St Matthew 9:9-13 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.
Jesus asks a tax collector to follow him?! Really? Didn't he know that tax collectors were notoriously corrupt? Didn't he know that they were the Benedict Arnold's of their day, informing on their fellow Jews to an oppressive occupying Roman army?
Why, then didn't Jesus find someone more honorable? Someone more patriotic? Someone who didn't exploit and betray his neighbor?
The answer, I think, is found at the conclusion of the passage when the religious elite ask a similar question of Jesus’ disciples: “Why does your teacher eat with tax collectors and sinners?” Overhearing them, Jesus himself replies: “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.”
My theory? Jesus didn’t call Matthew because he was sick. Everyone is. No, what made Matthew relatively unique was that he knew he was sick.
That is quite unusual. After all, the human heart is skilled in the art of make-up, or better, self-justification. Even genocidal sociopaths insist that their cause is a just and righteous one.
A seminary professor of mine once read our class the parable Jesus told about the tax collector and the Pharisee. Both went into the temple to pray at which point the Pharisee stood up and said, 'I thank thee, Lord, that I am not like this lowly tax collector' before going on to list his many virtues. By contrast, the tax collector didn't even lift his face toward heaven, beating his breast, he cried, 'Have mercy upon me Lord, for I am a sinner.' Jesus tells his listeners that it was the sinful tax collector and not the righteous Pharisee that was approved by God.
Our professor then asked us to raise our hands if we ‘want to avoid being like that Pharisee.' Most of us raised our hands.' He then replied, 'Congratulations. You just became one.'
I wonder if the only people who are not self-righteous are those who know and admit that they are. It’s not unlike the irony that those who think themselves humble are actually quite proud, while those who think themselves proud are more likely to be humble.
If this incident teaches us anything it is this: 'The only ones who are well, according to Jesus, are those who acknowledge that they are aren't.'
If Jesus were speaking to a church-going audience, I suspect he’d tell the same parable, though perhaps exchanging Pharisee for ‘Reverend’ or ‘Bishop’ or ‘Elder.’
However, what if Jesus were speaking to a ‘mixed’ audience, comprised of ‘pro-church’ people (who never critique the church and never miss a Sunday) and 'post-church’ people (who have been burned by church and are ‘done with it’). Were that the case, I wonder if Jesus might take say something like this:
'Two men, Larry and Michael, walked toward church. Larry, and Elder, went inside to pray. Passing by outside, Michael prayed, 'I thank thee, Lord, that I am not like Larry, who thinks himself too righteous to ever miss church. Having sat down inside, Larry prayed, ‘I thank thee Lord, that I am not like Michael, who thinks himself too righteous to ever attend church.'
I suspect Jesus would conclude with: Neither went home approved.
Same essential problem. Differing settings.