Nine chapters into the narrative, we finally meet Matthew, for whom the gospel is named:
As Jesus was walking along, he saw a man called Matthew sitting at the tax booth; and he said to him, “Follow me.” And he got up and followed him. And as he sat at dinner in the house, many tax collectors and sinners came and were sitting with him and his disciples. (Matthew 9:9-10)
Jesus calls Matthew to follow him and that very evening Matthew hosts a party for his friends. Notice that Matthew didn’t have any religious friends. His friends were outcasts—tax collectors, like Matthew, and assorted sinners—who were not welcome in any synagogue. But Jesus enjoyed their company and as a result he stirred up controversy.
The Pharisees—deeply religious laymen—challenged Jesus’ habit of associating with outcasts, and Jesus 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, not sacrifice.’ For I have come to call not the righteous but sinners.” (Matthew 9:12-13)
About twenty years ago I found myself tagging along with Lynda and our friend Ginny Glasco to a bar that’s now called Bahama Joe’s. We were going to meet John Trimmer and hear his band Wolftown. Patty Trimmer was a friend and Northminster member. John was not interested in church, so my logic was that since he wouldn’t come to visit me where I work, I would go visit him where he worked. We were crossing Staples Mill Road from the parking lot and Ginny kidded me, “What are you going to tell your church members if they see you going into a bar? “That if Jesus were in Richmond tonight, this is where he would be,” I answered.
In the story immediately before the calling of Matthew, Jesus rubs some “teachers of the law” the wrong way by announcing that a paralyzed man’s sins are forgiven (9:1-8). Be sure to notice how the gospel of Matthew shifts it’s focus beginning in chapter 9. Matthew has spent 8 chapters informing us who Jesus was and what he taught. With this week’s readings Matthew begins to show us how a good, truthful, respected and popular rabbi came to be executed. His explanation: Jesus’ ministry was controversial among the powerful members of the religious establishment.
Notice as you read how the controversy surrounding Jesus clusters around five complaints:
1) He blasphemes by announcing forgiveness of sins.
2) He associates with outcasts therefore rendering himself ritually unclean.
3) He breaks the Sabbath prohibition against work by preparing food and healing; he doesn’t practice ritual hand washing.
4) His power to heal comes from the devil.
5) His teaching is contrary to the Torah.
Notice how everyone is trying to figure out exactly who and what Jesus is. John the Baptizer sends emissaries to ask Jesus if he is the One they’ve been expecting. His own disciples are trying to understand who he is. His enemies are scratching their heads.
You might want to check out how Matthew brackets the controversies and questioning between two announcements that Jesus is son of God: demons possessing two men call him “son of God” (8:29) and some of the disciples use the phrase (14:33).
In between it’s not hard for me to imagine Matthew wanting to know, “And you who are reading these words right now, who do you say he is?”