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A Reminder of the Graciousness of God / The Second Sunday of Pentecost

Matthew 9:9-13

10And as Jesus reclined at table in the house, behold, many tax collectors and sinners came and were reclining with Jesus and His disciples. 11And when the Pharisees saw this, they said to His disciples, “Why does your teacher eat with tax collectors and sinners?” 12But when He heard it, He said, “Those who are well have no need of a physician, but those who are sick.13Go and learn what this means, ‘I desire mercy, and not sacrifice.’ For I came not to call the righteous, but sinners.”

Have you ever been the victim of gossip or rumors? Ever overheard a snide comment that yoverhear.t supposed to overhear? Knowing that others are judging you, looking down on you, can be a painful experience. There are many warnings in the Bible against gossip and judging others because these activities harm human relationships and they don’t reflect the character of God.

I read a news story about a man named Eddie who must have been the target of gossip or hurtful comments most of his life. Eddie grew up in a large family, one of 18 children. The family had an awful reputation for crime. In fact, one of the local newspapers in Eddie’s hometown of Denver, Colorado, ran a story on them called “Denver’s Biggest Crime Family.” It mentioned that 15 of the 18 siblings had arrest records. Unfortunately, the article failed to mention that Eddie, who had left his family at the age of thirteen, had led a morally upright life and had never been in trouble with the law.

Imagine how that would hurt your self-esteem and your reputation to have your family publicly branded as the biggest crime family in your city? Eddie was so hurt by the article that he sued the newspaper under a legal precedent called a “false light invasion of privacy.” Which we now refer to as defamation of character. The jury in the original case sided with Eddie, awarding him $100,000. However, an appeals court overturned the case.

I wonder how Matthew, the tax collector, felt every time someone gossiped about him or looked down on him. He couldn’t sue anyone. He had earned his horrible reputation. In our Bible passage for today, Matthew writes about the totally unexpected moment when Jesus chose him to be a disciple. And he even included a little detail you’d think he’d want to forget: the judgmental comment from one of the religious leaders questioning Jesus’ choice to eat with no-good sinners like him.

Why did Jesus choose Matthew, a tax collector, as His disciple? Tax collectors were despised by the average Jewish citizen. They collected taxes for the oppressive Roman government. And tax collectors were allowed to add extra charges to enrich themselves, while Rome looked the other way. Tax collectors were so despised that they were excommunicated from the synagogues. They were considered so morally corrupt that they weren’t allowed to serve as witnesses in court. Who could trust them?

Now it makes sense, doesn’t it, when the local religious leaders saw Jesus hanging out with Matthew, they asked His disciples, “Why does your teacher eat with tax collectors and sinners?”

The moment Jesus chose Matthew as His disciple was the defining moment of Matthew’s life. So, I wonder, when he looked back on this moment years later, why he would include this dig against him from the local religious leaders. Why didn’t he leave this little detail out? It doesn’t make him look good. It’s a painful reminder of his past. I think Matthew left this detail in because this story isn’t about him. It’s about the graciousness of God and God’s plan to usher in His kingdom through imperfect people like Matthew. And you. And me.

Jesus calls people as they are, from where they are, being who they are. Why would He do that? Didn’t He know that people would misunderstand? Didn’t He care that this would make them targets for gossip? Why didn’t Jesus choose the most strictly religious, morally upright citizens in the community instead?

Why didn’t Jesus hold a “Disciple Bootcamp” to choose the best candidates as His followers? His response to the religious leaders answers that question: Jesus replied, It’s not the healthy who need a doctor, but the sick. But go and learn what this means: ‘I desire mercy, not sacrifice.’ For I have not come to call the righteous, but sinners.”

Stop for a moment and consider the mind-blowing, life-changing implications of a God who would say these words: I desire mercy, not sacrifice.’ For I have not come to call the righteous, but sinners.

Sitting in a musty classroom at the seminary, a friend looked me squarely in the eye and said, God is here, doing something with you. No, I’m too much a heathen for God. But with a light behind his eyes that I know wasn’t his, he said, it’s the heathens that God calls.

It’s the heathens that God calls. No wonder Matthew included this hurtful question from the religious leaders in the story of his calling. He wanted his readers to understand the gracious love of God that calls us as we are, from where we are, being who we are.

That declaration “I desire mercy, not sacrifice,” is a quote from the prophet Hosea, whose ministry centered around speaking words of warning and hope to the northern kingdom of Israel more than 700 years before Jesus’ birth. The full quote from Hosea reads, For I desire mercy, not sacrifice, and acknowledgment of God rather than burnt offerings. (Hosea 6:6) The Hebrew word used here for “mercy” refers to “goodness” or “kindness.”

How do we acknowledge God? We acknowledge God when our actions and character reflect the goodness and kindness of God. Sacrifice is a way to appease God. But Hosea and Jesus reveal that God wants a relationship with us not religious rituals. God wants changed lives more than burnt offerings. If we really know and love God, then our character will be transformed to reflect the character of God. And then our lives will draw others to the goodness and kindness of God. And that’s God’s plan for the salvation of humanity, to work through average sinners like us to bring the world to a saving relationship with God in Jesus Christ.

A woman, who was in a wheelchair, had no family, and only one friend, told her pastor that she’d been waiting 18 months for city services to install a wheelchair ramp at her house. When the pastor asked how the church could help, the woman suggested they put in a good word for her with the city services staff.

The pastor suggested instead that they just send a group of church members over to her house to install her wheelchair ramp. The woman, choking back tears, said, you would do that? He said, of course! That’s what the family of God is all about. Members of the church installed a ramp and other mobility accessories in her home and have set up a visiting schedule to ensure this woman has plenty of contact with people who care about her.

We acknowledge God best when we live out the kindness of God in the world. That’s what the family of God is all about.

And I think Matthew’s story teaches us that it’s those who have received the unearned, undeserved mercy of God that are best able to share that mercy with others. If you’re already full of your own good works, full of your own self-righteousness, then you don’t know how badly you need God’s mercy. And you will never fall to your knees in gratitude and awe and humility and say, God, I can’t thank You enough that You would be so merciful to someone like me. And that gratitude and awe and humility serve as powerful proof to the world that this is a person whose life has been transformed by God.

A woman began volunteering at a local soup kitchen. She did it because she thought it would make her more compassionate. It would make her more grateful for her comforts. But she soon realized that she was doing her volunteer work with the wrong attitude.

As the months passed, she developed real relationships with the people she served at the soup kitchen. Instead of seeing them as nameless recipients, she saw them as friends, people she cared about and knew by name. She began praying for her new friends, which only deepened her relationship with them.

She said, I made sure Billy got a can of the Mountain Dew he preferred, and I reminisced with Barbara who grew up in my hometown. I chatted with Donnie when I cut his meat because he couldn’t do it with his misshapen right hand. The so-glad-to-see-yous and the hugs multiplied. And, what happened? I developed relationships. These folks became dear to me. Going to the soup kitchen wasn’t an act of sacrifice; it was a place where I hung out with people I cared about.

In Matthew 9, the Pharisees looked around Matthew’s house and saw nameless ‘tax collectors’ and ‘sinners.’ Jesus saw people He cared about, people He wanted to hang out with. And He knew their names.

Why did Jesus choose the least reputable, least powerful, least likely people to be His disciples? Because He loved them. Because He knew God could work through them. And because He knew that those who have received the abundant mercy of God are the best folks to then share that abundant mercy with the world. Matthew’s story shows us that God is not scrutinizing us for our sins or standing in judgment of us. Instead, God is drawing us into His merciful love and then sending us out to share that love with others.