Learn From Matthew
Though Mark and Luke also record the call of Matthew only Matthew records Jesus commanding the Pharisees, "Go and learn what this means, I desire mercy, not sacrifice," and only Matthew later reports Jesus saying they failed to learn it. May we go to this account in Matthew and learn from him not only what they failed to but much more.
To begin with, may we learn from Matthew humility. Mark and Luke, in their accounts call Matthew Levi', his given name, which means "associate." Matthew never calls himself Levi but always Matthew. Matthew means "Gift of the Lord." Presumably this is the name Matthew adopted once Jesus found him and rescued him from his sins, from certain death, and the Devil's slavery. His new life was all gift from his Lord, so Matthew he is from now on.
Learn humility from how Matthew always refers to himself and from how he defines himself. When Matthew recounts Jesus officially naming the 12 apostles, he does it this way. "These are the names of the 12 apostles: first, Simon (who is called Peter) and his brother Andrew; James son of Zebedee, and his brother John; Philip and Bartholomew; Thomas and Matthew the tax collector; James son of Alphaeus, and Thaddaeus; Simon the Zealot and Judas Iscariot, who betrayed Him." The other Gospels when naming the 12 all note "Judas" as the one who betrayed Jesus, but only Matthew calls himself "the tax collector." Thereby Matthew makes a humble confession of the sinfulness of his earlier life and of the great mercy he had received.
Learn from Matthew to remember the sins you've been rescued from, and to forget the works you do. Luke in this account as he does with the rest of the apostles tells us Matthew left everything and followed Jesus. Matthew says this in regard to other disciples but not about himself. What he did was not worth mentioning. What Jesus did for a tax collector making him a gift of the Lord that's what Matthew remembered.
May God grant that we learn humility from Matthew to receive the gifts of the Lord and lead us, as he did Matthew, to sacrifice everything for the Lord: our name, our reputation, our position, our goods, fame, money, and life. However, and this is important, may we learn that this kind of sacrifice is only acceptable if it is based on God's mercy.
It is paganism to think our sacrificing appeases God. Not even the Old Testament sacrifices were offered because God was angry at sinners. That's what many think when they read for example in Genesis 8 that Noah sacrificed after coming out of the ark and "the Lord smelled the pleasing aroma" and promised as long as the earth remained never again to strike down every living thing. You think Noah's sacrifice made God not angry, and so God gave grace. This is what the pagan who throws maidens into volcanoes believes. This is what people with terminal illness believe when they promise to do this or that if only God heals them.
"O, so you're a Universalist. You don't believe God's angry at sins. You don't believe as Romans 1 says, "The wrath of God is (present tense) revealed against all ungodliness and unrighteousness of men." On the contrary, I do believe that. Those who think they can placate God's wrath by sacrificing goats, bulls, maidens, money, time, or talent are the ones not believing how eternally, how hellishly, how completely angry God is. God is angry enough to destroy the whole world and send it to hell forever. God is so angry that He doesn't know of that false distinction people always make, "O God hates the sin but loves the sinner." Yes, tell that to the billions of people He drowned in the flood. Tell the damned in hell how much God loves them just not their sins.
You who think the Old Testament sacrifices took away God's wrath are completely missing the rock-bottom depths of your sinfulness and the rock-solid certainty of your salvation. God is so angry at sinners that only God can satisfy Him. Only God can appease God; only God can placate God. The feeble efforts of a sinful man to keep His Law can't satisfy God. It took God in our flesh and blood to do that. The holy God isn't satisfied as we are with children who "do their best." No, when it comes to God's white-hot wrath only a perfect human life could put it out. And when it came to paying for sins, the blood of goats and bulls without blemish couldn't cover them, neither can ordinary human blood because it's tainted, ruined by sin. It took the blood of God shed on the cross to appease the wrath of God.
Sacrifices in the Old Testament were made to the God who promised to send the Seed of the Women to redeem sinners, who promised to atone for the sins of the world by His suffering Servant, who promised that by Him being crushed we would be healed. God desires to be merciful in Jesus' name not sacrifices to make Him not angry. God desires us to believe He is merciful, has put away His wrath for Jesus' sake, not that we need to do this or that so His wrath doesn't break out against us. When Noah made His sacrifice it was faith that God smelled and was pleased. "Without faith," says Hebrews, "it's impossible to please God."
You can't trust in God if you think He is angry at you, and you can't know apart from the works and suffering of Jesus that God isn't angry with you. But once you know that out come the tables, the food, the money, the time, the leaving of sin, self, the sacrificing. All this happens not to make God not angry with you but because in Jesus you know that He isn't.
Ah but you don't know that yet. Well, learn from Matthew that Jesus doesn't hold His nose at the Communion table when He eats with sinners. We confess to believe in our Formula of Concord that verse 12 of this text, "Those who are well have no need of a physician, but those who are sick" applies to the Lord's Supper (FC, SD, VII, 70). The Large Catechism as well says that you have not only the command to go to Communion and the promise of blessings there, but "Besides this you have your own distress which is around your neck. Because of your distress this command, invitation and promise are given. This ought to move you. For Christ Himself says, Those who are well have no need of a physician, but those who are sick'" (LC, V, 70, 71).
The Formula of Concord says these words of Jesus prove that communion was "ordained primarily for communicants" who are "timid, troubled Christians, weak in faith, who are heartily terrified because of their many and great sins, who consider themselves unworthy of this noble treasure... because of their great impurity, and who perceive their weakness in faith, deplore it, and heartily wish that they might serve God with a stronger and more cheerful faith and a purer obedience" (FC,SD,VII,69).
Learn from Matthew that Jesus doesn't hold His nose at the Communion table. Learn that He instituted this meal of His Body and Blood not for the self-righteous, not for those who think they can do without it, but for the unrighteous, those who know they are as we sing "false and full of sin." The Lord Jesus didn't give His Body and shed His Blood for healthy people who don't need to eat and drink it, who are fine and full without this life giving Medicine rich in grace. He gave His Body and shed His Blood on the cross to take away God's wrath forever, so He could put His Body and Blood on this altar for people sick with sin to eat and drink.
But hear me well. If you defend or excuse your sins, you are not the righteous but the self-righteous because you are saying, "I have a right to my sins." Likewise if you say what you're doing isn't sin, well then you're not sick with sin at all. You're healthy with it. In neither case are you terrified by your sins or feel your great distress. O you may in regard to another sin, but this pet one, this sin you don't think your guilty of and have a right to, you're not terrified of or in distress over. Who's afraid of or distressed by a pet? On the contrary, we're comforted by them.
Wait! Don't swing the other way. I'm not saying, "Wait till you get rid of your burden; then come." No, I am saying what we say in our Large Catechism, "If you are heavy laden and feel your weakness go joyfully to the Sacrament and receive refreshment, comfort, and strength. If you wait till you are rid of your burden in order to come to the Sacrament purely and worthily, you must stay away from it forever" (LC, V, 72-73).
If you see the poison of sin, death, and the Devil at work in you know the Large Catechism says you should regard and use this Sacrament "just like a precious antidote against the poison" (LC, V, 70, 71). If you see the Devil and sin at work in you then know death is too. Then see this Meal is the Medicine of Immortality. As death is at work in you because of sin, so immortality will be at work in you through the Body and Blood of Jesus. The Jesus who rose triumphant from the grave is stronger than Death. Again in the Large Catechism we confess, "[The Sacrament] will cure you and give you life both in soul and body. For where the soul has recovered, the body also is relieved" (LC, V, 68).
Learn from Matthew that though the text says literally Jesus was passing by He didn't pass Matthew by. Jesus didn't pass by the tax collector whom the church authorities believed was unrepentable and therefore unsaveable. No, Jesus called in grace and Matthew answered in faith and then they ate together.
Learn that this is your story too. Jesus called you by the Gospel whether by Words or by Words connected to water saying, "I've called you by name; you're Mine." Faith answered, "Yes, Lord; I am yours." And then, like Matthew, we invite Him to our table which is really His, and while the Lord Jesus comes to be our guest, it is He that feeds us not reluctantly but joyfully. Because His joy, His heart's desire is to have mercy on us, not to get something from us. Amen.
Rev. Paul R. Harris
Trinity Lutheran Church, Austin, Texas
Pentecost III (20080601); Matthew 9: 9-13