Dr. Charles Franklin DeVane, Jr., Pastor
Lake Hamilton Baptist Church
Hot Springs, Arkansas
May 4, 2014
As Jesus passed on from there, he saw a man called Matthew sitting at the tax booth, and he said to him, “Follow me.” And he rose and followed him. And as Jesus reclined at table in the house, behold, many tax collectors and sinners came and were reclining with Jesus and his disciples. And when the Pharisees saw this, they said to his disciples, “Why does your teacher eat with tax collectors and sinners?” But when he heard it, he said, “Those who are well have no need of a physician, but those who are sick. Go and learn what this means, ‘I desire mercy, and not sacrifice.’ For I came not to call the righteous, but sinners.”
— Matthew 9:9-13, ESV
There is usually one in every family, in every entourage of friends, in every senior class. He struggles in school, gets picked last for the team, and easily wins the award for the least likely to succeed. Often he turns our bad, because breaking bad seems to be the only way he can make money, get attention, or find a friend. He is the loser.
Among the first followers of Jesus Christ, this ignominious award would be bestowed upon Matthew, the very man who wrote this Gospel, the very one whose conversion is described in this passage. He was, of all things, a tax collector, which made him the biggest loser among first century Jews.
His life had begun with promise, signified by his given name, Levi, taken from the priestly patriarch of Israel. Perhaps his parents hoped he would grow up to be a priest, maybe a Sadducee or a Pharisee. But in his parents home, where the high school graduation portraits are hung, there is a faded outline of one taken down from the wall.
There is evidence to suggest he was given a fine and upstanding education in order to prepare him for success in life. He writes well and speaks multiple languages. His occupation requires a proclivity for mathematics, in which he no doubt excels. But he had squandered those good gifts by using them for bad purposes.
For the sake of the almighty dollar, Levi, also known as Matthew, had forsaken almighty God, his Jewish family, and all that was holy to become a rat for the Roman Empire. He probably bribed his way into the office, extorted money from people while in office, and was despised by most people who lived near his office. Matthew was, in the eyes of all who knew and didn’t love him, a loser. But the good news for Matthew is that God loves losers.
God Loves Losers
Jesus did not have to go to the tax booth that day. The Lord might have paid His federal taxes in Bethlehem, His state taxes in Nazareth, and probably had no taxable income to be excised in Capernaum. Therefore, there was no reason for Jesus to approach Matthew as he was “sitting at the tax booth,” except one: love.
Jesus chose to love Matthew, even though Matthew had chosen not to be loved in his community. Jesus loved Matthew, even though Matthew had sinned against God, Israel, the citizens of Capernaum, and even his own family. Jesus loved Matthew, enough to visit him and present the gospel to him, even though Matthew was a loser. Perhaps it could be better said, Jesus loved him and visited him with the gospel not in spite of, but because of, the fact that Matthew was a loser.
It seems that Jesus loves and chooses losers. Are you one?
God Saves Losers
Who or what can save a soul from death and eternal punishment? Jesus saves! And Jesus saves when the gospel is properly presented and then responded to, properly. In this biblical case, the proclamation of the gospel took two words and the proper response required none.
“Follow Me” is the gospel in two words. It could have been less. Christ could have just waved in a come on motion, or simply put his arm around Matthew’s shoulder and eased him into the Way. But I love what Jesus said, and said repeatedly in His ministry, for it displays the essence of the gospel in just a couple of words.
“Follow Me” is the call of an exclusive gospel. Jesus did not invite Matthew to follow Mohammed, Buddha, Confucius, or whatever way seemed right to him. Jesus called Matthew to follow Him who is “the way, the truth, and the life” (ref. John 14:6). There is no other way for a loser to win salvation other than the exclusive gospel of Jesus Christ.
“Follow Me” is the call to a personal relationship. Matthew must have been startled at first when the miracle-working Messiah spoke to him in this way. Though he had been a skeptic concerning the kingdom of God, he now was confronted by the King with an offer to be His friend, partner, comrade without arms. I think Jesus looked Matthew in the eye. I think He called Matthew by his name. I think Jesus looks at you, though you may be a loser, knows your name, and speaks these same two words to you.
“Follow Me” is the call to a corporate purpose. I would have liked to see the look on Simon Peter’s face when Jesus walked up to Matthew. I would have liked to see Matthew’s face when he looked into the faces of the Capernaum fishermen from whom he had levied heavy tax burdens. But Jesus calls losers into a community rife with other losers, so that those who have collectively lost their lives to Christ can win something, together, of much greater, eternal value.
Considering all the baggage that is packed into these two words, “Follow Me,” Matthew responded without a word. He simply “rose and followed [Jesus].” He was resurrected, by the power possessed only by the Lord. He repented, turning from tax collecting and extortion to matters in life that truly matter. He believed, in the person and work of Jesus Christ, and committed his life into His hands.
Salvation, by grace, happens in this way. Even though Jesus had yet to pay it all on the cross, our Lord still possessed the grace that could melt a heart of stone and make it new. Sovereign grace chose Matthew, irresistible grace made Matthew arise and follow Jesus, and amazing grace would lead Matthew all the way home.
Jesus saved Matthew by grace, because the grace of God saves losers. Are you one?
God Uses Losers to Reach Other Losers
Matthew was one, and he knew others, too — losers, that is. The first thing Matthew did after becoming a fully devoted follower of Jesus was to throw a big party and invite a bunch of fellow tax collectors and other assorted losers. The purpose, ostensibly, was for a good time and the good news — Jesus loves losers!
Since Jesus came to the dinner party, I think it is safe to say that God likes these kinds of occasions. At such an event there would have been a lot of food, wine, music, and probably a little dancing. This did not please the Pharisees nor the Baptists, of course, but Jesus was certainly pleased to be there.
Of course, if the Pharisees or Fundamentalists had made a disciple out of Matthew before Jesus did, the scene would have been much different. In fact, there would have been no scene at all. Matthew would have been commanded to cut off all his loser friends, pour out all his wine, burn his collection of vintage rock records, and never, ever dance. Because of the pious’ six degrees of separation, the losers of this world with whom Matthew used to associate would no longer see Matthew and they would have never met God.
God loves losers, God saves losers, and God knows that when losers get saved they are still losers who should still hang out with other losers and try to introduce them to Jesus Christ. Perhaps this will all make more sense if we discover the other name for loser.
God Has Another Name for Loser
Jesus speaks twice in this dialogue. Once He speaks with two words that need almost no elaboration. Next, He offers several words, including a recitation of Hosea 6:6, that require some interpretive thought.
Jesus said the “well,” those who engage in “sacrifice,” and “the righteous” do not need Him. Be assured, if you think you do not need Him, you will not get Him. The Pharisees, who had chimed in condemnation over the guest list at Jesus’ party, seem to be the target of Christ’s comments. While the so-called new perspective on Paul might exonerate these characters, the old perspective on Jesus does not. Clearly the Pharisees, winners in their own minds, did not think they needed Jesus. After all, Jesus is for losers. They were doing well in their own eyes, were zealously active in the worship of Jehovah, and were self-righteous in their religious standing with God, fully trusting in their own works rather than the grace and mercy of God. But while they lifted themselves up, Jesus, perfect even sarcasm, was putting them down.
Christ did the opposite with the losers. He put them down, honestly and lovingly, so He could lift them up. The losers are “sick” with sin. Because of it, the losers desperately need “mercy,” a word in Hosea that could better be translated as covenant love, a potent mixture of mercy and grace. They are the losers, and another word for losers is “sinners.”
Only sinners can become winners in the kingdom of God. Only sinners can be saved by the mercy and grace of Jesus Christ. Jesus is for losers! Are you a loser?
The number one song in world history was not written by Elvis, the Beatles, or Bob Dylan. It was written by a real loser by the name of John Newton. Perhaps you’ve heard of “Amazing Grace.” Newton was a social outcast raised by a single father who developed pathetic habits and made his fortune from kidnapping Africans, abusing them, then selling them as slaves. One day God called out to him, this time by the Spirit instead of the incarnate Son, and said, “Follow Me.” Newton became a beloved disciple, an outstanding pastor, and the writer of the world’s favorite song. Yet to his dying day, John Newton’s favorite saying was, “I am a great sinner, and Christ is a great Savior!”
I was raised by a single dad, too, developed terrible habits as a teenager, and required a total transformation that only the gospel can bring. I never delved into the slave trade, but I never wrote a song like “Amazing Grace,” either. I’m neither better nor worse, just the same kind of sinner as John Newton. I’m a loser, but I’ve lost all my sin to Christ’s cross. I am a great sinner, called to follow a great Savior.
So are you. Let us not look down our noses at the tax collectors, the racists, the drug addicts, or the gainfully unemployed as if they are the only losers in the world. We are all losers, and we lose every day. But God loves losers, also known as sinners, and sent His Son, Jesus Christ, into this world to save us. So let the two words that turn losers into winners ring in your ears and run your life: “Follow Me,” says the Lord.