew’s heart.

Matthew next tells us about a dinner party at his home (10).  He invited Jesus, and he came.  The other guests included “many” tax collectors and “sinners.”  If you have a New International Version published before 2010, the word “sinners” is in quotes, but it shouldn’t be, because there’s no such special punctuation in the original.  Matthew is using a word that was common among religious people of Jesus’ day as a pejorative description for anyone who didn’t follow the law – anyone from a sexually immoral person (Luke 9:37) to someone who didn’t keep the Sabbath (John 9:16) to a Gentile (Galatians 2:15).  I would guess that any of these could have been at Matthew’s dinner party, but what they had in common was that none of them would ever have been invited into the home of a Jew who cared about keeping the law as it was taught in Jesus’ day.  A shared meal implied not only association but intimacy and friendship, and Jesus hung out with them.

By this time in Jesus’ ministry, he is under watch by the religious leaders of his day.  Matthew mentions Pharisees (11), who were laymen particularly passionate about observing and enforcing not only the Bible, but commentaries on the Bible.  You probably know there are Pharisees around today, but I thought it was interesting that while writing this sermon manuscript yesterday morning I received a text message from a 12-year-old in my Confirmation class.  She said, “All my friends tell me that if I don’t read the whole Bible I’m going to hell.  Is that true?  I’m kind of scared.” Among other things I suggested that she nicely ask her friends since they’ve read the whole Bible, where exactly in the Bible does it say that?

But let’s not be too pharisaical about Pharisees.  Someone asked me this week, “Is it fair to expect the Pharisees to show grace?”  Probably not.  They were immersed in a system that really believed the best way to honor God is by a detailed analysis of every point of the law, and a passionate application of that law to yourself and others.  Do you expect accountants to be precise and honest about bookkeeping and taxes?  Do you expect pharmacists to follow exact rules when filling prescriptions?  Do you expect police officers to know and enforce the traffic laws?  The Pharisees thought of themselves in those terms, only the law they were applying was God’s law.

I doubt seriously any Pharisee went inside Matthew’s house to check out the dinner party.  They didn’t have to.  They knew who lived there, and they saw the guests who entered, including Jesus.  So when they get a chance, they confront one of Jesus’ disciples: “Why does your teacher eat with tax collectors and sinners?”

Jesus’ response is threefold, in verses 12-13.

  • “It is not the healthy who need a doctor, but the sick.”  Most of my doctors would dispute that statement, because they believe in preventing disease as well as curing it.  But let’s not impose modern medicine on this story.  Jesus is quoting a common proverb, and his point is that where there is disease, it’s not at all surprising to find a physician present.  He or she is not there because they themselves are sick, but because they are needed.
  • “But go and learn what this means: ‘I desire mercy, not sacrifice.”  This is a quote from Hosea 6:6.  Hosea’s concern is with people who only focus on outward religion – the duties and rituals – and whose heart is not changed.  “Go and learn what this means,” Jesus says, which means, “Just meditate on that one phrase from your own Bible until it penetrates deep into your heart that what God wants most from sinners is their recovery.
  • “For I have not come to call the righteous, but sinners.”  There’s obviously an irony here, because these Pharisees are not ‘righteous.’  But they think of themselves that way.  Jesus is saying something like, “For the sake of argument, let’s concede for a moment that you are as good as you think you are.  Then you’re already in, right?  My focus is on those who aren’t already in.

And there Matthew’s self-portrait ends.  That’s all, literally, that we know about him from his own gospel.

Notes from Mark and Luke

We do, however, know a little more about this story from parallel accounts in two other gospels.  You probably know that the first three gospels are called “synoptic” because they “see with” each other.  They often offer parallel stories.  Matthew’s call is one example.

Mark tells the same story in chapter 2:13-17.  He adds a few other details. This calling  happened “beside the lake” (13).  There was a “large crowd” with Jesus, and he was teaching them when he encountered Matthew (13).  Instead of “Matthew,” Mark calls the tax collector “Levi,” which may have been his other name or he could have been from the tribe of Levi.  Michael Card believes Matthew was a nickname Jesus gave to Levi. It means “gift of God,” and it represented his new identity.  Mark also tells us that Levi was the “son of Alpheus” (14).   Another of Jesus’ disciples, James, was the “son of Alpheus” (Mark 2:18), which may mean that Simon and Levi were brothers.  Maybe James met Jesus first and he’s the one who told Matthew all about him before that encounter at the toll booth.

Luke adds one more detail when he tells this story in 5:27-32.  What Matthew called “dinner” was, the way Luke told it, a “great banquet” (29), and the guests numbered into a “large crowd” (29).  If you and I were invited 100 years ago to the Biltmore House as guests of the Vanderbilt family, we would look around in awe at the “great banquet” – the dining hall, the elegant food, the servants who prepared and served it.  But someone in the family would just write in their diary the next day, “We had dinner with a few guests.”  This little hint tells me that Matthew was very rich.

When to hang out with sinners

Now we come back to the question with which I started.  If you are invited to a dinner party with sinners, should you go?  Sinners, of course, come in all sorts of packages.  But whether you consider them immoral, dishonest, unclean, addicted, or self-righteous, should you hang out with sinners?  You may think the obvious answer is yes from this passage, but I don’t think that is necessarily the case.  I think Matthew intends to teach us some conditions under which you should accept the invitation.

You should hang out with sinners….

…when you know why you’re there.  Let’s go right to Jesus’ three-fold punch line.  Jesus went to Matthew’s house for the same reason he came to earth.  He came to heal the sick – physically and spiritually.  He came to show God’s mercy, not add more religious ritual.  He came to call sinners.  Let’s not get caught up on Jesus just going to the party as the end goal, as if what he’s illustrating is that you should be comfortable around sinners and participate in their sin.  He is there because he knows sinners try to put on a happy face.  In public they laugh and play and pretend life is good.  But Jesus knows that underneath all that there is a wounded child.  Behind the scenes there is an abusive, loveless marriage.  He knows those sinners are addicted to that which will destroy them in this life and send them to hell.  Jesus parties at Matthew’s house with tears in his heart, if not running down his cheeks, because he wants to demonstrate what God’s mercy looks like.  He has a chance to throw a lifeline to them before they drown in the sea of their despair while they try to look like they’re living the good life.

…when you are spiritually strong and secure.  This is what Jesus models for us.  Jesus knows in going to Matthew’s home he’s not going to be tempted to join in their sin.  In other words, this story is not an excuse for the alcoholic to hang out at a bar, or the sex addict to evangelize at the brothel.  Nor is it a reason for vulnerable teenagers or college students to join in the excesses and abuses of their friends.

…when you know you are one of them.  This point, of course, is not from Jesus’ personal example (he wasn’t a sinner), but from his response to the Pharisees.  They came to the party for the wrong reason.  They came to judge and condemn.  Some of the sins they objected to were sins that should be objected to (extortion, to name one).  But others were like telling a kid she’s going to hell if she doesn’t read the whole Bible through.  You’re not ready to hang out with sinners if their particular expression of sin makes you feel self-righteous.  You’re not ready to hang out with them if you are going to be offended by their language or their behavior  or if you are going to react with surprise or embarrassment at what’s going on.

…when your primary means of reaching them is your presence This is what amazes me most about Jesus.  He showed them God’s mercy by showing up, period. He sat at their table.  He ate their food.  He drank their wine.  He laughed at their jokes.  He showed interest in their families and daily lives.  He joined in their small talk.  We are not told that Jesus ever preached “Repent, for the kingdom of heaven is at hand” to Matthew or to other tax collectors and sinners.  He didn’t launch the Sermon on the Mount.  He just showed up and ate dinner.  This is a matter of faith when you hang out with sinners.  You don’t go with a speech in your pocket or an agenda on your mind.  You trust God changes hearts, not you, and you can wait on him.

…when you are looking for teaching moments.  You must not be self-absorbed or passive when you are with sinners.  You go expecting that as people begin to trust you they will make comments or ask questions or reveal secrets that give you an open window into their hearts.  You are there because you love them.  Jesus bides his time, but, as is often the case, a moment came that turned a dinner party into an opportunity for evangelism and instruction.  It came not from within the party, but from the uninvited onlookers.  But Jesus seized the moment not only to teach the Pharisees that they, too, were sinners – but to let the tax collectors and sinners know they needed a doctor, they needed mercy, they needed to be called by God – and to respond.

Once again, Matthew teaches us a valuable lesson about identity.  When you know who you are in Christ, and you’re invited to a gathering of sinners, you will know why to go and how to go.  Amen.

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