Following Jesus Around: How do people (outsiders) know that the kingdom of heaven has appeared? (Matthew 4-11), a Sermon (Part II)
II. We reveal the appearance of the Kingdom of Heaven when we extend mercy to the (physically and socially) unclean
When Lisa and I had moved into our apartment, we were immediately recognized. More typically than not, it seems I can’t walk out my door without hearing, “Hey, Pastor, can I talk to you?” Or, “my friend here needs prayer.” I am immediately confronted with many that are unclean, unbathed, reek of smoke and alcohol; with those who aren’t very coherent; some who spent the night in the park, or the night selling themselves to support drug habits. This isn’t so far from the crowds whom Jesus encountered. I am confronted daily with the difference between the clean and the unclean, literally and socially.
Now in Matthew 9:9, Jesus calls the tax-collector Matthew to follow him. Matthew represents half of the problem group of “tax collectors and sinners.” Immediately (v. 11) we hear many of Matthew’s tax collector buddies and sinners came and were reclining [at a supper meal] with Jesus and his disciples. This does not sit well with temple leadership.
You have to remember in the social-location at that time, this all would have been very public, with neighbors and “the crowd” and the curious all peering in to the supper venue. Most likely a curious Pharisee was able to get the attention of a few disciples, pulling them out to ask: “Why does your teacher eat with tax collectors and sinners?” (v 11). Jesus overhears the question and takes the opportunity to teach everyone: “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” (vv. 12-13).
This begins a thread of accusations from the temple-leadership against Jesus—they don’t like the nature of Jesus’ fishing.The accusation from the Pharisees, “Why does your teacher eat with tax collectors and sinners” is juxtaposed to Jesus explaining his mission, “Those who are well have no need of a physician, but those who are sick.” So, we have those who do not need a physician, meaning the accusing Pharisees and those who are sick, meaning the “tax collectors and sinners.” This is the pattern here in Matthew.
Let’s be fair to Matthew. We like to read what Jesus said as “everyone is like a tax collector and we’re all sinners.” No. No. No. Leveling and equalizing this robs us of the narrative impact: I think we can agree Jesus calls Matthew—a real life tax collector—and Matthew invites his friends and entourage to have a meal with Jesus. So here we have the context and the social group meant by “tax collectors and sinners.” Tax-collectors are not only the bottom of everyone’s hate list, they are traitors of the worse kind (Israelites in the employment of Caesar).
Sinners are not simply “everyone” (you know because everyone sins—although true, this is not the reference). It is not as if Jesus said, “but those who realize they are sick.” Matthew has been pretty clear that the crowd he has been ministering to and who surrounds Him is made up of all the sick, those afflicted with various diseases and pains . . .(Matthew 4:23-24): these are most assuredly in the narrative the “sinners”: The sick, the mentally unstable, the deceased, the lame. Elsewhere in the gospels, we know that sinners are outsiders (e.g., Galileans), the uneducated, those in sympathy with the Empire, those ignorant of the Law, those outside the insiders of the temple leadership and their friends and families. This is why the Pharisees are offended by Jesus. This is why they do not like the nature of his fishing.
Jesus says in the same breath (Matthew 9:13): “Go and learn what this means: ‘I desire mercy, and not sacrifice.’ For I came not to call the righteous, but sinners.”Again, we tend to read this as if Jesus said, “I desire you be saved by grace and not by any works because sacrifices can’t save you.” All good (of course), but misses Jesus’ point.
We are most glad, most thankful that Jesus choses mercy over sacrifice. Looking at the surrounding miracles stories and the summaries in Matthew: Jesus chooses mercy
These are not the things and situations one chooses in that culture and social classing, if one desired to be pure (the goal of the religious elite) or to be perceived as holy (again, the temple-leadership). No. Not at all. We are, however, as fisher-followers, to live out mercy by being in the proximity of the crowd, and thus touching the unclean (literally and socially). This is following Jesus around; and this is doing what Jesus did, here we are made fishers of men, demonstrating that the kingdom of heaven has appeared.
*This sermon was preached at Redeemer Presbyterian Church in Concord, MA on Sunday, May 19, 2019. The full sermon maybe downloaded as a PDF (here). An audio version is also be available >> Audio version
Part I | Part II | Part III | Part IV
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Chip M. Anderson, advocate for biblical social action; pastor of an urban church plant in the Hill neighborhood of New Haven, CT; husband, father, author, former Greek & NT professor; and, 19 years involved with social action.