The Gospel According to Matthew part 1
The first book of the New Testament bears the name of its author, Matthew. The title is definitely unusual by modern standards. This title, ‘the Gospel According to Matthew’, has little or no creativity. If this work was retitled today, it would likely be far more interesting, like: ‘The Carpenter King Who Built His Throne From A Wooden Cross’. The actual title, while being generally underwhelming by our standards, is a far better title than we often give it credit for.
The Gospel According to Matthew is an eye witness account of the most important person in human history. Yet, it is more than a simple story. This book is a declaration of good news for sinners from the pen of another lowly sinner who knew this Jesus personally. When Matthew first met Jesus he was a notorious sinner, and a social misfit. Matthew experienced the good news of God’s grace for sinners through Jesus, and he wants to introduce his audience to Jesus Christ so that we might also enter into that family of ‘sinners saved by grace’.
9 And as Jesus passed forth from thence, he saw a man, named Matthew, sitting at the receipt of custom: and he saith unto him, Follow me. And he arose, and followed him. 10 And it came to pass, as Jesus sat at meat in the house, behold, many publicans and sinners came and sat down with him and his disciples. 11 And when the Pharisees saw it, they said unto his disciples, Why eateth your Master with publicans and sinners? 12 But when Jesus heard that, he said unto them, They that be whole need not a physician, but they that are sick. 13 But go ye and learn what that meaneth, I will have mercy, and not sacrifice: for I am not come to call the righteous, but sinners to repentance.Matthew 9:9-13 KJV
What happened to all that ‘Salt of the Earth’ talk?
In Jesus’ famous Sermon on the Mount, He spoke of His followers as being “the salt of the earth”. It is likely that you have heard this phrase used before in conversation. Maybe Uncle Bob was describing some friends of his to you, and he told you that ‘so and so are good people, salt of the earth kind of people’. This idiom is usually a compliment that conveys to the hearer positive attributes like good moral character, reliability, and generosity.
There is an obvious problem in the minds of several contemporaries of Jesus when he chooses to associate himself with Matthew. Why? Matthew is a publican! Still not exactly sure why that is a problem? Let me try to summarize the objection that arises to Jesus on account of befriending Matthew.
First, a publican was considered a traitor. In the first century, the Roman Empire controlled the entire Mediterranean Sea. This Empire was vast and extremely powerful, but also very expensive. Israel was one of many occupied territories of Rome and therefore was liable to pay taxes to Caesar. The logistics of how the empire collected those taxes is being illustrated for us in our text. Matthew was a publican, which is to say, a tax collector for the Roman empire. You might ask the question, why would the occupation of collecting taxes be seen as scandalous?
To become a tax collector for Caesar, a person did not submit a resume’ or go through a vetting process to ensure a certain level of integrity in the profession. The reality was nearly the exact opposite. Publicans often came into their governmental positions through paying for the privilege. These “traitors” paid Caesar for the right to collect taxes from their own countrymen to support the foreign occupation of their homeland. Are you beginning to see the scandal? It gets worse. The motivating factor for publicans to pay Rome for the right of collecting taxes was the accepted practice of extortion. Publicans had Roman authority to collect more than the required tax, and use the threat of violence to motivate their countrymen to comply. Matthew was one of these tax collectors, and he was most assuredly not considered to be ‘salt of the earth kind of people’.
Second, social ostracization was the natural consequence of being considered a traitor. A publican had about as much clout as a prostitute. This is easily seen in the language of the Pharisees. Jesus was often criticized by them for being friends of ‘publicans and sinners’. To the modern reader, we might easily miss the significance of how the Pharisee’s used the term ‘sinners’ here. The phrase ‘publicans and sinners’ was idiomatic to describe tax collectors and prostitutes, lumping them together into one level of social standing. Women who sold their bodies were of the lowest social standing, and men who stole from their neighbors in the name of Ceasar were of that same social standing. Matthew was not considered to be ‘salt of the earth kind of people’.
Third, the religious conservatives were becoming increasingly frustrated with Jesus as he continued to defy their religious traditions. The Pharisee’s negative opinion was cumulative. First, Jesus openly criticized their traditional interpretation of God’s law. Then, Jesus criticized their public shows of piety. Next, Jesus healed a lame man on the Sabbath and commanded him to disobey the traditional prohibition of work, by carrying his bed on the Sabbath. Now, the Pharisee’s are offended at Jesus’ unwillingness to maintain a respectable distance from immoral people. The problem, in the minds of conservative Jews, was that Jesus claimed to have followers who were “the salt of the earth”, but he often gathered with people that were considered to be ‘scum of the earth kind of people’.
Is there a doctor in the house?
Jesus healed the crippled man earlier in Matt 9, and then he calls Matthew to follow him. Keep an eye on the tie that binds these two seemingly unconnected stories. The Pharisees object to Jesus’ fratinization with publicans and sinners, and so Jesus reminds them of His miraculous healing and tells them he has come to heal sick people, like Matthew. Ironically, the religious conservatives who condemned the immoral publican have now been shown to be the people who are sick. Jesus is the physician who heals the sick soul, but His healing is only given to those who recognize themselves to be sick souls.
Matthew was considered, by the Pharisees, to be ‘the scum of the earth kind of people’, but that’s exactly who Jesus came for. When Jesus calls the publicans and sinners of this world to follow him, he heals them, and they do become ‘salt of the earth kind of people’. That’s what the grace of God does, it starts with sinful people and transforms them into holy people.
Matthew, when he authored this book, was a living testimony of the gospel of Jesus. He was no longer confederate with the enemy and making compromises for his own selfish gain. He had become a courageous man, by the grace of God, who would not be silenced. He boldly proclaimed Jesus to be the promised son of David, the promised son of Abraham, and the promised Immanuel. Matthew, the author, is an example of who Jesus came for and what Jesus does in and through all who believe in Him.