I turned forty in 2010. Now throughout my thirties I felt like I could pretty much still consider myself to be young, much as I had during my twenties. However, the big four-zero was impossible to ignore. Forty may be just a number, but to me it was a very significant one. I may have been able to bend the truth a little in my own mind during my late thirties and still think of myself as being young pastor. But when I turned forty there was no denying the fact that I wasn’t young anymore.
I recognized when I turned forty that I wasn’t young. And so I decided that it was time to time to be more careful about my health - to be more responsible. I hadn’t been to the doctor for a check-up in quite some time. I had never had my cholesterol checked. I was now forty years old with a wife and four children and so I recognized that I needed to have these things done, along with whatever else I might need.
However it was the “whatever else” that concerned me. I knew that at some point as you get older, you need to start having a colonoscopy. I had never had one done, but I knew that of all the regular medical experiences a person encountered, a colonoscopy was the one that was my dad’s least favorite. As I learned a little about what a colonoscopy involved, I didn’t think it was hard to understand why. It was definitely something that I was in no rush to experience. I was relieved when the doctor told me that I had a reprieve – that the need for a regular colonoscopy didn’t arrive until a man is fifty.
There are important medical tests that people want to avoid because they are inherently uncomfortable or unpleasant. But sometimes there is another reason people, and especially men, avoid them. They avoid tests because they are afraid of what may be found. They are afraid that the tests may reveal that they are sick. Fear overcomes reason. They avoid the possibility of finding out they are sick, so that they can avoid knowing about being sick and having to receive treatment.
In the Gospel lesson for the Feast of St. Matthew we see that Jesus calls Matthew to follow him. Jesus calls Matthew because he is sick – because he is a sinner. And then Jesus eats with Matthew and other people who recognize their spiritual sickness. Matthew’s experience challenges us to admit that we are sick, and comforts with the knowledge that Jesus Christ provides healing.
Our text begins with words, “As Jesus passed on from there, he saw a man called Matthew sitting at the tax booth, and he said to him, ‘Follow me.’ And he rose and followed him.” Jesus is in Capernaum in Galilee. This city in northern Israel served as our Lord’s base of operations during most of his ministry. As he was walking along, he saw Matthew sitting at the tax booth.
The fact that a tax booth was there is not surprising. During this time, Galilee was not part of a Roman province. It was instead part of the petty kingdom ruled by Herod Antipas, a son of Herod the Great. Herod Antipas ruled the land – but there was no doubt that he worked for the Romans and that they were in control.
Much like in the Roman empire itself, there was a tax on goods that were being shipped. It was usually around 2-5% that was charged on the basis of the assessed value of the goods. On trading routes and locations where shipping took place, tax agents set up shop.
Recently, the IRS has been in the news with accusations that its power was being abused by those who support the current administration. Emails were mysteriously “lost” and government officials have tried to explain why they can’t produce evidence that those investigating the matter want to examine.
Taxes involve money and the power of the government that can force people to do things. That is a combination that produces great temptation for abuse. From ancient times there have been problems and first century Palestine was no exception.
The tax on goods being shipped was collected by tax agents who had gained their position by being the highest bidder. Individuals bid on the right to collect the taxes in an area, and the person who promised to collect the most money for the government received the contract. Naturally, the tax agents were under pressure to collect all they had promised. And then on top of this, they made their money from a commission that they took from the taxes.
It was a system that was guaranteed to foster corruption. People were taxed based on the assessed value of the goods they were moving. And the person who assessed the value was the tax agent – the very person who had to pay money to the government and make his own money by collecting as much as he could. The tax agent, backed by the authority of the government, was in a position to take what he wanted – and they did. For obvious reasons, these tax agents were disliked and looked down upon by the people living at that time.
This is the position that Matthew was in as he sat at the tax collecting booth. As Jesus was passing by, he saw Matthew and did the unexpected. He said to Matthew, “Follow me.” He called the tax collector – the guy that people despised because they assumed he was corrupt – to follow him as disciple. This is surprising. And then it is perhaps even more surprising to learn what happened. Matthew got up and followed Jesus. In fact we learn from Luke that he then hosted a meal for Jesus at his house.
Why did Matthew do this? We aren’t told directly. But the interaction that Jesus had with the Pharisees at the meal goes a long way towards explaining things. In our text we learn that as Jesus reclined at table in the house, many tax collectors and sinners came and were reclining with the Lord and his disciples. We hear statements about “tax collectors and sinners” quite frequently in the Gospels. It is helpful to recognize that this would have included both people who actually were engaged in a sinful life, and also those whom the Pharisees simply looked down upon.
The Pharisees saw that Jesus was eating with this group, and so they said to his disciples, “Why does your teacher eat with tax collectors and sinners?” In the ancient world you were known by the company that you kept. Sharing a meal was often a very significant statement about how you viewed others. And here was Jesus, a supposed religious figure, eating with this motley crew.
Jesus heard the Pharisees and responded: “Those who are well have no need of a physician, but those who are sick. Go and learn what this means, ‘I desire mercy, and not sacrifice.’ For I came not to call the righteous, but sinners.” Our Lord describes those he is with as sick because they are sinners.
It is this recognition that prompted Matthew to get up from his tax booth and follow Jesus. In his Gospel, Matthew summarizes the beginning of Jesus’ ministry in the following words: “From that time Jesus began to preach, saying, ‘Repent, for the kingdom of heaven is at hand.’” Like John the Baptist before him, Jesus called sinners to repentance. He called them to confess their sin and turn away from it.
But Jesus didn’t only confront sin. In word and deed he declared that God’s salvation had arrived in him. He proclaimed that the kingdom of God - the reign of God – was present in his person to overcome the forces of Satan, sin and death. Immediately before our text, Jesus healed a paralytic and enabled him to walk. But before he did this, he said to the man, “Take heart, my son; your sins are forgiven.” The scribes present were angry and said to themselves, “This man is blaspheming.” And so Jesus said, “But that you may know that the Son of Man has authority on earth to forgive sins…” and then he healed the man and sent him walking home.
On this Feast of St. Matthew, the account of Matthew’s call confronts us with the necessity of confessing our own spiritual sickness. Like a colonoscopy, this is not that we want to do. We don’t want to probe our lives in a spiritual way because this will reveal terminal heart disease. Jesus said, “But what comes out of the mouth proceeds from the heart, and this defiles a person. For out of the heart come evil thoughts, murder, adultery, sexual immorality, theft, false witness, slander.”
This is the sickness that plagues your life. Anger and hate towards other people rise out of your heart and take form as words and actions directed against them. Lust leads to that pornography on the internet or into bed with someone who is not your spouse. Gossip is shared as you put others in a bad light and are sure to explain things in the worst possible way. This is the reality because you are a sinner. Pretending like this is not so or that it doesn’t matter is like the person with stage four brain cancer who is planning what he is going to do thirty years from now when he retires.
In our text today Jesus says, “Those who are well have no need of a physician, but those who are sick … I came not to call the righteous, but sinners.” Jesus came to call all who are sick with sin. He came to call Matthew and to call you because he brings the cure.
Our Lord was in the process of demonstrating this during his ministry. He showed that the reign of God was present in him. And then he created the final and ultimate cure for the sickness of sin. This did not occur in a research lab, but instead it took place on the cross. As Jesus said, “The Son of Man did not come to be served, but to serve, and to give his life as a ransom for many.” By the sacrifice of his blood - the blood of the new covenant – he won forgiveness for all who believe and trust in him.
Because of Jesus, your sin does not lead to eternal death. Because of Jesus and his resurrection from the dead, on the Last Day you will receive the total and complete transformation of the resurrection. But until this happens, you must continue to receive Jesus’ life sustaining treatment.
As you live in the now and the not yet of the Christian life, you are the patient who is not yet fully healed. You must continue to receive the medicine so that you can be sustained in the faith as the forgiven child of God – sustained in the faith until the day arrives when you no longer have to walk by faith and instead are able to walk by sight.
And so like St. Matthew in our text you join with other sinners at our Lord’s table. You come to the Sacrament of the Altar to receive the body and blood of Christ, given and shed for you for the forgiveness of your sins. This is the medicine of immortality – the treatment that preserves you as the forgiven child of God who will receive a resurrection body and life that has no end.