Sun, Jun 11, 2023

Following Jesus

Matthew 9:9-26 by Lori Schifano
Matthew 9:6-26
Duration:16 mins

Our gospel lesson seems like a simple lesson.  It is the telling of the calling of Matthew by Jesus. And it is Matthew who is the one doing the telling, since the lesson comes from his gospel. 

But once we start looking at the Greek (as you may have guessed) the lesson takes on some complexity.  Both Pastor Doug and I like to go back to the Greek, because it was the original language the New Testament was written in and tells us how the original stories were first told. 

We start, our text says, with Jesus walking along with his disciples.  However, the Greek tells us he was leading his disciples near, where Matthew was.  This was not a chance encounter!  It was intentional.   Jesus wanted to talk to Matthew.  And Jesus said to him – now the word Said used here means – Jesus laid things out for Matthew.  He gave him something to react to.  What he spoke was important.  

Jesus said to Matthew – “Follow me”.  The word here means – not simply walk beside me or accompany me, but be in the same Way with me.  Walk the same road as me.  Very important terms.  Christians were first known as people of the Way.  In fact in Acts chapter 9, Saul had letters from the high priest to all the synagogues in Damascus, so that if he found anyone who belonged to “The Way”, men or women, he could bring them bound to Jerusalem, to stand trial.  The Way, was the life of walking with Jesus. 

Matthew was a very odd person for Jesus to call as a disciple.  Tax collectors were hated people, because they were notoriously dishonest.  There were no tax bills like you and I receive in the mail telling us what we owe in property taxes.  To get that figure you went to the tax collector who told you what you were to pay.  Only problem was, you never really knew what you were to pay.  The tax collector could give you any figure, and you would have to pay it.  To compound the problem, there were taxes on property, taxes on income.  If you took your produce to market to sell there was a market tax, a tax to use the road and bridges you had to cross or the ports you entered. There was a tax on the wheels and axles of the carts you used, and even a tax on the animals you used to pull the cart.   Lots & lots of Taxes – somethings don’t change!!
 But the Jews really hated tax collectors because in the eyes of the Jews, God was King and to pay taxes to anyone else, was to take away what really belonged to God.   And it was a fellow Jew making them do this!

Tax Collectors were so hated that their money was not accepted as an offering in the synagogue.  In fact, they were not even allowed to enter the synagogue.  Matthew’s testimony was not accepted in a court of law – he was a liar & not honest or trustworthy.  He was the outcast of the outcasts.   You could not get any lower in society than this.  In those days tax collectors were grouped with Robbers, and murderers.  And there was no difference between them in the eyes of the average person.  To make things worse, Matthew, because of the region he was working in and the position he held, may have even been working for Herod (Antipas).  Talk about being hated! 

And This is the person, who Jesus intentionally went to see. This is the person to whom he says “Follow Me!”  It was something that was just not done back then.  Our minds, if we are honest, are a little jarred by what happened.  And we still are every time it happens today.
We do not always understand why God calls some of us to follow him.  Especially considering where some of us have come from, or even the direction our lives are going.  After all, the call comes to everyone - lawyers, atheists, embezzlers, students, homemakers, lobbyists, teachers, politicians, IRS agents, telephone solicitors, computer programmers, adulterers, scientists, reporters, drug addicts, northerners, southerners, red-necks, waitresses, the wealthy, the poor, and even bikers.  Christian Motorcycle Clubs are groups that combine a love of Jesus and a passion for motorcycles.  Paul Bianco introduced me to a pastor of one group. They are living proof that God’s power can cross any barrier and grab any human heart.  But let’s be honest, some of these groups still make us uncomfortable.  

I remember reading a story about a woman who was having an affair with another man, but who continued to attend church every Sunday, and take holy communion.  It was a little unsettling.  She did it to remind herself that God still had a hold on her; and eventually it gave her strength, and she was able to end the affair, and return more fully to God.

Perhaps you know the story of Michael W. Smith, the Christian singer/songwriter, who had an intense spiritual experience as a youngster and became a devout Christian.  He said, “I used to wear a big cross around my neck.  It was very real to me”.  However, when his Christian friends went away to college, and he was struggling through high school on his own, he ended up involved with drugs and drinking heavily.  He moved to Nashville to be near the music industry.  But things just got worse.  His mom and dad knew what he was doing but they kept loving him and praying for him.  He wasn’t happy with himself, but he just couldn’t seem to change.   One night when he had passed out on his floor, after another night of drinking and drugs he woke up face to face with Jesus lying next to him on the floor. Looking intently at him with love.  The next day he tried out for a keyboard position with a Christian band and got the job!  It was while touring with this band that he was finally able to let go of the drugs and alcohol.  And now some of his songs are even in church hymnals.

It is immensely comforting to know that Jesus never sees anyone just for who they are at any moment in their lives.  But He always sees us, for what we could be. 

And Jesus saw in Matthew, more than just who he was – some dishonest man stealing from his own people.  He saw what he could become.  He knew he could live up to the meaning of his name.  Because the name Matthew means Gift of God!!

And Matthew got up and followed Jesus.  Matthew got up – Greek word means he was raised up again to life!!   It’s the same word we use for resurrection.  He was raised up from death to a new life!!  That’s what Matthew wants us to know!  And he became a follower of Jesus – he walked with Jesus in The Way. 

Following Jesus means we get up.  We rise again to new life.  And we keep getting up.  It may take a few times.  Like the lady who kept attending church and taking Holy Communion, it may take many times of getting up. *I give a lot of credit to Chuck Swindoll, who is a pastor in Texas, whose church has an on-going support group for people struggling with an addiction to on-line pornography.  These people are trying to change their lives, but they need the help of others and the the encouragement of leaders that say, keep getting up.  Keep following Jesus on the Way.  It will get better.  Following Jesus means we keep trying to walk closer to him everyday battling whatever sin we are fighting.  And all of us have our battles!

Matthew was trying to do this.  Which is why he had a dinner party at his house, where he invited many tax collectors and sinners.  These are the people who Matthew knew and he wanted them to meet Jesus.  The word for sinners means – those who are immature in the faith & have missed the target or goal of life!  Which could describe a lot of people! And at times could describe us.  Now when the Pharisees become aware of this, they said (word here just means they broke the silence.  They didn’t say anything weighty.) to the disciples  (Jesus’ “learners”) “What causes your Teacher to eat with, and invite tax collectors and sinners?”   But Jesus heard this and he said (weighty words coming), “Those who are well –who are whole and have power and strength to live, don’t need a physician- One who heals & makes people whole.  But only those who are sick -who don’t hold or possess the ability to get by on their own; to get what they need or what is necessary for them to live well.” Those are the people who need me.

Then Jesus says, (and I love this!)  “GO – go away, remove yourself from here, take a walk – take a hike each of you – the word here is not plural.  It means each of you get out of here and learn, in any way you can, to understand that I desire, I choose – I delight in, Mercy – “God’s steadfast love”, compassion, tenderness, not sacrifice -  not slaughter or killing.  “I have come – I have entered the world, I have appeared here, to call – to command - not the right people, not the holy people, not the good people, but the sinners – the ones who miss the target, who miss the goal of life itself”.  I have come to command those who are outcasts. (This is the last verse of our first lesson from Hosea.)  Jesus is saying, Mercy brings life!!

You see for the Pharisees there were only two types of people in their world – those that rigidly kept the law, and those who were called “people of the land”. 
The first group were the “good and right” people.  The second group they wouldn’t even associate with – they couldn’t go on a trip with them, they couldn’t do business with them, they couldn’t give them anything, and couldn’t receive anything from them.  They couldn’t entertain them as guests and could not be a guest in their homes!  NO contact whatsoever!! Because contact with “those” people would make them unclean.  Jesus was doing something that the pious people of his day would NEVER do!! 

And as the church, we, still struggle with this today.  Too often we see the “people of the land” and don’t embrace them the way Jesus would.  We at times, would rather stay at arm’s length from the drug addicts whose stories we hear on the news.  We are not comfortable with people released from prison who need help and a second chance.  In fact, one of the families we serve from our food pantry is in that position.  The dad was a foreman of a skilled roofing crew.  He was doing very well until he fell off a roof and badly injured his back resulting in much pain and many medical procedures.  He became addicted to drugs to control his pain and served time in prison.   His wife also became addicted, but both are now drug free and he has a full-time job with benefits, but the family is still struggling to find permanent housing.  They are not the “good or right” people.  And they are still trying to find someone who will give them a 2nd chance to rent an Apt. or house.

In Jesus world, it is never right or good to judge or ostracize people, because that doesn’t help heal people, but just make them all the more stuck in their sin and sickness.  In Jesus world, the sin of being unloving is the greater sin, than the sin of even betrayal and stealing by the tax collectors!  That is why he says in another verse in Matthew: “The tax collectors and prostitutes are going into the Kingdom of God ahead of you!”  Ahead of you pharisees.  Ahead of you “good/right” people because you don’t treat people with Mercy – with God’s steadfast love.

Following Jesus means we walk with Jesus through His world, offering people a place of hope, healing and welcome. 

Like later in our gospel lesson – When the leader of the synagogue tells Jesus his only daughter has just died.  Jesus immediately goes with him & touches that dead girl and brings her back to life.  That’s what Mercy – God’s steadfast love does.  NO one would do that in the synagogue because if you touch a dead body you would have to purify yourself for a week before you could worship in the synagogue again.  The woman who had hemorrhages for 12 years, has not been allowed to go to the synagogue for that whole time either.  Which means she was suffering alone.   Yet she comes up behind Jesus – even being afraid to be seen by him because she wasn’t supposed to touch his clothes – it would make him unclean!  Yet this woman is the only person in all of scripture who Jesus calls “daughter”.  He not only heals her, but claims her as part of his own family!!  His own daughter!!  This is Jesus’ World!!

Following Jesus, we are called to live in that world too!  A world filled with the poor, the recovering alcoholics & addicts, chronically ill, the homeless, the persecuted, the prostitutes, - the least, the lost and the last.   The mercy of God is for everyone.

Like everyone in Jesus World: We need a Redeemer who will not let our     
                                                                     sins cripple us, or keep us from Him.
Like everyone in Jesus’ World: we need a Guide -for the Way is hard and
                                                                     sometimes we can’t see -bc. It’s hidden.
Like everyone in Jesus World: we need a Leader to provide courage for
                                                                      this adventure of Following The Way.
Like everyone in Jesus World: we need a true God to worship, for we can
                                                                     only find real life in Him.

Jesus says; “Follow Me”!

-Following Jesus means we get up!
-Following Jesus means:  we see people as part of Jesus’ World, no matter how they may appear to us  No one is a lost cause. 

-Following Jesus means: We fight our sins that pull us away from God.

-And Following Jesus means we ask for help when we need it, so we can stay close to the cross, which is the source of forgiveness and life for all.