“I Desire Mercy”

            Last week, we talked about Jairus, the father whose 12-year-old daughter passed away from an illness.  And we saw that Jesus brings hope when there is no hope.  We all have times in our lives when we hear this voice that says, “Why bother?”  But then we hear the voice of Jesus who says.  “Don’t be afraid.  Just believe.” 

            And I said last week that it’s important for us to do two things.  First of all, like Jesus, we need to tune out the doubters, because there are a lot of negative voices that threaten to take away our hope.  And secondly, like Jairus, we need to consider what Jesus has done for other people.  Because Jesus has proven time and again – first of all, during his earthly ministry, and secondly, in the lives of people all around us – that he can bring hope into situations that seem to be hopeless.

            This morning, I want us to look at another man whose life was changed by Jesus when he made the decision to follow Jesus.  Turn with me to Matthew chapter 9, and we pick up in verse 9:

            “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.

            And as Jesus reclined at table in the house, behold, many tax collectors and sinners came and were reclining with Jesus and his disciples.  And when the Pharisees saw this, they said to his disciples, ‘Why does your teacher eat with tax collectors and sinners?’

            But when he heard it, he said, ‘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.’” (Matthew 9:9-13)

            So, we have this story about a guy named Matthew which is contained in the gospel of Matthew.  So, Matthew is giving us a glimpse into his own life before he came in contact with Jesus.  And he sums up his life with two words.  He says, I was a tax collector

            I think it goes without saying that nobody has an affection for tax collectors.  Form 1040 is the most common of the U.S. Federal tax forms.  Have you ever wondered why the IRS calls it Form 1040?  One theory is that because for every $50 that you earn, you get 10 and they get 40.

            We can joke about it, but in our society, we have depersonalized the tax collection process.  You don’t actually have to go pay a specific person.  Your taxes just get taken out when you get a paycheck.  So, if we have any anger, it tends to be directed toward the IRS as a whole rather than a specific individual.  

            But in the first century, the tax collector was somebody who lived in your community.  He took the money right out of your pocket and he was not a popular fellow at all.  In fact, he was very much hated by the Jews, for several reasons.

            First of all, tax collectors tended to be dishonest men.  The way the Romans collected taxes was this — they actually auctioned off the right to collect taxes in a certain region.  The highest bidder got the job, and he was responsible for paying that much money to the Roman government, and anything he could collect above that amount he was allowed to keep as his commission. 

            Obviously, that system led to some terrible abuses.  People were at the mercy of the tax collector.  They had to pay whatever the tax collector said.  There was no right of appeal if you were treated unfairly.  The result is that many tax collectors became wealthy men through their illegal extortion.

            But the Jews hated them for a second reason, and that is that tax collectors weren’t Romans.  They were Jews who were working for the enemy.  What angered the Jews more than anything was their conviction that God alone was their king and that they shouldn’t have to pay taxes to any human king.  So, for a Jew to work for the Romans and take money from their fellow Jews was a horrible, horrible sin in their eyes.

            Imagine for a moment that the United States has been taken over by China.  Chinese troops are stationed all throughout this country.  And now, the IRS doesn’t collect our taxes anymore; China is the one collecting our taxes.  But rather than collect taxes directly, China hires your next-door neighbor to come around once a year to collect taxes from you to pay for the Chinese troops all around the city.  Do you begin to get a sense of how you might feel about your neighbor if that were the case?

            And that’s how the Jews felt about Matthew.  So why would Matthew take a job like that knowing that all of his neighbors would hate him?  It’s possible he was just greedy and he didn’t care about anything but the money.  Or, there could have been more to it.  Maybe he was an orphan.  Maybe his father died when he was young and he didn’t have any other way to support his mother and his sisters.  Or maybe Matthew had a handicap of some sort and he wasn’t able to get a regular paying job.  Or maybe he had a sick child and he didn’t have any other way to pay the medical bills.  It would be interesting for us to know exactly what it was that led Matthew into that line of work.  But, the truth is, it didn’t really matter to any of his Jewish neighbors.  Matthew was a cheater and a traitor to his country, and that was all that mattered.

            By Jewish law, a tax collector wasn’t allowed to go into the synagogue to worship.  And he wasn’t allowed to give any testimony in a court case.  “Robbers, murderers and tax collectors” were all classified together.  So, Matthew was one of the most despised men in all of Galilee.

            Matthew must have felt like a woman in London I heard about years ago.  She went to a church service.  But she had been living with a Chinese man and had a baby by him, and she took this baby with her to the church meeting.  When she came back a second time, the preacher went to her and said, “I need to ask you not to attend any more.  The other women say they will stop coming if you continue to come.”  She looked at the preacher with a longing look in her eyes and she said, “I know I’m a sinner, but isn’t there anywhere that a sinner can go?”

            That must have been the way Matthew felt.  So, when Jesus showed up in town, he walked up to Matthew, and I’m sure all the Jews were expecting him to say to this tax collector, “How dare you!”  But, instead, Jesus said to him, “I want you to follow me”.  Which raises the question — what did Jesus see in Matthew? 

            Up until 1913, all of our nickels in this country had a Liberty head on them.  But in that year, a change was made and nickels had an Indian head and a buffalo on them.  All of the nickels, that is, except for five of them, which still had the Liberty Head on them.  Now, if you know anything at all about coin collecting, you know that because there were only five coins minted like that, they became extremely valuable.

            Over the years, those five coins ended up in the hands of different people.  One of them was George Walton.  In 1945, he paid $3,750 for one of those nickels (which was a lot of money in that day).  Years later, when he died in 1962, his family took all his coins and put them up for auction but the auction house wouldn’t sell the Liberty head nickel because they said it was a fake, it wasn’t worth anything.

            So his family took that coin and they stuck it in a box in the closet.  And it stayed there until 2003.  A coin collecting group was on a mission to obtain all five of those Liberty Head nickels, but they had only been able to track down four of them.  They desperately wanted to find the fifth one, so they offered a reward to anybody who would just tell them where it was.  Walton’s family opened up their box and they took their nickel out and carried it to this group.  Immediately, they had some appraisers take a look at it.  And they said “This is the real thing.”  And they proceeded to buy that coin from the family for $3.1 million.

            And Jesus was always doing something like that.  Because the scribes and Pharisees were always saying about people around them, “They’re worthless, they have no value.”  And Jesus came along and he made his appraisal and he said, “No, no, they are extremely valuable, they are worth a great deal.” 

            Because Jesus didn’t just see what a person was or what he had done.  Jesus saw what he or she had the potential to become.  When Jesus looked at Matthew, he didn’t see a cheater and a traitor.  He saw someone that he was convinced could make a difference in his kingdom.  And when he said to Matthew, “Come, follow me”, Matthew said, “Yes.”

            William Barclay makes an observation.  He said, “Of all the disciples, Matthew gave up most.  He, of all of them, literally left all to follow Jesus.  Peter and Andrew, James and John could go back to the boats.  There were always fish to catch and always the old trade to which to return; but Matthew…put himself out of his job forever, for having left his tax collector’s job, he would never get it back again.” (The Gospel of Mark).

            And when Matthew made the decision to follow Jesus, he wanted to share this good news with all of his friends, so he threw a party and invited his friends, who just happened to be sinners and tax collectors.  Which is no big surprise, because that was the only kind of people that Matthew was allowed to associate with.

            But when the scribes and the Pharisees passed by, they saw all these sinners, all these immoral people sitting there with Jesus in their midst, and they were absolutely disgusted!  It was obvious that Jesus regarded these men as his friends.  He wasn’t lecturing them.  He wasn’t rebuking them.  He was just sitting there, eating and drinking with them.

            The religious leaders were appalled at this, and they called the disciples aside and they asked them: “Why is your teacher doing stuff like this?  Doesn’t he know who these people are?  Why does he even allow himself to be seen in the company of such men?”

            And their question was completely consistent with their theology.  Because these men believed that God had no use for people like Matthew.  And, so, they thought they should disassociate themselves from anybody that God doesn’t want anything to do with.   How they saw God affected the way they saw people.   Which ought to make all of us stop and think.  Because what we think about God will also affect the way we see people.

            In response to the Pharisees, Jesus said, “‘Those who are well have no need of a physician, but those who are sick.”

            Which makes it sound like Jesus didn’t have any use for good people.  But it’s not that at all.  The point Jesus was making is that he can only help people who are conscious of his sin and desperately aware of their need for a Savior.

            We need to remember that we are all in need of a physician.

            I mean that, of course, in a spiritual way.  We all have struggles and needs.  Now I realize that we don’t always convey that.  In fact, sometimes I think we try to hide it.  And the reason we do that is because we think everybody else at church has it all together.  We come to church and nobody else seems to be struggling with the same things I’m struggling with. 

            Surely nobody else had an argument with their spouse on the way to church.  Have you ever done that?  Maybe one of you (the wife) is running late and the other one is sitting out in the car waiting and waiting, getting more and more impatient.  You finally get everybody in the car.  “I don’t understand why you can’t be ready on time!  Maybe you ought to set the alarm for 15 minutes earlier.”  “Yeah, well maybe if I didn’t have to pick all your stuff up off the floor every morning I could save a little time.”  “Well, maybe if your mother didn’t stay so long the night before, I’d have more time to do that.”  “Don’t get started with my mother!”

            And the argument gets really heated about the time you pull into the church parking lot.  So, what do you do?  You can’t sit out there and argue.  So, you put on your plastic smile and come in the church building, “How are you doing?”  “I’m fine.  How are you?”  Come on, let’s be honest – you’ve all had that happen before.  It might have happened to you this morning!  And if you think that’s tough on you, just imagine what it’s like when that happens to those of us who are preachers!

            I use that simply to illustrate that when we come together, we want to give the appearance that we don’t have any problems, everything’s going just fine.  And the reason we do that is because we look around at everybody else and it looks like everything’s fine with them and we don’t want to be any different.  But, of course, they’re putting up the same front that you are because they think you’ve got it all together.

            The truth of the matter is, we all struggle.  Folks, we’re not here because we’ve got it all together and everything is perfect in our lives.  We’re here because we realize how much we need God and how much we need one another.

            And so, we come together as a group of hurting people.  Some of us are hurting physically.  We could create a lengthy list of all the physical problems that we face.  But it’s not just physical.  We have members with financial difficulties, members battling depression, members who are struggling with their marriage.  And yes, we also struggle spiritually. 

            I’ve had some folks say to me, “Alan, I’m thinking about becoming a Christian, but I just don’t feel like I’m good enough.  I need to get everything straight in my life before I make that step.”  Let me tell you this – those folks tend to wait a long, long time because the truth is, we never get to the point where we do everything just right.  If we could reach that point, then we wouldn’t need Jesus!

            We’re not here because we’re well.  We’re here because we’re sick.  We’re here because we’re all in need of the forgiveness and the salvation that only Jesus Christ can provide.  We’re all in need of a physician, and we come together to draw strength from Jesus and from one another.

            But back to our story of Jesus and Matthew.  The second thing Jesus said was, “Go and learn what this means.  I desire mercy, and not sacrifice.”  Because the problem was not what Jesus thought about Matthew.  The problem was what the religious leaders thought about God.  And so, Jesus said, “You need to pick up your Bibles and study some more.  Because one of the obvious lessons from scripture is that God is merciful.” 

            One of the reasons that Jesus came to this earth was to show us, to demonstrate to us what God is like.  How would God handle this situation?  How would God deal with those kinds of people?  And if Jesus shows us what God is like, that means that our God is a God who has a heart of mercy. 

            And we see references to this throughout the New Testament.  In Titus 3:5, Paul said we were saved, “not because of works done by us in righteousness, but according to his own mercy.”  In Ephesians 2, Paul wrote, “But God, being rich in mercy, because of the great love with which he loved us, even when we were dead in our trespasses, made us alive together with Christ.” (Ephesians 2:4-5)

            Any solid theology of God has to be built on a foundation of mercy.  And once we understand that, then that changes the way we understand scripture.          Jesus says to these guys who are religious scholars, these are the seminary professors and PhDs in Bible — He says “You guys need to get your Bibles out and read it again!  And you need to learn what it means when God says, ‘I desire mercy’.” 

            If we’re not careful, we can read the scriptures like the Pharisees did, merely as a list of rules that cause us to look down on everybody else who doesn’t keep the rules as good as we do.  But when we fully understand that everything God says and everything God does comes from a heart of mercy, it changes the way we see people.

            Because here’s the deal – we tend to view people by assessing how different we are instead of noticing how much we are alike.  We will notice people’s ethnicity, their accent, their educational status, their socio-economic status, their politics, and we tend to see people by how different they are from us. 

            And we tend to forget how much alike we are.  And, like the Pharisees, we like to focus on our differences.  But there are four words in Romans 3 that the Pharisees would not have liked.  Paul said, “There is no difference, for all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God.”  (Romans 3:22-23). 

            Remember the two guys that went to the temple to pray?  And one guy prays, “Lord, I thank you I’m so different from everybody else.  Especially that guy over there!  I do this and this and this – I know you’ve got to be impressed!”  The other guy was a tax collector.  Do you remember his prayer in Luke 18?  We read, “And the tax collector, standing afar off, would not so much as raise his eyes to heaven, but beat his breast, saying, ‘God, be merciful to me a sinner!’” (Luke 18:13).  And Jesus said: “I tell you, this man went down to his house justified rather than the other.” (Luke 18:14). 

            Jesus is not calling us to be bad people.  He’s calling us to realize that nobody is good!  And when Jesus was criticized for associating with sinners, his response is significant.  In fact, he actually agreed with the Pharisees’ assessment of the situation.  He said, in effect, “You’re right, these guys are sinners.  They are sick, hurting, troubled men who don’t have a good view of life, there is sin in their lives.  You’re right, these are sick men.  But where else would you expect a doctor to be?  I’ve come to heal people, and so wherever people are hurting, that where I need to be.”

            Because, “I didn’t come to call the righteous, but sinners!”  Jesus was criticized for making friends with the people that nobody else wanted to be friends with.  And that’s our example.  That’s the way we need to try to live our lives.  Because mercy will always change the way we see people. 

            When we read the story of Jesus and Matthew, we ask the obvious question, “What did Jesus see in Matthew?”  But the not so obvious question, but I think the more significant question is this, “What did Matthew see in Jesus?”  What was it about Jesus that would cause Matthew to leave everything and follow him?”   And the question I need to ask myself is whether people like Matthew want to hang around with somebody like me.  And if not, then why not?

            I think Matthew saw in Jesus somebody that cared more about his future than he did about his past.  I think Matthew saw in Jesus somebody who was willing to be the solution to his problem and not just complain about the problem.  I think Matthew saw in Jesus somebody whose heart was filled with mercy.

            Max Lucado writes that when he sent his daughter off to college, he set up a checking account for her because he wanted her to have the experience of managing some money and learning to live on a budget.  But because she was a minor, he had to sign on to guarantee the account.  After some months, Max got a statement from the bank that there had been an overdraft.  The bank was owed some money. 

            What was Max supposed to do?  He could call his daughter and chew her out!  And that might make him feel better, but it wouldn’t pay the debt.  He could tell his daughter that she had to pay the debt herself, but he knew she didn’t have the ability to do that.  And so, Max paid the debt himself. 

            And he called his daughter and she began to say “Daddy, I’m so sorry!  Daddy, I don’t have any money.  Daddy, could you…” and before she could even finish her sentence, Max said “Honey, I already have.”  Because a father who is rich in mercy, meets the need of his child before that child even knows there is a need.  That’s what Matthew saw in Jesus.  And someone like that will impact your life.  Someone like that is worth giving up everything to follow. 

            And that’s not just Matthew’s story.  It’s our story as well.  Because Peter said in I Peter 2, “Once you were not a people but now you are the people of God, once you had not received mercy but now you have received mercy.” (I Peter 2:10).

            It’s significant to note that Jesus didn’t call Matthew after he got himself cleaned himself up.  He didn’t put him on probation and say, “Come back in six months and we’ll talk.”  He called Matthew to follow him just as he was.  The Bible says “While we were still sinners, Christ loved us.” 

            Have you ever gone to an outlet store or a thrift store?  You’ll see a rack of clothes and it says “as is”.  And you understand what that means.   It means you need to know before you buy, that there’s a flaw in this merchandise.  It might be a stain, it might be a tear, it might be a hole.  Just know in advance that you’re buying something with a flaw in it.  The seller is saying, “When you find the flaw in this item, don’t come whining to us.”  Those words “as is” mean “no refunds, no returns, and no guarantees.”

            And here’s the good news of the gospel.  The God of our universe, the one we worship, the Great I Am – buys us “as is”.  He knew you were flawed, but God paid the price for you anyway. 

            And when Jesus looks at us, he doesn’t just see the “as is” sign around our necks, he sees something more — He sees what we have the potential to become.  And one of his greatest joys is taking “as is” people and transforming them into something beautiful.  Jesus saw Matthew “as is”.  But he didn’t just see a tax collector, he saw someone who would one day use his pen to write down the story of his life.

            Jesus said, “I didn’t come to call the righteous, but sinners.”  And all you have to do to be a part of what God is doing, is to stop pretending that you don’t have a problem. 

            God has a heart that delights in mercy, and that ought to affect everything in our lives.  It ought to change the way we read the Bible.  It ought to change the way we treat people.  It ought to change the way we follow Jesus.  Because we all fall short of the glory of God.  But our God has extended to us his mercy.

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