A sermon preached by Pastor Robert Schaefer
First and Spring Creek Lutheran Churches
Third Sunday after Pentecost (Pr. 5) – June 5, 2005
Text: Matthew 9:9-13
Friends in Christ, grace to you and peace from God our Father and the Lord Jesus Christ. Amen.
If you’ve been paying attention these last few weeks, you may have noticed that job qualifications are in the news. Our congress has been going back and forth over what it takes to be a good public servant, and what sort of person should be called to fill those important positions. Are the qualifications nothing more than meeting some academic or professional requirements? Or should one’s political outlook play a part? Is the only qualification that matters the president’s say-so, or should other matters come into play? The senate has very nearly melted down over these important questions. If we learn nothing else from the showdown over the president’s nominations, one thing seems very clear – we Americans care very, very much about qualifications.
Choose just about any line of work you can think of, and there is bound to be a long list of qualifications for it. Take my vocation as pastor, for example. Our church values education in its leaders, and so all our pastors are required to hold a master’s degree from one of our seminaries as well as a bachelor’s degree in any area that interests us. In order to serve as a pastor, we must first satisfy our synods’ candidacy committees that this is the task God has been preparing us for and that we are committed to it. In order to be qualified for ministry, we must live up to many ethical standards and devote ourselves to continuing our education every year. It’s a lengthy list of qualifications, to be sure, but our church has adopted them in order to ensure that its ministers are equipped and faithful.
Of course, my own line of work is not exceptional this way. What does your job require? If you’re a teacher, you needed years of education and the proper certification under your belt – not to mention a passion for young people and a temperament suited to the chaos of the schoolhouse! If you’re an office worker, no doubt you had to demonstrate your abilities to organize, process documents on a computer, and work in a team. If you’re a farmer, you’ll count on your physical stamina, mechanical know-how, business skills, knack for knowing the weather, and understanding of the land you work. Every job has its qualifications; every activity has a list of requirements that must be met in order to perform it well. It’s not only the American way, it’s just plain old common sense.
Which leads us to a natural question: What are the qualifications for following Jesus? What requirements does he have for those of us who would be his disciples? What does the Christ look for in a man or a woman before he will call them to be his follower?
The calling of Matthew to join Jesus and the disciples gives us a clearer picture. Matthew was a tax collector in his old life; Jesus called him out of his booth, out of his office, taking him right from his old job to his new one. Is there something about a tax farmer like Matthew that made him especially fit to be Jesus’ follower?
Well, it wouldn’t be his moral compass, for one thing. The men who collected tolls for Caesar had to depend on grift and extortion in order to make their profit. This was part of the job, and so the tax farming system attracted only the kind of men who were happy to swindle their neighbors day in and day out. If Jesus were looking for a strong moral foundation in his followers, Matthew surely wouldn’t have made the cut.
If Matthew was qualified to be Jesus’ disciple, it would not be his popularity that did it for him, either. You can imagine how tax collectors were thought of! The masses of people under their authority looked on them with contempt and disgust, writing them off as little more than dressed-up thieves or bandits. And those above them knew full well the sort of dishonesty required by the job, and if they bothered to socialize with these tax farmers, it was almost certainly at an arm’s distance. Indeed, Jewish law considered such men to be unclean – righteous Jews would avoid any contact with tax collectors, not just out of fear and mistrust, but out of religious disapproval. Jesus could not have found a less popular person than Matthew if he had wanted to – a good name among the people was clearly not one of Jesus’ requirements.
Could it have been the money? Ah, there, at last we find a qualification Matthew could meet. After all, the taxes of Rome flowed through his booth on their way to Caesar, and more than a little lucre managed to find its way into Matthew’s purse. After years of filching the people’s tax money, skimming off the top in order to line his own pockets, Matthew the tax collector had probable established a nice little fortune for himself. If Jesus needed a man who could finance his wandering ministry, Matthew was a smart choice!
But, no, Jesus would not have been interested in Matthew’s wealth any more than his popularity or scruples. Remember that Jesus sent away a very wealthy would-be follower with the instructions that he must give away everything he owned before following Jesus. The ministry of Jesus was God’s work and depended on God’s providence – Jesus did not want his wealthy supplicant’s money, and he did not want Matthew’s money either.
So where does that leave us? Why on earth did Jesus call Matthew? What about Matthew, sitting there in his tax booth robbing the people, made him qualified to be Jesus’ disciple? What did Jesus possibly see in him?
Jesus saw a sinner.
Jesus saw a broken man, a sick man, a man whose heart had rotted or turned to stone. Jesus saw a person caught in the grip of sin, enslaved to it – a lost cause, a hopeless case, an irredeemable scoundrel. And Jesus redeemed him.
Matthew’s only qualification was that he desperately needed what only Jesus could give him. Jesus said as much when a group of Pharisees grumbled about the kind of company he was keeping – “Those who are well have no need of a physician, but those who are sick. I have come to call not the righteous but sinners.”
That’s right – Jesus only calls sinners! That is his one purpose, his one goal, his one fervent desire – to call every sin-stricken person in this world into his company, to walk with those foul sinners and make them clean, to love those broken sinners and make them whole. As strange and amazing as it seems, if you aren’t a sinner then Jesus Christ has nothing for you! A sin-sick soul is the one thing that our Lord looks for when he calls people to himself. It is the one qualification for being his follower.
Jesus, of course, did not leave Matthew hopelessly stuck in sin, and he does not leave us there, either. It is true that Jesus only calls sinners, but he does not call us so that we can remain broken and twisted! He calls us so that he might heal us with his love. He calls us so that he might teach us through his life. And he especially calls us so that he might redeem us through his cross. As soon as we take up with Jesus, he gets to work in our lives, first making us wholly, eternally clean by his blood shed at Calvary, and then making us more and more like him each day we spend in his company.
Friends, we are all sinners, all Matthews, called by our Lord Jesus Christ to follow him. And the world is full of sinners, full of Matthews, who are also called. Let us take up with Jesus our Lord, who eats with sinners and gives them forgiveness, and let us announce his call in all the world – there is hope for the sin-sick soul! Amen.