Our Ministry is Filled with People Whom God has Called Out of His Mercy
(Matthew 9:9-13 / June 21, 2020)
Every time I speak on the topic of God’s mercy my mind immediately goes back to a man in the Dominican Republic. My wife and I were missionaries at the time, and we would often go to the downtown part of the city. Now, in the Dominican Republic it doesn’t matter where you go in the city, there you will have someone asking you for money. There is much poverty and some of it breaks your heart. One man in particular broke my heart. He sat on a street corner with a tin can beside him and he had no arms and no legs. And I would always give him money.
I didn’t give money to everyone who was asking for it. But to this man I did. In the Dominican Republic there is no social security system. There are no unemployment or disability payments. There is the family and there is the generosity of the people. With this man, it was more than a matter generosity to people; it was mercy. People realized that without their mercy this man probably wouldn’t survive.
And then I thought of Jesus.
You know, when we talk about God’s mercy in the Bible, we often become so accustomed to the word, that we fail to understand what it really is. When God says that he has mercy on us, he’s saying “If I don’t do something about your condition, you will die.” Now, this is not a haughty statement. It is not a “I’m so much better than you, and you need me” statement. Rather, it is a statement that flows from the overwhelming sensation of pity for someone because you see their condition and your heart doesn’t allow you to walk away without doing something.
I think it’s difficult for us to see ourselves as that man sitting on the corner and God as the person walking toward us. But this is the Bible’s central message. God looked at the world in its sinful state and couldn’t bare to stand by and do nothing. That is how pitiful this world looks to God. He realizes, “There is no way these people are going to survive unless I do something”, and so his entire being is moved to action. He sends his Son. He doesn’t keep on walking and thereby ignore the world. He stops and enters the world’s misery and says, “I will be the solution to your problem.” And this is what God has done for all people. The question is: Do we think of ourselves as someone needing pity?
Most people would answer that question, “No”, and they would take offense at being asked such a question. “I don’t need anyone’s pity! I work hard for what I have, and although I wouldn’t consider myself rich, I don’t need nor do I even want someone else’s charity.” Charity, in fact, can even be considered a negative concept because by giving it, you’re suggesting that person is in need, and by receiving it, you are admitting that you are in need. And we don’t like to be in need. And if we are, we certainly don’t like to admit it.
Somebody asks, “Where are you going with this, Pastor?” Well, at the time of writing I wasn’t entirely sure, but I knew that somehow, I needed to get us as a congregation face to face with God. I needed to get us to see ourselves with the same set of eyes with which God sees us, because we rarely see ourselves in this way.
When we think of ourselves, we tend to evaluate our self-worth by comparing ourselves with others. We say, “I am middle class”, meaning there are some that are better off than me and some that are worse off than me. We say, “I am relatively healthy”, and the standard of measurement we use are the unhealthy. It doesn’t mean that we think lesser of someone who is not as healthy or who has less material wealth. The only point I’m trying to make right now is that the primary way we size ourselves up is by comparing ourselves to others. It’s something we automatically do.
The problem, however, is when this is our only standard of measurement, we start to think that the way we see ourselves, is the way that God sees us, which I assure that it is not. God stands outside of the human race. And to God, comparing ourselves to others is much like a beggar looking at all his other beggar friends and saying to himself, “I’m doing pretty good! I’m just fine!” Or a terminally ill patient only using as her standard of measurement all the other terminally ill patients in the hospital ward, and thinking, “I’m doing pretty good! That person over there is in bad shape, but not me!”
The main problem with the Pharisees in the Bible is that they compared themselves with themselves but not with God. They compared themselves to other people, and as a result they concluded, “We’re doing pretty well! That person over there? He’s not doing very well; he’s a sinner. He’s a 2 on the holiness scale, but we’re more in the range of an 8, 9, or 10.” And if someone were to ask them how they arrived at their numbers they would answer, “Because we don’t do the same things he does, and so we are the healthy ones. We are not sick.”
In the snapshot in front of us today, the person the Pharisees deemed as a 2 on God’s holiness scale was a tax collector named Matthew. Was Matthew really a 2 on God’s holiness scale? Well, if you compared his lifestyle to other Jews in Capernaum (that’s the city he worked in), then you might answer, “Yeah, he probably was. Maybe a 3. Could have been a 1. We don’t know how crooked of a tax collector he was. But we do know that tax collectors were crooked. I’m not crooked. I’m not a tax collector.” You get the point.
But if God were measuring Mathew according to his holiness scale, he wouldn’t even have given Matthew a 2. He would have given him a zero. In the same way that he would have given the Pharisees a zero. In the same way that he would give you and me zeros. God’s evaluation is that “There is no one righteous before God, not even one” (Romans 3:10).
You say, “Wait a minute! I realize that I’m no saint, but I wouldn’t say I’m a zero either.” Yes, that’s because you’re still comparing yourself to other people, people whom society has deemed either as “saints” or “sinners”. But we need to compare ourselves to God and his standard of measurement. That was the difference between Matthew and his view of himself, and the Pharisees own view of themselves.
At some point prior to chapter 9 Matthew must have met Jesus. He must have heard Jesus speak and listened to what others were saying about him. Matthew had a conscience too. Just because people do shady things doesn’t mean they lack a conscience. It means they’re ignoring their conscience, but the conscience is like other nagging symptoms in the body—they don’t go away, and they tell you something is wrong.
So, when Jesus comes to Matthew and says, “Follow me!”, Matthew immediately does so. Luke’s version of the story says that “He forsook all”. In other words, following Jesus for Matthew involved huge financial loss. As a tax collector he would have been doing quite well, but now he left all of that. Why?
Because Matthew came to realize that he was lost, and so financial loss wasn’t in the forefront of his mind. He was lost. The Pharisees were just as lost too. But the reason Matthew followed Jesus whereas the Pharisees rejected Jesus is because he saw himself in relation to God, not to men. Jesus looked at Matthew’s heart, saw that it needed healing and said, “Follow me”.
Now, the Pharisees can’t understand this. And many congregations have a hard time understanding this as well, that the people Jesus wants us to reach are the “sinners” of society, which very often equates in social terms to the disreputable people of society. Too many people think churches are only for the reputable people. “Sinners”, okay we get that, “but at least reputable sinners.” No, we have to get that out of our mind. For when we remove the mask, we’re all disreputable before God. We’re all sinners. We’re like the man on the corner with no arms and no legs. We’re hopeless! And we need God to notice us and have mercy.
You see, the reason the reason Jesus attended a party that evening full of disreputable tax collectors, is because physicians don’t pick and choose whom they treat in the emergency room. The person is sick. It doesn’t matter that he is a scoundrel. He needs medical attention.
Now the party goers didn’t realize they needed medical attention, but Matthew did. He realized that they were just as sick as he was! And so the natural outflow of having received mercy was to share that mercy with others.
The Pharisees didn’t want to share God’s mercy with the tax collectors. They were doubly at fault. Not only did they reject Jesus’ mercy for themselves thinking they didn’t need it, but they also wanted to keep Jesus from reaching those who wanted mercy.
Do you know how many people want God’s mercy? Sometimes we think those days are long gone. “No one cares about God anymore. They’re all Godless!” Well, everyone of us is Godless apart from Jesus, but there are many people who realize right now that they are lost. That they are hopelessly lost. That there is nothing they can do to calm their troubled conscience. They know that because they’ve tried it all. I know it because I’ve personally introduced Jesus to them over the last there years and watched them follow Jesus.
That’s why a phrase you’re going to hear over and over at Immanuel from now on, is “We help lost people find the Way.” The Way is Jesus. Whether they are reputable in society’s eyes or disreputable. It doesn’t matter. Yes, sin matters. And the ministry isn’t about excusing and overlooking sin; it’s about forgiving sin which is entirely different. We can forgive sin because it’s actually been paid for and punished. Jesus died for sinners.
Jesus told the Pharisees, “But go and learn what this means—'I desire mercy and not sacrifice’” (v. 12). It’s not the sacrifices we make for God that make us reputable and righteous; it is the mercy of Jesus Christ that forgives us our sins, so that God remembers them no more. And quite honestly, this takes a whole lifetime to learn. You learn it in catechism, and then you spend the rest of your lifetime relearning it, over and over, deeper and deeper. Seeing the world through God’s eyes. Seeing yourself through God’s eyes. Like Matthew we are all scoundrels before God, even if we are not scoundrels before men. May we never forget it! Our ministry (you and me) is filled with people whom God has called out of His mercy. So, let us extend that mercy without qualification. Let us present Jesus to each and to all! Amen.