Suzanne Nicholson, Associate Professor of Biblical Studies at Malone University, Canton, OH
A key Scripture for church renewal, Matt. 9:9–13, doesn’t take place in any kind of “church” setting—no Temple, no synagogue, no sit-at-Jesus’-feet kind of atmosphere. The calling of Matthew occurs during the normal, everyday activities of first-century Jewish life:
9 As Jesus was walking along, he saw a man called Matthew sitting at the tax booth; and he said to him, ‘Follow me.’ And he got up and followed him. 10 And as he sat at dinner in the house, many tax-collectors and sinners came and were sitting with him and his disciples. 11 When the Pharisees saw this, they said to his disciples, ‘Why does your teacher eat with tax-collectors and sinners?’12 But when he heard this, he said, ‘Those who are well have no need of a physician, but those who are sick. 13 Go and learn what this means, “I desire mercy, not sacrifice.” For I have come to call not the righteous but sinners.’
Note how the story starts. Jesus was simply strolling along the road or through the local marketplace, but he didn’t allow the ordinary activities of life to distract him from his overarching mission. Nor did he wait until he was in a properly religious setting like the Temple to offer his invitation. For Jesus, the activities of ordinary life were the places where he engaged in his mission. Today we sometimes make the mistake of thinking that church only occurs behind stained glass windows while sitting on wooden pews. If we think of our mission like Jesus did, then we need to reach out to people where they are at in their everyday lives, whether in the supermarket, the local YMCA, or a coffee shop.
The next development may seem mundane, but it is really quite profound. When Jesus walked by Matthew, he was encountering a very unpopular man, one of the socially ostracized in society despite his likely wealth. In Jewish society in the first century, a Jewish tax collector was considered akin to a traitor, taking money from his Jewish brethren in order to hand it over to local kings or the foreign overlord, Rome, as well as to line his own pockets. A tax collector was someone you wanted to avoid, not someone you wanted to seek out! But Jesus did not look past Matthew or turn up his nose in disdain or pretend he wasn’t there; rather, Jesus saw this unpopular man and nonetheless invited him into relationship.
Matthew responded in kind by following Jesus and inviting him to dinner. In the ancient Near East, the hospitality of table fellowship was a significant act, implying acceptance and close relationship. This was not simply a quick meal at a fast food restaurant. Jesus was establishing a strong bond with Matthew and his friends. No wonder the Pharisees were shocked that Jesus and his disciples would eat with tax collectors and sinners!
The interchange between Jesus and Matthew reminds us that church is about more than listening to a sermon or singing a few hymns; rather, being the church means making a commitment to be a part of the lives of those who participate with us. Our common bond should never be based on social status or wealth or race or gender or age; rather, our common bond is based on our faith in Christ. This bond means that we welcome people from all walks of life into our lives, our Bible studies and our backyard barbecues.
Matthew’s story concludes with Jesus responding to the Pharisees, a group that in general was quite well-respected as good moral examples; they were the movers and shakers of the religious community. Despite their popularity (the crowds likely would have affirmed the Pharisees’ disdain for associating with “sinners”), Jesus was not afraid of their criticism or their skewed interpretations of God’s commands. His response makes it clear that he identified himself as one who was sent to heal, and that meant he needed to be with those who recognized their own brokenness.
Church renewal begins outside the physical church building when we engage others in their everyday lives. But it involves more than simply an invitation; the church will grow and strengthen as we commit ourselves to being in relationship with one another, especially those who come from a different background than our own. Most importantly, our attitudes must be founded in and energized by a right understanding of Scripture, an understanding which reflects an attitude of mercy toward those who need it most.