Sunday, 23 July 2017

Call of Matthew (Matthew 9:9-14)

There are different ways of approaching this incident recorded by Matthew. Obviously, it was the occasion of him meeting Jesus and becoming one of his apostles. It was the commencement for Matthew of a life that he could not possibly have imagined. It would never have crossed his mind while he was working in Capernaum that a group of people in Inverness two thousand years later would be reading material that he had written. Still, here we are and that is what we are doing. This is an obvious reminder that no one knows where Jesus will take them after conversion.

Perhaps we can even consider it from the point of view of qualifications for eating a meal with Jesus at that time. How would people in general know whether they could ask Jesus for a meal in their homes? The disciples would be able to tell them if he would go to their homes.

One cause in this case was that Matthew needed to have a personal encounter with Jesus before it would take place. If Matthew had been asked a week earlier about the possibility of Jesus being present at a meal with a tax-collector he would have said it would not happen. An encounter was needed first. In Matthew’s case, the encounter seems to have been very sudden. Of course, it is possible that Matthew had prayed for this meeting or at least had a desire to meet Jesus because everyone in the area was speaking about him. Matthew may even have seen Jesus in action healing needy people or heard some of his teaching. Nevertheless, the encounter does seem to be sudden. Moreover, the initial interaction with Jesus was very short – Jesus only spoke two words to Matthew and the great change took place. And the brief interaction was very surprising.

Who was Matthew? 
He was a tax-collector in Capernaum, which means that he was working for the Roman authorities who governed the land. This was an unusual activity for a Jew to engage in, working for the those who had conquered his people. In this regard, Matthew is a picture of all of us in that by nature we are engaged in activities that are against the kingdom of God.

From one point of view, Matthew’s activities seemed all right. Tax collectors were unpopular, but unpopularity is not always the guide as to whether something is correct. The real problem with Matthew would have been his motives. He was seeking for satisfaction in earthly things. And he had done very well for himself. Yet I would suggest the speed with which he obeyed the request of Jesus to follow him shows that Matthew was seeking for something better. The problem with Matthew was that he had an empty heart.

What did Jesus do?
Usually when we read an incident we should note who is present in it. At the same time, we should ask if some are not present whom we would have expected to be there. It is interesting that Jesus seems to alone when he spoke to Matthew. The disciples are not said to be present when Jesus calls him. This suggests that the Saviour chose to do it this way.

Sometimes Jesus uses human instruments as his means of contacting people, as we can see in the Gospels when he used Andrew to bring his brother Peter into contact with him. On other occasions, Jesus would find someone by himself without the involvement of another person, as was the case with Philip. This is what seems to have been the case with Matthew. I would suggest that Jesus did this on purpose. He planned to do this on that day because it was fixed as an appointment in the diary of heaven. Without him knowing it, Matthew had been a point of interest in the eternal counsels of God.

The first detail that Matthew mentions is that Jesus looked at Matthew. Did Matthew sense this look burning into his heart? We are not told. I wonder what would have gone through the mind of Jesus as he saw Matthew on this occasion. Here are some suggestions. There would have been sadness in the heart of Jesus as he observed a man living only for this world, climbing a ladder the top of which was not leaning against a good destination. Yet there would have been satisfaction as well in the heart of Jesus because here we have an example of the good Shepherd seeking a lost sheep. After all, this was why Jesus had come into the world, to seek and to save those who were lost. Now he was looking at such a lost sheep and there must have been great joy in his heart as he did so. Jesus would have known that his love for Matthew was eternal as well as personal.

Then Jesus spoke to Matthew briefly. Two words only, ‘Follow me.’ Yet Matthew immediately did so, leaving behind his desk with everything on it. I suspect Jesus gave this call at a quiet moment in the day. It is unlikely that he would have spoken to Matthew if he was busy in a transaction with people, although some no doubt would have been glad to watch a tax collector leave without taking money from them. There must have been something special about the words that Jesus spoke that caused Matthew to do what he did. What was so special about them?

Obviously, the words of Jesus were words of power. It is not likely that someone would follow a stranger without some form of inner conviction that his invitation was true or meaningful. Paul says in Romans 1 that the gospel is the power of God unto salvation. He does not say that the gospel and divine power are two distinct things. We sometimes imagine that the simple gospel is somehow inadequate for bringing someone into the kingdom and they should have additional experiences before they will be truly affected. We can use theology in a wrong way. Does the gospel ever come without divine power? When we hear it, we are either blessed or hardened. The best thing for us to do with the gospel is to share it and then witness its power. When Jesus spoke his short and straightforward invitation to Matthew, they were words of power that Matthew found irresistible. 

I would suggest that the invitation of Jesus was a provision of peace for Matthew and his empty heart. When does peace come into a soul? It comes when an empty soul meets the provider of peace. Before he meets the provider, all can only be speculation, mere discussion points about a theory. But once contact is made with the heavenly provider peace comes. We are not told how much Matthew knew about spiritual things at that moment. No doubt he had a lot to learn about the kingdom of God. But he sensed that Jesus wanted him to be a disciple and that brought great peace into his lonely heart.

Moreover, I would suggest that Matthew realised that the words of Jesus held out for him prospects that were very attractive. It is likely that he was aware of some of the things that Jesus had promised about his kingdom and he wanted to have them. Why else would he have followed Jesus so enthusiastically? Following is not the same as wandering. Matthew followed Jesus because he knew that Jesus intended to take him and the rest of his people to a wonderful destination.

Those features occur in virtually every conversion to Jesus, whatever the age or the background of the person. There is the sense that what the gospel says and promises is true, that Jesus is sufficient by himself to bring peace to one’s soul, and that following Jesus will lead to a wonderful destination that is full of joy and gladness.

What did Matthew do?
He made a meal so that his friends could meet Jesus and his disciples. Right away we can see a remarkable change in Matthew’s outlook and the features of the change are connected to expressions of love. No doubt Matthew liked his friends before but he would not have previously wanted them to meet Jesus and his disciples. Now he wanted his former companions in sin to meet the Saviour he had found. So there was a love for unsaved sinners in the heart of Matthew.

Moreover, Matthew also wanted to get to know the disciples of Jesus, which is an expression of brotherly love, and such love is the evidence of new life. One of those disciples later said that we know we have passed from death to life because we love our brothers. Such love is a great evidence of true conversion and is therefore necessary for assurance. The astonishing element of Matthew’s expression of brotherly love is that it commenced on the day of his conversion.

One of the striking details in this description concerns how relaxed Jesus was in such company. He was reclining with the others in the room. Imagine a stranger had been told, ‘God has come to Capernaum.’ The stranger might say to himself, ‘I wonder who he is meeting with.’ Imagine his surprise to be told that the Lord was relaxing in a room full of sinners. Of course, he was glad to be there to tell them about his great salvation.

What happened next?
The religious leaders made their presence known, and it was not a pleasant experience for those with whom they interacted. They were the flies on the ointment at this meal. Their question about Jesus and his methods was not a search for answers to the needs of their souls, but an attempt to find evidence to punish Jesus and prevent him from continuing his ministry. Still, they did not realise who they were combatting – they were unaware that he is omniscient and knew their words and their motives better than they knew them themselves.

They received from Jesus a lesson in theology, and the lesson contains three points. No doubt we should ask how Jesus gave the lesson. Was he angry with their response? He would have been. Yet he would also want them to understand the truth of what he was saying. So there would also have been in his heart a desire that they would experience the truths that he was about to mention. What were the three details?

First, they learned something about themselves: they did not realise they were sinners although they were able to see faults in others a mile away – if they had known they were sinners, they would have looked for a cure. Instead, they did not think that they needed a cure. They assumed that their religious activities and self-righteousness were sufficient for pleasing God.

Second, they learned something about God: he is more interested in showing mercy than watching correct displays of sacrificial rituals (they would also have noticed that Jesus claiming to be God). Anyone who knew anything about the Pharisees would have known that they delighted in detail and had even put together complex rules for administering those sacrifices. Their focus on winning the approval of God ignored the greatest of his activities, the one that is above all his other works, his desire to show mercy to sinners.

Third, they learned something about Jesus, which is that he wants sinners to follow him. He wanted to be the shepherd who would lead them, the teacher who would instruct them, and the guide who would show them the way to heaven. They had not realised what the role of Jesus was, that he was the Saviour who had come into the world to find those who were lost. They did not realise that they, although very religious, needed a Saviour like everyone else. Of course, there are no righteous persons for him to call, even if the Pharisees imagined that they were such.

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