“As Jesus went on from there, he saw a man named Matthew sitting at the tax collector’s booth. ‘Follow me,’ he told him, and Matthew got up and followed him.” (Matthew 9:9)
This interaction between Jesus and Matthew is pretty shocking. Tax collectors in the time of Jesus were seen as crooked thieves. These were the rich people who would rob people of their money through taxes. They were seen as unclean sinners. Tax collectors were to be avoided and looked down upon, especially by religious leaders of the day. Jesus did not seem to care.
I also want to highlight the response of Matthew. This was a wealthy man who seemed to have it all. Jesus said two words to this man, “Follow me.” Matthew got up and followed Him. There was no thinking twice about it. It would have taken something special for a tax collector to leave his booth. Matthew knew this Man was special and worth following.
“While Jesus was having dinner at Matthew’s house, many tax collectors and sinners came and ate with him and his disciples. When the Pharisees saw this, they asked his disciples, ‘Why does your teacher eat with tax collectors and sinners?'” (Matthew 9:10-11)
Not only was Jesus pursuing the heart of Matthew, but now many tax collectors and sinners were coming to have dinner with Him. Again, this would have completely gone against culture. Religious leaders would have never even considered a dinner with tax collectors in that day. The question of the Pharisees highlights this point. By them asking the disciples why Jesus ate with sinners and tax collectors, they were basically saying, “Your leader has lost his mind. He is as unclean as the sinners he is eating with.” Again, Jesus did not seem to care. He was pursuing hearts. His response to the Pharisees is glorious.
“On hearing this, Jesus said, ‘It is not the healthy who need a doctor, but the sick. But go and learn what this means: “I desire mercy, not sacrifice.” For I have not come to call the righteous, but sinners.'” (Matthew 9:12-13)
This was a knock out punch to the heart of the Pharisees. Jesus was quoting Scripture. The Pharisees were the ones who knew Scripture inside and out. They loved the law and were religiously trying to follow it. Jesus told them to go and learn the meaning of a verse that they clearly did not understand. He sent them to Hosea 6:6.
“For I desire mercy, not sacrifice, and acknowledgment of God rather than burnt offerings.” (Hosea 6:6)
Understanding this was crucial to the hearts of the Pharisees. It is just as crucial to our hearts, today. Jesus was eating with tax collectors and sinners because He was not, and is still not, after the people who think they have it all together. What does He say He desires? He desires mercy and acknowledgment of God, not sacrifice and burnt offerings.
People who think they have it all together, also called the “righteous” by Jesus, try to earn God’s love with sacrifices and burnt offerings. They try to pray enough, read enough, and go to church enough. They hope to tip the scales just enough in their favor to make God love them. People who see their brokenness, also called the “sinners” by Jesus, are full of mercy and they acknowledge God in the proper way. They know there is nothing they can do to tip the scales. God has saved their souls, despite their brokenness and their tax collecting. Jesus was simply showing the Pharisees that He is worried about the heart, not outward religion or occupation.
This is a teaching that if fully understood, could break chains for some of us. God is not after your effort. God is not falling in love with you because of your sacrifices. Hear me clearly: You live a life of sacrifice because God loved you first, while you were still collecting taxes. If Matthew needed to be “clean” or “better” before Jesus would love him, that conversation would have looked quite a bit different. Instead, Jesus would have said, “Quit collecting taxes and memorize the law. Pray more. Then, come and follow me.” Amazingly, this was not the case. Jesus loved Matthew while he was still at the booth. Matthew followed because he felt love, not because he earned love.
I pray that we, just like the Pharisees, would go and learn what Jesus means by saying, “I desire mercy, not sacrifice.” I imagine some Pharisees went away with cold hearts that day, not believing that a grace like that could exist. They were trained their whole lives to earn their way to God by religion. Maybe you don’t believe a grace like this could exist. I pray that you would not walk away with a cold heart, but would instead lean into Jesus and follow Him like Matthew did. You will never miss the booth.
I want to look at one more text in the book of Matthew to drive home the point. Jesus is after our hearts.
“Therefore, if you are offering your gift at the altar and there remember that your brother or sister has something against you, leave your gift there in front of the altar. First go and be reconciled to them; then come and offer your gift.” (Matthew 5:23-24)
Jesus is saying, yet again, “I am more worried about your heart than your gifts.” God would rather you leave your gift in front of the altar and allow Him to purify your heart, than for you to offer a gift to Him, trying to make up for your impure heart. Again, He is not looking for your sacrifices. God calls you before He cleans you up. So, today, let us drop our gifts at the altar. Let us quit trying to earn God’s love with effort. Let us, instead, follow Him without hindrance because of His love for us at the booth. He has come not to call the righteous, but sinners. He desires mercy, not sacrifice.