Thursday, March 20, 2014

The Saviour Welcomes Sinners

  Life of Christ 48

          We will see, in the course of  this series, that Jesus will make a gradual transition of emphasis in His ministry from offering Himself to Israel as her messiah to passionately training the Apostles in light of His own forthcoming death. But I believe He had that in mind from the very beginning. In fact, He gathered to Himself Andrew and another one or two of John the Baptist's disciples before He had preached a single sermon or performed a single miracle.
Henrikk ter Brugghen, The Calling of St. Matthew, 1621
         In that vein, we find the story in Matthew 9.9-13 of the calling of Matthew, also called Levi in the Bible. His father's name was Alpheus. Matthew held the job of tax collector, and Jesus called him while he was working. Matthew immediately responded in the affirmative, and held a feast for his coworkers in order to introduce them to Jesus and to his new life. The only other mentions of Matthew in the entire Bible are the parallel stories in Luke 5 and Mark 2, and, of course, his name is included in the various lists of the Apostles – but that's it. Although his name is well known as the title of the first book of the Christian New Testament literally not a single word he spoke is recorded anywhere in Scripture, and the only actions of his discussed are in relation to his initial call and response.
          So where does that leave us? I believe Jesus did every single thing on purpose, so why did He choose Matthew, and see to the fact that this choice was recorded if Matthew then never did another thing in all the Bible? I believe the answer is in the story of Matthew's calling itself. I think Jesus is giving the Church through the centuries a lesson on whom it should be reaching, namely, sinners.
          I have spent four decades intricately connected with local churches, seventeen of those years as a pastor. I have noticed that it is very easy for a church to turn inward, and to become about the church, and the people in it, as it seeks to minister to the genuine needs of the people who call it home. But Jesus spent (literally) His life going after sinners, of all kinds and stripes, and that is the lesson for us here I believe.
          The outstanding thing we know about Matthew's life is what he did for a living. He was a tax collector, otherwise known as a publican. But what did that entail, and what did it mean?
          The Roman Senate, after the Second Punic War, farmed out the direct receipt of taxes and customs. Certain capitalists agreed to pay the Roman treasury a given amount for the right to collect taxes within a certain geographical area. They often formed for-profit companies and then hired commissioned contract workers to do the actual collecting. For this purpose they would usually seek to employ locals who would know their way around the area. Adam Smith, in his seminal work on economics, The Wealth of Nations, says this system is essentially vicious, and he was correct.
          We can see in the Scriptures that they were known to overcharge at every possible opportunity. 'Then came also publicans to be baptized, and said unto him, Master, what shall we do? And he said unto t hem, Exact no more than that which is appointed you' (Luke 3.12-13). They were also known to bring false charges of smuggling in the hope of extorting hush money. 'And Zacchaeus stood, and said unto the Lord; Behold, Lord, the half of my goods I give to the poor; and if I have taken any thing from any man by false accusation, I restore him fourfold' (Luke 19.8).
          The publicans, in the face of societal opposition to taxes, would often band together, and demand that the local government pass stringent laws preventing their work from being impeded, and attach to those laws severe penalties if violated. All over the Roman Empire they were known to be harsh and fraudulent, and in the Roman system there was no real remedy for this. In fact, Cicero famously said that dealing with publicans and the issues around them was the hardest part about being a Roman governor. They were so universally despised that three different Roman writers, Terence, Stobaeus, and Zeno, speak of being a publican as the absolute worst way to make a living.
          This bad situation was only aggravated to awful in the Jewish provinces of Judea and Galilee. Most religious Jews did not believe in paying taxes to a secular government (Matthew 22.17). In fact, Judas of Galilee (not one of the Apostles) led a revolt against Rome in the time of Christ because of this very issue (Acts 5.37).
          If the publican was Jewish, and remember, they sought to hire locals, the other Jews regarded them as national traitors. Not only that, but they were regarded, because of their chosen vocation, as religiously apostate. To add insult to injury, because of their frequent interactions with their Gentile bosses, they were also regarded as unclean or defiled. Matthew 11.19 classes them sinners. Matthew 18.17 classes them with the heathen. Matthew 21.31 classes them with harlots. The Talmud gives three classes of men to whom promises need not be kept: murderers, thieves, and, you guessed it, publicans. Their money was not accepted in the alms box at the synagogue or the Temple. To write a publican's ticket or carry ink for him on the Sabbath was considered a sin. They were not allowed, under Jewish canon law, to sit on a jury or even to testify under oath in a court of law. They were, in every sense of the word, outcasts in Israel.
          In view of all this, the story related in Matthew 9.9-13 regarding Matthew's calling by Jesus Christ takes on a new light. All we know about Matthew is that he was a publican. All we know about publicans is that they were universally despised. Consequently, what we discover about Jesus is that the Saviour warmly welcomes to His side those whom society frowns upon the most.
          If we are to be like Christ there isn't anybody we shouldn't be willing to reach, to whom we shouldn't be willing to extend a hand of hope and mercy. The Gospel is the clarion call of good news for all men, not just the ones like us, or the ones we like. Let us reach ever color, every career, every age, every religion, every background, and every kind of sinner.
          When Jesus reached out His hand to me twenty six years ago I only had one qualification: I was a sinner – and Jesus welcomes sinners. John Newton, the author of the most famous hymn in the English language, 'Amazing Grace', slowly lost his mind toward the end of his life. On his deathbed he reportedly said, 'I remember two things: that I am a great sinner, and He is a great Saviour.'
          We are surrounded in our towns and factories and offices and lives with great sinners of all types and descriptions. This is wonderful. It means they qualify for welcome at the hand of the Saviour. He welcomed me. He welcomes you. He even welcomed Matthew the publican. The Saviour welcomes sinners.
          Do we?

If you would like to listen to the audio version of this blog you may find it here on our church website. Just press 'launch media player' and choose We Preach Christ 23, 'The Saviour Welcomes Sinners.'

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