Intro – A pair of cows were talking in the field. One says, “Have you heard about the mad cow disease that’s going around?” “Yeah,” the other cow says. “Makes me glad I’m a penguin.” In that case, perhaps self-deception was a good thing! But most of the time, not so much! That’s our theme today. Many are deceived with regard to salvation – thinking they are good enough without Christ. The truth is: You can’t be too bad to be saved; but you can be too good! Self-deceived! There’s a thought, isn’t it? Too good to be saved!
This passage is about Jesus calling Levi. Some teach this is a call to discipleship, not salvation. But that is another misconception. You can’t be saved without being a disciple; and you can’t be a disciple without being saved. The calls are one and the same. So, this is the call of Levi. In Matt’s account (9:9-17) he calls himself Matt. They are one and the same -- the man who would eventually write the first book in the NT. Isn’t that something? From hated tax collector to beloved gospel writer. It shows that no one is too low for the reach of Jesus. Unfortunately, some are too high.
I. The Call -- I want us to see three elements in this call
A. Who is Called
V. 27, “After this he went out and saw a tax collector named Levi, sitting at the tax booth. And he said to him, ‘Follow me.’” “Saw” means “gazed intently at.” Jesus deliberately singled Levi out. Levi has seen Jesus around town. His heart is ready. So, right after Jesus shows His power to forgive sins, He heads to the beach and fixes His gaze directly onto Levi. Why? Because Levi is the worst of the worst. He shows Jesus’ grace extends to all – even tax collectors! Tax collectors were hated because they worked for the Romans and cheated their own people, becoming rich in the process. If ever there was a sinner in the group around Jesus, it was Matt. Of course, they were all sinners, but none was so looked down upon and so despised as Matt.
Matt’s position at the tax booth indicates he did the dirty work of collecting for a boss who contracted directly with Rome. Thus, he was hated by everyone. His position near the Sea of Galilee suggests he taxed the fishing industry. Undoubtedly he was well known by and despised by Peter, James, John and Andrew for taxing them. Money was his god or he would never have been in this job. He was an outcast -- until Jesus fixed His gaze on him, and called him to His inner circle, much to the dismay of everyone around.
Tax collectors were shunned by the rabbis who said that a sinner like Matt could repent, but he would die immediately. So his only hope was to wring as much as possible out of life, then, when he was about to kick off, go and repent, hoping for forgiveness. It was the only chance he had – until Jesus came! The religious elite of his day would have walked right by Matt like he didn’t even exist. Jesus came straight for him. The Pharisees would have said, “We’ll take you as soon as you straighten yourself out.” Jesus says, “Are you a sinner? Then you’re the one I came for. Follow me.”
Jesus came for all us sinners. Makes no difference where we’ve been or what we’ve done. All that matters is that we will repent. You can’t be too bad to be saved; you can only be too good. “Good” people see no need to repent. So Jesus calls those who will admit they have a problem. Jesus singled out Matt to show that He can save anyone. Matt gave a feast and invited all his tax collector and sinner friends. A gathering of misfits and outcasts. We’d have sent regrets. But Jesus went. The Pharisees were appalled – as my Brit friends say, got their knickers in twist. But this was Jesus’ kind of crowd. He knew that the only difference between those at the party and those on the outside was that those inside were sinners and knew it; those on the outside were sinners and didn’t know it. He came for those at the party – the only ones who would listen.
One commentator said it beautifully: “Here is revelation bright as the evening star: Jesus comes for sinners, for those as outcast as tax collectors and for those caught up in squalid choices and failed dreams. He comes for corporate executives, street people, superstars, farmers, hookers, addicts, IRS agents, AIDS victims and even used-car salesmen. Jesus not only talks with these people but dines with them – fully aware that His table fellowship with sinners will raise the eyebrows of religious bureaucrats who [condemn] truth and [reject] the gospel of grace.”
B. Where is He Called?
V. 27, “After this he went out and saw a tax collector named Levi, sitting at the tax booth.” Where did Jesus call Matt? In the temple? The synagogue? Out of the crowd? No. He called him right where he was – at the tax booth. That was not a coincidence. Paul expressed in Rom 3:11, “no one seeks for God.” No one seeks God, so He seeks us, calls us -- right where we are. It’s not a fraternity or club where you must qualify. Jesus takes us where we are. He doesn’t leave us there, but He starts with us just where we are.
In His culture, Jesus could not have called a person from a worse place if He had gone to the local brothel, which He did and does, by the way. The tax booth was as onerous as it got and Levi was as condemned as can be. But He didn’t have to clean himself up. He didn’t have to put on a face and deny that he had a past. He did nothing! But Jesus said, “I want you.” Matt never heard anything like that before. He was like the Three Stooges when someone addressed them as “Gentlemen,” and they are looking around and behind to find out who is being addressed. “It’s you, Matthew. I want you!”
Aren’t you glad you don’t have to get cleaned up to come to Jesus? The whole world is trying to do that. It’s a zero-sum game. Can’t be done. Trying to be good enough is like putting a band aid on a cancer. You’d fool only yourself. We must come to Jesus just as we are. He’ll move us on, but He’ll start wherever we are.
C. To What is He Called?
V. 27, “And he said to him, “Follow me.” That sounds innocuous, doesn’t it? It’s not. In our affluence we have lost sight of the radical nature of salvation and discipleship. For most of us, Jesus is just one more idol we sit on the shelf alongside career, money, family, recreation, education and whatever else we think life owes us. But Jesus will not be one god among many.
Look with me at what Follow me means. “Follow me” means a repudiation of your possessions. A rich ruler came to Christ and we read in Mark 10:21, “And Jesus, looking at him, loved him, and said to him, “You lack one thing: go, sell all that you have and give to the poor, and you will have treasure in heaven; and come, follow me.” We are told that the young man went away sorrowful for he had great possessions – possessions that he wanted more than he wanted Jesus. You are no follower of Christ if He does not control your money, your possessions. It doesn’t mean you have to give it all away, but it means you will if He asks you to. Jesus will not be subordinate to our things. Followers of Jesus give because they want to give!
“Follow me” means a repudiation of your priorities. Listen to Luke 9:59 ff, “ To another he said, “Follow me.” But he said, “Lord, let me first go and bury my father.” 60 And Jesus said to him, “Leave the dead to bury their own dead. But as for you, go and proclaim the kingdom of God.” This means that if God says I want you to take my gospel to Iran as a missionary, no earthly obligation will keep you here. It also means that if Jesus says, I want you to take my gospel to the people on that farm or in that business office or that art studio or school – or wherever it is Jesus asks, no earthly priority will keep you from there. Jesus cannot be subordinate to our priorities.
“Follow me” means a repudiation of partnerships. Matt 10:37-38, “Whoever loves father or mother more than me is not worthy of me, and whoever loves son or daughter more than me is not worthy of me. 38 And whoever does not take his cross and follow me is not worthy of me.” Make no mistake, God loves families, especially moms! But they can’t be an idol. I have known young people who refused God’s call to missions because their parents objected. Wanted to see their grandchildren. That was unworthy on the part of both the parents and the children. I have known others who graciously, but firmly obeyed God’s call in their lives against their families wishes. Jesus cannot be placed alongside human relationships as one more god in the pantheon. He will not take a subordinate position to your family.
Finally, “follow me” means a repudiation of that most valued possession of all – personal prerogatives -- self. Luke 9:23, “And he said to all, “If anyone would come after me, let him deny himself and take up his cross daily and follow me. 24 For whoever would save his life will lose it, but whoever loses his life for my sake will save it.” Jesus won’t accept equal billing with anything in your life, including you. People think because they walked an aisle or said a prayer, they’re saved. And they might well be if that reflected a heart ready to follow Him. But the proof is in the pudding. The changed heart is shown by the changed life that follows. Those who think the Bible is a nice little book about a fine teacher named Jesus who taught us a few platitudes to guide our otherwise self-absorbed life don’t get it and they are not saved. “Follow me” is a radical call to be His and His alone.
A man named Ray Miller wrote some great lyrics in the early 1920’s. One woman put them on her son’s piano so he’d read those words and think about his commitment to the Jesus. He was a talented composer with an offer from NBC to write music. But those words worked on his heart:
I’d rather have Jesus than silver or gold;
I’d rather be His than have riches untold.
I’d rather have Jesus than houses or lands;
I’d rather be led by His nail-pierced hand,
Than to be the king of a vast domain,
Or be held in sin’s dread sway.
I’d rather have Jesus than anything
This world affords today.
I’d rather have Jesus than men’s applause,
I’d rather be faithful to His dear cause.
I’d rather have Jesus than worldwide fame,
I’d rather be true to His holy name.”
George Beverly Shea set those words to music and sang them often as part of the Billy Graham team for many years. He had to choose – follow his dreams into a lucrative career, or follow Jesus. He chose Jesus. Have you chosen Jesus? Are you His or are you playing at it. He can’t be just another idol.
II. The Response
A. He Gave All For Christ
V. 28, “And leaving everything, he rose and followed him.” Matthew got it and he wanted in at any price. He left everything. That’s what it means to follow Jesus. Look at Luke 5:11 – Peter, James, John and Andrew also left everything. Later they backslid into fishing for a brief time! Matthew had no such option. When he left all, that was it. He closed up shop and walked away, burning his bridges as a tax collector beyond recovery. But, friends, that’s what Jesus requires: Luke 9:62, “No one who puts his hand to the plow and looks back is fit for the kingdom of God.” You can’t be half in and half out and claim to be a Christ-follower. You are only fooling yourself. Your old life is gone and everything you have, are or ever hope to be is His to control. It is no longer yours; it is His – if you are a follower of Jesus.
Now that doesn’t necessarily mean that everyone leaves their career and becomes a full-time missionary, like Matthew. Jesus called another tax-collector later on – Zacchaeus. Jesus left Zacchaeus doing exactly what he had been doing – collecting taxes. Only now he was doing it honestly. He promised to repay those who had cheated and he became a new kind of tax collector – an honest one, a godly one. But he too was willing to do whatever Jesus asked, to give all up for Christ. What Jesus asked of him was to be an honest tax collector.
Henry Martyn is an honored early missionary to India and Persia. In 6 years of mission work, he translated all the NT and much of the Old in both countries. But when Jesus called Henry Martyn he was deeply in love. But he knew his call to missions would prevent his ever returning to England. Two things plagued him: first, he thought it would be wrong to convince his girl against her will to leave family and country never to return. Second, he came to see her as an idol – competing for his heart with Jesus Himself. After months of wrestling with the issue, he realized he must go alone. He left England and never married, dying in Persia at age 31. Why? Because Henry Martyn had heard a call: “Henry, follow Me.” Was it worth it? Ask Henry today – and ask those in heaven because he brought the gospel to them.
Friends, I don’t know what God is asking you to leave or to give up or what is competing with Jesus for control of your heart, but I know this, Jesus asks the same of all His followers. He is saying, “If you’re going to follow me, you are going to have to leave everything, and I’m going to have to be your Lord.” Salvation is radical surgery; that’s why most people won’t go there.
B. He Brought All to Christ
V. 29, “And Levi made him a great feast in his house, and there was a large company of tax collectors and others reclining at table with them.” As we’ve seen, Matthew throws a party of all his tax collector friends, and outcasts of society. Luke calls them “others”; Mark calls them “sinners” (2:15). Some of the worst people in Israel were there at that party. This was a Who’s Who of the left out and scandalous. And there is our beloved Savior, right in the middle of them, reclining at table. What a picture! Now, Beloved, don’t misunderstand. Jesus is not partaking in the foul language or dirty jokes. He’s not becoming like them; He’s urging them to follow Him. He came to seek and to save that which was lost, and at the party, He’s trolling!
Jesus never called us to “secret agents”, did He? Those who are truly His long for others to know Him too, and like Matthew, they are using the best means at their disposal to make it possible. Who are we praying for? Who are we inviting to church or MOPS or Bible study or somewhere else where they will hear the Word? Who are we giving books to or good DVD’s? Who among your family and friends are we praying for?
III. The Caution
Now, this passage ends on a cautionary note. Vv. 30-32, “And the Pharisees and their scribes grumbled at his disciples, saying, “Why do you eat and drink with tax collectors and sinners?” 31 And Jesus answered them, “Those who are well have no need of a physician, but those who are sick. 32 I have not come to call the righteous but sinners to repentance.” The Pharisees, of course, were apoplectic that Jesus would eat with outcasts – those they considered as unsavable –absolutely beyond hope. No compassion in them.
But that is not even close to their biggest problem. Their real problem is revealed in Jesus’ answer to their challenge to His disciples. Why does He eat and drink with these sinners? Jesus answers v. 31, “Those who are well have no need of a physician, but those who are sick. 32 I have not come to call the righteous but sinners to repentance.” So, is Jesus implying that He is ignoring the Pharisees in favor of outcasts because the Pharisees are already in? Don’t need a doc?! Oh they do! He is speaking ironically here. They are just as sick as the party-people, but they don’t know they are sick; whereas the others do. What He is saying is, “I can only save those who know they need it. You guys are too good -- in your own eyes.” SELF DECEIVED!
It’s not that Jesus didn’t love Pharisees too. He knew them for the hypocrites they were, but 3 times in Luke (7:36; 11:37; 14:1) he goes to one of their homes for dinner, just like he went to Matthew’s feast. And He went for the same reason – to seek and to save. But most weren’t buying! Why? Because they didn’t think they needed Him. The doctor was for others. And therein lies the caution. Many who think they are saved, who claim to be followers of Jesus who have never made a real commitment – a commitment like that defined by Jesus in the various places where He calls people.
Conclusion – So, we must ask this morning – are you ready to go to the doctor? Have you, like the Pharisees, thought you were saved because you followed some outward ritual, but your life looks nothing like the demands that Jesus makes on those who follow Him? Are you sure you are His?
Dizzy Dean was a great pitcher, but also thought of himself as a great hitter and base runner. One afternoon he was taking a lead off second when the pitcher threw back. He slid hard, but looking up saw the umpire about to call him out. Not wanting to be embarrassed he fixed the umpire with his eye and said, “Please Bill, give me a break. Call me safe.” The umpire said, “I’d like to help you out, Diz, but I can’t. You’re still not on the bag!” How many church-going people think they are safe, but there is nothing in their life to suggest it? How many will say to Jesus one day, “But remember what I did for you” only to hear Him say, “I never knew you.” You can’t be too bad to be saved, but you can be too good to be saved. Self-deceived. Only the sick need a physician – but we’re all sick – sin-sick. To all who are sick, Jesus invitation stands – “Follow me.” Let’s pray.