As Jesus passed by, he saw a man named Matthew sitting at the customs post, he said to him, ‘Follow me’” (Matthew 9:9). We can imagine that Matthew was not well thought of by his fellow Jews. He was a tax collector after all. That Jesus would even talk to him would be strange enough, but that he would say “Follow me” to such a person certainly raised a lot of eyebrows in Jerusalem, especially among the Pharisees who were within hearing range of this moment.
“Follow me.” This seems such a simple suggestion, but knowing the times and the feelings that the Jews had about tax collectors and the reputations of many of the tax collectors, this statement takes on a profoundly important meaning for us personally. Our own feelings about the “tax man” today, help us to recognize the wonderment of the Pharisees observing this event. “Why does your teacher eat with tax collectors and sinners?” (verse 11) Of course, we do not want to get caught up in thinking in the ways that the Pharisees did, but they are recognizable to us. Very recognizable. There is a little of the Pharisee in all of us. Jesus’ challenges to the Pharisees are direct challenges to us in our own lives as well.
We need to see Matthew’s perspective here as well. Jesus must have seen something in Matthew. Did he see a hunger deep down in Matthew’s heart, a need to find some deeper meaning in his life. We do not know whether Matthew was known to be a cheater, like so many of the other tax collectors who looked out for themselves at the expense of others because they had the power to do so. But we do know that Matthew was like us in that he too was a sinner. And he must have had some sense of this within himself. Jesus knew Matthew’s heart and loved him for who he was, just as he does each one of us. He could see Matthew’s essential goodness, and his hunger for meaning and purpose. This is why Jesus said to Matthew, “Follow me.” This is why he says it to us today as well.
The recognition of our own sinfulness is central to our understanding of this gospel passage. Jesus confronts the cynicism of the Pharisees saying, “It is not the healthy who need a doctor but the sick” (verse 12). This statement strikes the center of the target for each one of us. We are sick with sin. All human beings are. The question is: Do we recognize our own sinfulness, or do we, like the Pharisees, see it only in others? Do we fool ourselves in thinking that we are not like those sinners, that we are better than them? Do we make a grave mistake in thinking that we do not need a “doctor” to heal us of our woundedness? When Jesus says to the Pharisees, “But go and learn what this means: ‘I desire mercy, not sacrifice. For I have not come to call the righteous, but sinners” (verse 13), we are to hear this with the ears of our own hearts, within the depths of our own souls. I know I need to do so. For I know that I am a sinner in great need of God’s generous mercy. And I know that it is God’s desire to offer me and each and every one of us that mercy. But here is the kicker too: he wants us to be merciful with one another in the same way. We are to be like him, not like the Pharisees. He is saying to us, right now, “Follow me.”
Lord, Help us to hear your call ever more deeply in our hearts each day. Inspire in us a soul deep desire to follow you as Matthew did. Give us the insight to see our own woundedness. And strengthen us in courage and in faith, so that we can see the wisdom of being merciful to others in the way you have been merciful to us. We pray in Jesus’ name. Amen!
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