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The Calling of Matthew

Fall 2006
PAGES 5, 6
[original publication]

When most people speak publicly about themselves, there are two things you can usually count on. First, people tend to have a lot to say about themselves. Second, they have generally good things to say. You never hear politicians, for example, herald their mistakes or any misconduct. Doctors hang their diplomas or licenses on the wall, not malpractice lawsuits they may have lost. Some public speakers are self-deprecating, but usually as an attempt at humor in a self-serving way of feigning humility. The truth is that few of us want to publicly expose our failings and weaknesses. We want others to think well of us, and we usually judge that putting ourselves in the best possible light contributes to that end. Sometimes we may even stretch the truth a bit to make ourselves look better.

In the ninth chapter of Matthew, the author writes himself into his gospel. Bucking the natural tendencies, he doesn't waste very much ink on himself, and also doesn't present himself in a very flattering light. He isn't even neutral; he makes himself look bad. Yet he does so without any hint of the kind of self-deprecation that is often used to make one seem humble. He simply states the truth about his calling. Apparently Matthew didn't receive the kind of popular parenting that promotes self-esteem. When his father watched him strike out three times in Little League, he probably didn't criticize the umpire. Matthew tells us he was sitting at the tax collector's booth when Jesus passed by and said to him, "Follow me," and so he got up and did just that. Together they went to Matthew's house and had dinner, the setting and meal provided by the excess taxes he was able to collect from his fellow Jews because he had Roman backing. Matthew invited his friends, other tax collectors and sinners—all persons ostracized from the Jewish religious community. The Pharisees found this setting and these diners objectionable. They correctly presumed that an orthodox rabbi (the sort they approved of and didn't consider Jesus), would not enter a tax collector's house or eat with such people.

Matthew could have put a better face on all this. He could have said that while he was a tax collector, he was one of the more honest ones. He could have said that his friends were really good people who were unfairly counted as sinners by the Pharisees. He could have described the generous table he set for Jesus and all the other guests. Matthew didn't have to take it on the chin; there are ways an author can weave words to slip the punch. But he doesn't use any of them. He leaves us to believe that Jesus called him to follow for no apparent reason, and then tells us that Jesus referred to him and his buddies as sick sinners.

Jesus explained his hanging out with Matthew by saying, "It is not the healthy who need a doctor, but the sick .... For I have not come to call the righteous, but sinners." So Matthew writes himself into the gospel, not only admitting that he was a tax collector who associated with sinners, but that Jesus himself described him and his dinner guests as sick, in need of a doctor. Paralleling this with Jesus calling them "sinners" (as opposed to righteous), it's clear that the sickness was spiritual. The Pharisees no doubt agreed with this assessment. They too called Matthew and his friends "sinners."

It's possible to read Jesus' response to the pharisees as a compliment to them, as if they really were on the right track and had no need of Jesus' help. Reading that way means there are two groups of people, those who are sinners and in need of Jesus and the salvation he offers, and those who are doing all right without Jesus and don't really need any other help to be righteous before God. Jesus helps the first group, like a medic attending to the wounded, and ignores the rest who are doing well enough on their own.

The sinners need the righteousness of Jesus, but the Pharisees had a righteousness of their own. But surely this is the wrong way to understand Jesus. The Pharisees weren't righteous by keeping the Jewish law. Paul (when he was Saul) was a scrupulous Pharisee, "a pharisee of Pharisees," yet he writes, "Christ Jesus came into the world to save sinners—of whom I am the worst." Paul did not think being a law-keeping Pharisee helped him become righteous before God. "I do not set aside the grace of God, for if righteousness could be gained through the law, Christ died for nothing."

In Paul's teaching it is clear that Jesus did not mean the Pharisees had no need of him. It wasn't that the Pharisees were actually righteous, but that they only thought they were righteous. As a result they failed to see their need of Jesus and the righteousness he offered. Everyone has the sin sickness, but only those who realize their condition and come to the Physician will receive the life-saving treatment. The rest will die in their sins.

So the people who come out the worst in all this are those who don't think they need any help from Jesus. The Pharisees, by following strict religious rules, came to the conclusion that they were righteous— clearly more righteous than the sinners with whom Jesus was associating.

We are sometimes like the Pharisees. When we compare ourselves to others, we think we look pretty good. We follow the rules better than many. After all, we aren't like those we see being arrested for drug dealing or murder or fraud. We may not be perfect, but we certainly aren't as bad as some people.

Comparing ourselves to others is only one way of coming to the view that we don't need Jesus, or that we don't need him very much. Another way of coming to this view seems to stem from years of having a positive self image reinforced. I once asked a young man who was making his profession of faith whether apart from Christ he was dead in his sins. After some moments of reflection he responded honestly, "I am wounded by my sin, not dead in them." Jesus was his friend, he said, less so his Savior. This self diagnosis is not unusual today. It is the Pharisee's error, and it can be fatal. If you are not a sinner—or not a very bad sinner—then you don't deserve death, you don't deserve to go to hell, and Jesus did not need to die for you.

The Heidelberg Catechism says that there are three things you must know to live and die in the comfort of the gospel, and the first is that you must know how great your sin and misery are. Today we are in danger of losing our joy because we don't see ourselves as great sinners. Not knowing that, we don't see our desperate need of a Savior, and we are not that grateful to God for our salvation through Christ. Is it not true that many of the good deeds we do are more of an effort to shore up our positive self images than a response to God's grace shown to us wicked sinners?

The difference between people that really matters to God is not the difference the Pharisees noted or that we often do—how good a person is in contrast to others or to her level of self-esteem. The difference that matters in spiritual affairs is not a difference that we can note at all, for it is not visible to us. It has to do with a person's deepest conviction about himself. The question we must ask ourselves is this: Am I a sinner who deserves the death that Jesus died? Matthew understood that he needed Jesus. He needed a Savior because he knew the kind of person he was.

I could tell you not to be fooled by your own efforts to be good. I could tell you not to be fooled by the good opinion others may have of you. I could tell you to examine your own heart of darkness. But that will not bring about the conviction that matters. The text of the song "Amazing Grace" has it right: ". . . 'twas grace that taught my heart to fear, and grace my fears relieved." The only way we can come to the conviction about ourselves that leads us to the cross of Jesus is by the work of the Holy Spirit creating in us that godly sorrow for sin that is a prerequisite to true joy. When that occurs, the grace of God in Jesus Christ liberates us from the terrible burden of being self-righteous, and we can live in the abundance of what God has done and continues to do for us.

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