The mission of Jesus - Matthew 9:9-17
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~~The Mission of Jesus 10.2.2
Let me read you something: ‘Do you know what disturbs me most about Jeffrey Dahmer? What disturbs me most are not his acts, though they are disgusting. Dahmer was convicted of seventeen murders. Eleven corpses were found in his apartment….He ate body parts…..He redefined the boundary of brutality. The Milwaukee monster dangled from the lowest rung of human conduct and the dropped. But that’s not what troubles me most…Can I tell you what troubles me about Jeffrey Dahmer? Not his trial, as disturbing as it was, with all those pictures of him sitting serenely in court, face frozen, motionless. No sign of remorse, no hint of regret….Can I tell you what really troubles me about Jeffrey Dahmer? Not his punishment, though life without parole is hardly an exchange for his actions. How many years would satisfy justice? A lifetime in jail for every life he took? But that’s another matter, and that’s not what troubles me most about Jeffrey Dahmer. May I tell you what does? His conversion. Months before an inmate murdered him, Jeffery Dahmer became a Christian. Said he repented. Was sorry for what he did. Profoundly sorry. Said he put his faith in Christ. was baptised. Started life over. Began reading Christian books and attending chapel. Sins washed. Soul cleansed. Past forgiven. That troubles me. It shouldn’t but it does. Grace for a cannibal?’ So writes, Max Lucado in his book, ‘In the Grip of Grace.’
I would imagine that most of us would share those sentiments. Grace or, if you like mercy, is alright so far as it goes- especially if it goes far enough to cover me - but there must be limits- really bad people can’t receive it. But of course if we think that, then not only have we failed to understand what grace is, but how sinful we are. There is no question of minimising the shear horror and wickedness of what Dahmer did but by the same token we should not minimise the shear horror and wickedness of what all of us have done at some time or another perhaps by taking apart someone’s character with our gossip and devouring them with hatred in our hearts. But in both cases the nature of the offense and the corruption of the offender magnify the shear audacity and miracle of grace. Without it, there is no hope whatsoever for anyone living on this planet when faced with God’s anger towards our sin. You see, to set ourselves against grace, is to set ourselves against God and the one he sent into the world- the Lord Jesus Christ. And the two episodes in the life of Jesus we are looking at tonight illustrate precisely that. Interestingly enough, the opposition to grace shows itself in the setting of two diametrically opposite activities- feasting and fasting.
First, the feasting vv 9-13. Look at verse 9, ‘As Jesus went on from there, he saw a man named Matthew sitting at the tax collector’s booth. “Follow me,” he told him, and Matthew got up and followed him. While Jesus was having dinner at Matthew’s house, many tax collectors and sinners came and ate with him and his disciples. When the Pharisees saw this, they asked his disciples, “Why does your teacher eat with tax collectors and sinners?”’
It would not be too much of an exaggeration to say that the feelings of revulsion and outrage Lucado and some of us may have felt towards Dahmer, mirrors the revulsion and outrage the religious people around Jesus felt towards Matthew and his friends.
Matthew was what was technically called a publicani a man who served the occupying enemy of Rome by collecting taxes for them. One Jewish scholar, Alfred Edersheim, says that such folk were barred from the synagogue and forbidden to have any religious or social contact with his fellow Jews. Such a man was put in the same category as pigs- an unclean animal you would not even touch. He was deemed a traitor and a congenital liar such that he was not allowed to give testimony in any Jewish court.
And you can understand why.
These were not like our tax collectors who are simply civil servants. These were crooks as well as traitors. If you wanted to be a publicani the first thing you had to do was bribe some Roman official to give you the job. So it started with corruption and it continued that way. Somebody like Matthew could set the tax at whatever level he liked and on whatever he liked. He could tax a person’s boat as well as the fish caught with it and the dock onto which it was loaded. Whatever the Roman’s asked for, Matthew would have added a sizable amount on top and then siphon it away into his own pocket. So his own countrymen were being hit from all sides. They were subject to a cruel occupying force, they were taxed by them through the connivance of fellow Jews who lined their own pockets and provided more money for the Romans to keep on oppressing the people. You don’t get any lower than this- they were considered to be moral filth, well beyond the pale. You didn’t want to be in the same country as these folk let alone the same room.
Now tell me- what kind of power is going to take a person like that and totally turn him around? It isn’t going to be the power of religion, because the religious- read Pharisees- won’t go anywhere near them. Well, there is a power or rather a person, who can do it and his name is Jesus.
Now, the interesting thing here is that this is not a case of someone looking for Jesus, like the friends of the paralysed man in the previous story, but of Jesus looking for someone- Matthew. Here he is not simply at his place of work, but his place of sin- parasitically sucking the lifeblood out of his fellow Jews. But this was to be a day unlike any other, for instead of a man cursing Matthew, there is a man calling him- which he responds to without any hesitation did you notice that- v 9, ‘Matthew got up and followed him’?
It is called being a disciple. This is Capernaum and so chances are Matthew had seen Jesus at work and heard him teach so this is hardly what some term ‘blind faith’, a leap into the dark. No, it is a leap into the light because Matthew had never come across someone who had the power to heal and the power to forgive- Jesus was something else.
And let me say that you may have been coming to this church for weeks or even years but you know that you have not yet personally responded to Jesus’ call on your life-that is, to do what Matthew did which was to leave his life of sin with all its corruption and soul destroying materialism and self-seeking, drop it once and for all, and follow Jesus. You won’t regret it if you do. Matthew didn’t. He would have been fluent in Aramaic and Greek, able to write and take notes of Jesus’ teaching, recording his exploits as he went along with him, with the result that because of this simple act of obedience he bequeathed to a world a biographical account of Jesus which is second to none. And if you surrender your life to Christ, which tonight he calls you to do, then whatever gifts you have he will call upon to be used for him and you can’t get a higher privilege than that.
Also, notice that the first thing Matthew does is to throw a party with Jesus as guest of honour to which he invites all his outcast friends-v10. That is a tell-tale sign that someone is genuinely converted- they want all their friends to meet Jesus and share the same experience they have had- meeting the one who is able to take outsiders and make them insiders- that is members of the kingdom.
And the religious are scandalised. Of course they don’t attack Jesus directly, they express their disapproval to his disciples with a rhetorical question, in v11, ‘Why does your teacher eat with tax collectors and sinners’, and the term ‘sinners’ was a ‘catch all’ category for anyone who was disreputable in the eyes of the religious elite- prostitutes, swindlers, drunkards and the like- the low life of society as they saw them. And what is going through their minds which prompted the accusation is obvious, ‘If a man’s character is to be judged by the company he keeps, what does this company tell us about Jesus?’ ‘If it is the case that ‘If you mix with garbage you will smell like garbage’- what kind of moral odour must Jesus be giving off? He is bound to be producing a stench which reaches to high heaven!
But of course they are working with the all the wrong pictures and categories to understand how you get rightly related to God. For the religious it is to be understood in terms of association and performance- being in the right place, with the right people and doing the right things. It is construed in terms of belonging to a club- and clubs have strict rules as to who can belong- in some cases it is a matter of having the right connections, the right heritage, speaking the right way, having the right ‘know how’. And if you don’t buy in to these, then you are excluded- ‘unfriended’ and made to feel like dirt, which, of course, is the intention. Because if you are made to feel inferior because you don’t’ belong, those doing it are made to feel superior and pleased with themselves. And in the bargain they delude themselves into thinking that God must be pleased with them too.
But Jesus disabuses them of their deceit and conceit by pointing out the proper picture by which to see things, namely, that of sick people needing a doctor, v 12, ‘On hearing this, Jesus said, “It is not the healthy who need a doctor, but the sick.’
If the human condition is not that serious with our troubles being seen as a result of some sort of deficiency in our education or upbringing, then a bit if DIY religion and self-help morality might well be enough. Just give the person the right manual and with enough will they should be able to get their life in order and get right with God. But that is not Jesus’ analysis of things- in the words of the 19th century Danish philosopher, Kierkegaard; humans have a ‘sickness unto death’. We sin because we are constitutional sinners, like a person who sweats, is weak and unable to move because they have a disease. And just as it would be perverse to criticise a doctor wanting to treat sick patients, it is perverse to criticise Jesus for doing what he came into the world to do- heal the spiritually sick, dying and dead.
And then Jesus really gets the backs up of the religious by telling them to study their Bible’s a little more closely: ‘But go and learn what this means: ‘I desire mercy, not sacrifice’, a quote from the prophet Hosea. Sure, it might be better if the Pharisees understood that mercy trumps religious rigmarole and it wouldn’t be amiss if they showed a little more mercy to people like Matthew and his friends. But surely the main thrust of this saying is to justify what Jesus is doing, not what the Pharisees should be doing- hence him going on to say, ‘For I have not come to call (just what he has done with Matthew) the righteous, but sinners.’ In other words, it is Jesus who is in the mercy business- which is God’s business. And the way in which that mercy is brought about is by sacrifice- his own sacrifice on the cross.
Here’s the thing: when Jesus speaks of not calling the righteous, there is a certain irony. The Pharisees attitude is all wrong- both with regards to other people and to Jesus and that makes them unrighteous. But because they have placed themselves firmly in the righteous camp, and while they keep on seeing themselves like that Jesus won’t call them, for in one sense he can’t call them because they don’t see themselves as needing to be called and so any talk of repenting and following would be meaningless to them. Let me tell you something: in my experience the most difficult person to convince regarding the Christian faith is not the violent or the drunk, it is the clever and the self-sufficient, the person who think they have got it all together. That person is on the sure and certain road to hell unless they wise up and see themselves as they really are, as God sees them, sinners desperately in need of mercy- just as much as Jeffrey Dahmer desperately needed it.
And so we move on to the fasting vv 14-17, ‘Then John’s disciples came and asked him, “How is it that we and the Pharisees fast often, but your disciples do not fast?”’
Here is another religious group, the disciples of John the Baptiser. They too have been observing Jesus and his followers and what they are doing, or rather not doing, and what they see doesn’t seem to make sense- it is scandalous. It is a given that religious people fast- the Pharisees do it, they do it. So then why don’t the followers of Jesus engage in this basic religious discipline? It would be like Scott saying, ‘Look, let’s not bother with prayer; it is not simply unnecessary, it is inappropriate.’ Fasting and religion went together in their thinking like a horse and carriage-the one meant the other.
Now to understand why they thought that you have to grasp what the meaning of fasting is. John came preaching the same message as Jesus, ‘the Kingdom of God is near, repent and believe the Gospel.’ The key word is ‘repent’. Here you have someone who is so shaken up by their sinful ways, under conviction of how out of kilter they are with God that fasting, going without food- is a natural response. Think of times when you have received some bad news- a relative has died, you have lost your job, a spouse walks out on you- you just don’t want to eat, you go off your food because you are so troubled. And so in the religious domain, going without food- fasting- is a sign that you are taking your sin seriously, it so upsets you.
But Jesus says that with his coming the situation has changed dramatically, v 15, ‘Jesus answered, “How can the guests of the bridegroom mourn while he is with them? The time will come when the bridegroom will be taken from them; then they will fast.’ Fasting is an activity appropriate to mourning- grieving over sin. But feasting is an activity appropriate to celebrating- the forgiveness of sin, the good news that the illness you had and which worried you has been cured. Jesus is the groom ( an image used by prophets in the OT to describe God and here is Jesus applying it to himself- Je.33:11)- a groom who has come for his bride, the church, finding the lost, healing the sick- it is party time as has just been shown with Matthew and his friends. It is not misery time but a time of immense, unsurpassing joy. In fact it would be an insult if you organised a wedding and on seeing the bride and groom you bin the banquet and get out the cheese and crackers- what does that tell you of your estimate of the couple and what is meant to be going on?
Sure there’ll come a time when the disciples will fast, they will be off their food because they are going to be so heartbroken and bewildered, namely, the time when Jesus, the groom is ‘taken away’ which is an interesting phrase which comes from the same passage in Isaiah that Matthew quoted earlier in 8:17 speaking of God’s Suffering Servant who will be taken away to die as an atoning sacrifice for his people. But that is not the case now while Jesus is with them. Nor is it the case for us today after Jesus has Risen and ascended and sent his Holy Spirit so that he is with us ‘always even to the end of the age,’ Now is the time for celebration, because now the lifting of the burden of sin is possible as we go to Jesus. Do you see?
To be pushing for fasting with the coming of Jesus would be as inappropriate and as stupid as taking an unshrunken cloth and patching it on to an old dress, it will tear apart after a wash or trying to place new wine in old wineskins- the wineskins will burst. Jesus can’t be accommodated to the rites and rituals of Old Testament religion. Those structures were abolished by him, they are no longer needed because he is our priest, he is our temple, he is our sacrifice.
And yet, so desperate are we to contribute something to our salvation that we try to do just that. And so the church develops a system of priests, and altars and fasting and rituals designed to make us feel good by contributing something to make God accept us. Or we organise prayer meetings to go on through the night thinking that the longer we pray God will be forced to answer us. No, that is putting a new wine into old wineskins and the structures will eventually burst spilling out the new wine and all we will be left with is the burst skin which we will try to patch up and pass off as authentically Christian.
Dr Tim Keller highlights the contrast between Pharisaic DIY religion as expressed by fasting, and the grace-mercy religion of Christ marked by feasting. He writes, ‘In Christ I could know I was accepted by grace not only inspite of my flaws, but because I was willing to admit them. The Christian gospel is that I am so flawed that Jesus had to die for me, yet I am so loved and valued that Jesus was glad to die for me. This leads to deep humility and deep confidence at the same time. It undermines both swaggering and snivelling. I cannot feel superior to anyone, and yet I have nothing to prove to anyone. I do not think more of myself nor less of myself. Instead, I think of myself less. I don’t need to notice myself- how I am doing, how I’m being regarded- so often.’ And that is right. When you realise who Jesus is and what he came to do- the Son of God who became the Son of Man so that sons of men could become sons of God- then everything is changed- a Copernican revolution takes place whereby you see him as the centre of everything- and then everything else takes care of itself because they are seen in their rightful place.
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