This sermon is part of the sermon series "The Heart of Christ". See series.
We're in part two of a series called The Heart of Christ, and I want to begin this week with a question: Do you remember the first Christian you encountered that left a strong positive impression on you? A camp counselor? A youth pastor? A co-worker? I know that some of you were raised in Christian families with Christian aunts and uncles and cousins. You've been swimming in the Jesus waters for so long that it's hard to look back and remember distinctly. But some of you remember that encounter—you remember the boss or brother-in-law or grandmother or coach who left that first positive impression on you.
A couple months ago I had dinner with a guy named John Dixon. He is a pastor and a writer in Australia. Over dinner I said, "Tell me part of your story." He said that as a 15-year-old kid, he had never been inside a church his entire life, he wasn't from a believing family, and he encountered a middle-aged woman by the name of Glenda, who he remembers clearly as the first positive Christian influence he experienced in his life. Really, Glenda was the only Christian he knew at that point in his life. I want to share John's story with you, and I will at the end of this message.
A history of the separated ones
Let's look today at the Gospel of Matthew, starting with Matthew 9:9: "As Jesus passed on from there, he saw a man called Matthew sitting at the tax booth." Let's pause there for a crash course in the political religious environment of Israel, actually called Judea, in the 1st century. The Romans had conquered almost everything; they were in charge. And they had set up a capitol city in a place called Caesarea. Herod the Great built this city in honor of Caesar Augustus and the Roman Empire. If you were to dock your boat in the port of Caesarea, the first substantial building you would come across would be a temple to Caesar Augustus. He was considered one of the Roman gods. So in Israel, in the Promised Land, there was a temple for emperor worship. If you were a Jew living in Israel in the 1st century, this all would have really bothered you—to have Roman soldiers walking through your streets, to have Caesarea built along your coast, and to have a temple built to Emperor Augustus.
The Jewish people reacted to this by creating a group actually called the "separated ones." These people wanted to keep their hearts separate from the Romans for God, as God had commanded, "You shall have no other gods. … Do not make statues and bow down to them." As you know, the Jews had certain cleanliness practices, including eating only "clean" or kosher foods. But the separated ones not only believed that certain foods were clean or unclean; they came to believe that there were clean and unclean people. The Romans were unclean, and the separated ones tried to make themselves clean.
As you read through the ministry of Jesus, you will not run into the term "separated ones." Instead, you will find the word "Pharisee." The word Pharisee means "separated one." It was the Pharisees who determined not to take part in Roman practices. They wanted hearts that were separated from the Romans for God.
Jesus calls a tax collector.
So Jesus is walking down the road, and he passes a tax collection booth. The Romans would hire Jews to collect Roman taxes in their villages. They would hire people who knew the villages, who knew who was who and who owed what. The Romans would basically auction off the right to be the town's tax collector to a high bidder, and then anything the collector could skim off the top through commissions, he would.
Nobody liked the tax collectors. The only reason I can think of for someone to become a tax collector is simply if he didn't care. His reputation in the community would be damaged; he didn't care. He would break his father's heart by doing it; he didn't care. Taking that position would place him on the outside, almost like legalized extortion; he didn't care. The tax collectors became part of the unclean, and those who tried to be clean would never associate with them.
Look again at verse 9: "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 picks a tax collector as one of his twelve disciples—one of the twelve to actually journey with him, eat with him, watch him, and minister with him. Jesus picks a tax collector for this.
If you were a Pharisee, a separated one who was trying to keep his heart separated to God and separate from the Romans, and you saw Jesus do this, it would really mess with you. Jesus is making a statement here, and you would have some serious questions about what he has just done.
This is an important story. If you wake up one day to discover that some decisions you have made are leaving a wake of difficulty for other people, this is an important story for you to know. If you have a habit that has been hidden underground, and you find one day that it's been exposed, and you feel shame and humiliation and embarrassment, this is an important story for you to know. This is also an important story to know because it helps us think more clearly about the idea of "us" and "them," whoever the "us" and "them" happen to be in your world.
Jesus eats with sinners.
The story is just beginning to heat up. Matthew decides to throw a going away party for himself at his house—an "I'm leaving Capernaum, and I'm headed out with Jesus" party—and he invites his cronies. So at this dinner, you've got Jesus, his disciples, Matthew, and all of Matthew's tax collecting buddies. In verse 10 we read, "And as Jesus reclined at table in the house, behold, many tax collectors and sinners came and were reclining with Jesus and his disciples." I think the word "sinners" there describes people who were on the outside—people who were not keeping the rules of separation that the separated ones had prescribed. So Matthew has a dinner that's basically like a big tax collectors' convention. All of these people came to eat with Jesus.
I wonder what they talked about. "So, how long you been in tax collection?" "What made you decide to choose that career?" "What did your father think?" "There's something I've always wondered: who will let their kids play with your kids? Do you have like a tax collectors' grade school or something where you all hang out together?" I don't know what the questions were, but everyone's talking and eating together from common dishes.
Do you think this might have troubled anybody? If someone walking down the street looked through the open courtyard and witnessed this meal taking place with Jesus in the middle of it all, would he take issue with what he saw?
Verse 11 says that when the Pharisees, the separated ones, see this, they ask Jesus' disciples why: "Why does your teacher eat with tax collectors and sinners?" I would challenge you here to read this as coming from a devoted and confused heart. Please don't see these men as pompous idiots; see them as people who are just trying to have a heart that is fully devoted to God and separate from sin and sinners. "Why does your teacher eat with tax collectors and sinners?" Jesus is eating with the people who are essentially robbing the Israelites blind. So what's Jesus doing with them? Is he condoning their behavior? Can he approve of what they're doing?
So the Pharisees ask Jesus' disciples this question, but it is Jesus who answers them. He gives them three responses, and I've attached a word to each of them. The first word or response has to do with health, the second has to do with mercy, and the third has to do with mission.
Jesus responds to the Pharisees.
Verse 12 says, "But when he heard it, [Jesus] said, 'Those who are well have no need of a physician, but those who are sick.'" Jesus speaks of health. We might have expected him to have turned to the separated ones and said, "You judgmental people! How in the world can you judge these men! You should accept these men as they are!" But no, Jesus says, "Those who are well have no need of a physician, but those who are sick." Jesus is calling the lifestyle of the tax collectors unhealthy. He knows that the work of the tax collectors keeps people from being able to feed their families; he knows their work is selfish. But he says that it's precisely the sick people who need a doctor. The first part of Jesus' response is about health.
In Luke 15 there's a whole chapter on this issue. Again, there are some Pharisees who come to Jesus complaining that he's eating with tax collectors and sinners, and Jesus tells three stories. The first story he tells is of a lost lamb that the shepherd goes out to rescue. The second story he tells is of a woman who's got ten coins and she loses one. She lights a lamp and looks in every corner of the house to find the one coin. The third story is the story of the prodigal son, a rebellious kid who runs away from home and squanders his father's money. Jesus doesn't condone what the tax collectors are doing. He compares them to wandering sheep, lost coins, and rebellious children. But because of this, he knows that they are the ones in need of rescuing; they are the ones in need of a physician.
The second part of Jesus' response is in the beginning of verse 13 and has to do with mercy. Jesus says, "Go and learn what this means, 'I desire mercy, and not sacrifice.'" He gives the Pharisees a homework assignment. Jesus is actually quoting another part of Scripture here: Hosea 6:6. In the day of Hosea, 100 years before the time of Jesus, the people were heavy on religious tradition and short on mercy. They went to the temple, they offered all kinds of sacrifices, but they did not show mercy to the people around them. God says to them, "I desire mercy, not sacrifice." He would rather them show kindness than do the work of rituals. When Jesus quotes that part of Hosea, the Pharisees know what he is alluding to. He refers them back to Hosea, telling them to study their Scripture. Jesus calls them to mercy.
The third part of Jesus' response has to do with mission, and it's the last clause of the story. The end of verse 13 says, "For I came not to call the righteous, but sinners." When Jesus says, "For I came not to...," he doesn't just mean, "For I came not to Matthew's dinner to. …" He means, "For I came not to the world to call the righteous"—to call those who are right with God. He came into the world for sinners. If you want to be one of Jesus' followers, there's one prerequisite: You've got to be radically flawed. What Jesus is exposing here that the Pharisees don't see is that everybody needs rescue. The tax collectors might have had a propensity toward the sin of greed; they were willing to lose their reputation for the sake of money. That was the drug of choice for them. But the Pharisees might have temptation toward self-righteousness and arrogance. Both groups needed saving; both were flawed. When Jesus tells the Pharisees that his mission is to call sinners, he's inviting them to join. He doesn't approve of what the tax collectors do, but he spends time with them because he's there to love and rescue them.
John Dixon's story
This leads us back to my Australian friend, John Dixon. I love his story so much that I asked him to share it with us. The story starts with him being 15, having never been in a church, and this middle-aged woman named Glenda has entered his life. She was the first Christian who ever left an impression on him:
In Australia, for the first 50 years or so, the churches ran all the schools. When the government took over the schools, the churches agreed to this, as long as the church was allowed to teach one lesson a week. That is why a Scripture class existed in public school. The churches had to find volunteers from the community to teach the class. So when I was 15, I got a Scripture teacher named Glenda Welding, who was quite extraordinary in that she was intelligent, funny, and didn't seem as old as other Scripture teachers I'd had. To me, someone who had never even been inside a church, Scripture was always kind of a non-class—just an hour with a sweet, old lady who didn't harm or interest.
But Glenda was this middle-aged mom from down the road who had answers to all my smart aleck questions, and I was intrigued. In fact, I remember going up to her once after class, making sure none of my friends could see that I was talking to the "God person," and asking her, "What do you think God thinks of me?" I now realize that was a silly question to ask an intelligent Christian, but she said—and this I'll never forget—"John, God sees everything you've done, said, and thought." And then she left an awkward pause. I remember thinking, Oh no. Then she said, "But he loves you even still." I thanked her for the comment, and I ran. Those words went around and around in my head: God knows everything I've done, said, and thought, but he loves me even still.
Weeks later, Glenda invited the whole class to her house on Friday afternoons. She knew that some of us probably had questions about Christianity, so she offered to make us hamburgers, milkshakes, and scones, and for us to study the Bible together. At that point, I had no interest in studying the Bible, but I was 15, so I was interested in hamburgers, milkshakes, and scones, and so were my mates. We turned up at this woman's house on Friday afternoon, about six or eight of us. She opened the door and led us into a beautiful lounge room. She started making the food, and we sat there thinking, What have we gotten ourselves into? But she brought out all the food, and we stuffed ourselves to the point we could hardly get up off the couch. At that point she brought out the Bible. I remember thinking, Oh no, we're trapped, and I had visions of her as some witch who was going to turn us into something. But you know what she did? She read us the story of Jesus from the Gospels. She knew none of us had any knowledge of the life of Jesus.
So we went back the next Friday and the next Friday and the next Friday. For 18 months we'd go to this woman's house on Friday afternoons. Slowly but surely, the Jesus stuff became as important as the food, and we came with more and more friends. You need to understand that some of these 15-year-olds were the worst sinners in the school, if I can put it like that. One of them had a string of "breaking and enterings" to his name. One was a drug user and pusher in the school and regularly came to class stoned. One was the school bully. It was quite a collection. But Glenda just opened her heart every Friday afternoon and treated us all like we were family.
There was one night when my friend Daniel was rather intoxicated, and we knew we couldn't take him home to his house. His dad was an army man and would be livid. So we're at this party thinking, Where are we going to take him? We didn't want to leave him on the street, which is probably what he deserved. He'd been vomiting all over himself; it was a rather messy situation. Then one of us realized that we were only about a couple hundred meters from the Scripture teacher's house. We all said, "Yeah, she's nice. She'll have him. She'll clean him up." I'm quite embarrassed about it now, but at the time it seemed perfectly plausible. So we went to Glenda's house. It was near midnight, and we knocked on her door. Glenda opened the door. It turned out she was finishing up some kind of posh dinner party with lots of guests, but she didn't bat an eye. She welcomed us in, showed us straight past her guests into the back of the house. She went and got some spare clothes from one of her children and said, "Look, throw him in the shower, clean him up, and just put him to bed. We'll sort it out in the morning." So we did.
The next morning we went back to Glenda's house around 10:00 to pick up Daniel. He was sitting at the kitchen table, and Glenda was making him bacon and eggs, and they were having a good old chat.
We took Daniel to Glenda's house, as embarrassing as it is to think about now, because she had left a real impression on us that Christians actually quite like sinners. We had no doubt that she hated our drinking habits. She was a teetotaler, and talked openly about avoiding alcohol. But even in that situation, her first instinct was not to condemn us but to love us more, and it was extraordinary.
After about six months of Scripture classes, Friday afternoon events, and the incident with Daniel, we found ourselves thinking that Jesus was real, that he is inescapable, that he is powerful. We had no doubt that in spite of our many wrongdoings, God loved us because of Jesus. It ties straight back into Glenda's first comment to me: God knows everything you've done, said, and thought, but he loves you even still. She both spoke that truth and embodied it to us.
I love that story. I wonder if that is what happened as Jesus was dipping bread with the tax collectors. He's communicating: I know everything you've ever done, said, or thought, and I love you just the same. That is the heart of Christ.
Jeff Manion is the senior pastor of Ada Bible Church in West Michigan, where he has served for over 30 years.