From Outcast to Evangelist

Matthew 9:9-13 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. 10 While Jesus was having dinner at Matthew's house, many tax collectors and "sinners" came and ate with him and his disciples. 11 When the Pharisees saw this, they asked his disciples, "Why does your teacher eat with tax collectors and 'sinners'?" 12 On hearing this, Jesus said, "It is not the healthy who need a doctor, but the sick. 13 But go and learn what this means: 'I desire mercy, not sacrifice.' For I have not come to call the righteous, but sinners."

His real, given name was Levi. That venerable Jewish name; the tribe of Israel from whom priests and temple servants were taken. But he was called Matthew. In the story of his call in Mark and Luke, the name Levi is still used; it is only Matthew himself that does not use it. Why? Did he consider himself unworthy of such an exalted name? Unworthy, since he did not serve his people but the Romans by serving as a tax collector? In that role his fellow Jews considered him a traitor of the worst kind – a sinner to be lumped together in the category of prostitutes and Gentiles. Such was Matthew’s life – not a Roman to the Romans and not a Jew to the Jews. A man without a country.

Until Jesus came along that day. Jesus looked into that tax booth and saw not a Matthew, but a Levi. He saw not a tax collector, but a lost sheep He had come to seek and to save. He did not see someone who was healthy, but someone who was sick and in need of a doctor. He saw a man who from this day forward would no longer take taxes from people, but who would now give them the Word of God both as an apostle and an evangelist.

And so that day in Capernaum, Jesus (perhaps) got in line at the tax booth, and waited His turn. He watched the people paying their taxes. He watched as Matthew took the money and signed the receipts. And when His turn came at the front of the line, He looked at this man with love and compassion, and gave Matthew not money, but a new life. “Follow me,” He said. “I want you. Leave your old life, and follow me in a new life. A life as my disciple.”

And the wonder of that day, that anyone would want a man like Matthew, was then matched by the next wonder – Matthew did it! And notice – Matthew doesn’t tell us he just “got up” – he uses a much more significant word – he says, “he rose!” In the Greek it can simply mean “he got up.” But that same Greek word can mean “he rose … as if from the dead.” It is a word used by Luke in describing the prediction of Jesus rising from the dead (Luke 9:9,19). To Matthew, the words of Jesus to “Follow me,” were just as powerful as His words to Lazarus to “Come out.”

And so the tax booth was now closed. Matthew had a new treasure, a greater treasure than money, to which he would now give his life. For he had a Savior who wanted him! A Savior who would give His life for him.

It seems like the news about the tax office closing early that day had spread rather quickly. Matthew’s fellow tax collectors and other “equally-as-bad sinners” came to his house immediately to see what had gotten into Matthew.

That’s when they met Jesus! There was something different about Him. Oh, yeah! He reclined at the table with them. He welcomed them instead of chasing them away. He spoke to them, not at them. He spoke to them as people, not as the trash that many others considered them to be. He spoke to them as He had spoken to Matthew – with life-giving and powerful words of repentance and forgiveness.

Then, when the Pharisees sneered and mocked at Jesus for keeping the company that He did, they heard those wonderful words of Jesus in reply, “I have not come to call the righteous, but sinners.” He was there for them.

For sinners like Matthew.

For sinners like Matthew’s tax collector friends.

For sinners like us.

For you see, Matthew’s house in Capernaum is a little picture of Jesus’ house here at Epiphany. Jesus is here in this house of worship to be with us sinners and to allow us to dine with His very body and blood. He is here to call us to repentance and to receive His forgiveness. He is here to raise us with His life-giving and powerful Word, that we stop living our old life, and follow Him in a new life. A life of discipleship. A life free from sin. A life from the dead.

And the wonder here, too, is not just that Jesus would want folks like us – hypocrites, folks stuck in sin, doubting, struggling, falling, failing. The wonder that Jesus would want us is matched by the fact that we’re here! That the Word of the Lord has raised us up and brought us here. It is not our doing. We could no more repent of our sin and wretchedness and choose Jesus than Matthew could. Did we not sing already, “Lord, ‘Tis Not That I Did Choose You” (CW: 380)? It is all the work of the Lord and His Spirit in your heart. The work of a Savior who would come and die for you. The work of a God who demands not payment, but gives life. A God who shows mercy even to the worst of sinners (1 Timothy 1:16).

Only mercy can explain the men God chose to serve Him in His ministry – Matthew - a despised tax collector, Moses - an exiled killer, and Paul - a persecutor of Christians.

Like Matthew, Moses, and Paul, Jesus looks at you and sees what others – and maybe even you yourself – cannot see. Your job is not who you are. Your sin is not who you are. Your clothes or your favorite World Cup soccer team are not who you are. For your Savior looks at you and sees not a sinner or a worker, but a son or a daughter. A dearly loved child for whom He came to die; whom He raises to a new life; with whom He wishes to dine; to clothe with His robe of righteousness; and make a citizen of the kingdom of Heaven. To give you what you do not have, and make you who you are not now. To do for you what He did for Moses, Paul, and Matthew, and wants to do for all people: welcome you to the banquet feast in His house in heaven. The life and feast that will have no end.

And so we gather here each week to be with our Savior. As those who have failed this week. Falling into sins both new and old. Failing to help those around us. Serving ourselves instead of others, and expecting them to do the same. Forgetting to pray. Forgoing Bible study. Freely choosing the devil’s playthings over the Savior’s treasures. Not deserving of the high and honorable name of Christian.

And so we come to Jesus’ house. Not as the righteous, but as sinners who desire forgiveness. Not as the healthy, but as those who are sick and need of a Physician. Not as Pharisees who shun “the sinners,” but as those who confess that we are the chief of sinners (CW: 385). 

Do you think your past sins define you? Think of God’s grace that forgave Paul, the murderer. Do you think they disqualify you from serving? Think of God’s grace that was magnified by calling Paul into service. Do you get frustrated and ashamed when you still sin? Think of God’s grace that daily took a sinner like Paul and displayed His patience with and in him. Like Matthew, Paul is your example of God’s grace at work in you, and will be until the day you receive eternal life – on that day, you’ll finally see the “finished project!”

So, how wonderful it is that Jesus visits with us in His own house. He sits down with us and says, “You are my child. I forgive you all your sins. I have washed you with the waters of resurrection. I feed you with the bread of heaven, a foretaste of the feast to come that is waiting for you.”

Though there will be plenty of people who will sneer at us for being here and mock the company we keep, here is where we know we need to be – with Matthew’s cronies, receiving life from the Divine Physician.

Maybe that’s why Matthew used the name he did – that he be remembered as an outcast to magnify the grace of God.

Matthew is called “Levi” in the other Gospels, and he was probably also a Levite – a member of the tribe from which the priests, temple musicians, and other temple workers came. The Levites were to have taken their income from the sacrifices people brought to the temple.

Matthew was making another kind of living. The Romans taxed the people heavily, usually at a crossroads, and usually through local residents who did the collecting. They didn’t pay these tax collectors, so the collectors would overcharge to cover their expenses and make a living. However, tax collectors earned a reputation for vastly overcharging the people.

By describing himself as a tax collector, Matthew confesses these very sins. But Jesus came into the world to call sinners, like Matthew – and you and me – to repentance. And just as Jesus would use Matthew in His service, He also uses forgiven sinners like you and me in His service.

We can see a lot of ourselves in Matthew. Or in Moses. And certainly in Paul. We confess our sins and acknowledge our wretchedness. In doing so, we are not doing something for God. Rather, we are magnifying the Lord’s grace and mercy which we here receive in His forgiveness.

Listen again to how St. Paul describes it: “The grace of our Lord was poured out on me abundantly, along with the faith and love that are in Christ Jesus. Here is a trustworthy saying that deserves full acceptance: Christ Jesus came into the world to save sinners-- of whom I am the worst” (1 Timothy 1:15-16).

Others in the world may look at us and wonder, “What’s gotten into him or her?” The answer is that Christ Jesus has gotten into us! His Spirit living in us so that the old life be done and a new life begun. That we close our own sinful, selfish “tax offices,” where we expect others to come and pay us, and follow the One who came and paid the debt of our sin for us on the cross.

Matthew wrote a whole Gospel so that others would know what had gotten into Him. Or rather, Whom. And God will use you as well, to publish the news of His grace and mercy in Christ Jesus. Not in the same way as Matthew, but in ways that you perhaps cannot even imagine – just as that tax collector in Capernaum that day never imagined God would write Scripture through Him. Or that the pre-incarnate Christ would call Moses into service from a burning bush. Or that Christ would knock Saul off his horse and convert him into an apostle. But that is the way of Christ Jesus. He calls tax collectors and eats with sinners. He redeems murders and converts persecutors.

Again, maybe that’s why Matthew used the name he did. He was not the true Levi. The One Matthew would now follow and write about – He is the true Levi. Jesus is the priest of priests, the One who offered Himself on the altar of the cross, the once and for all sacrifice for the sin of the world. And after Him, no more “Levis” were needed; no more temples, no more priests, no more sacrifices. To follow Him, to point to Him, is enough. For it is by faith in Him that we are righteous, that we are alive, that we are called Christians. A name of which we are not worthy – and yet that is what we are! Like Matthew, like Moses, like Paul – outcasts to evangelists. Amen.