When the UK government introduced self-assessment for certain taxpayers they used a cute looking cartoon figure of a tax inspector called Hector to inform the public about the changes to the system. Hector appeared in television and newspaper adverts, resplendent in his bowler hat and pinstripe trousers. The government used Hector to give a message to the citizens of the United Kingdom: “Submit your returns and pay your taxes on time or face a financial penalty!” Not such a pleasant fellow after all perhaps?
Tax collectors in the Roman occupied Holy Land were not known to be either pleasant or honest. Matthew probably did not wear a bowler hat as he sat at his tax collector’s booth, but everyone knew who he was and what he was. Then one day Jesus walked up to the booth with a one-line challenge: “Follow Me and be My disciple.” Why would Matthew give up his comfortable life for one of extreme uncertainty just because of Jesus? Perhaps because Matthew recognised that he had a choice, and a chance to change.
In fact, Matthew was so overwhelmed by the need for change in his life that he invited Jesus and His growing band of disciples to his home to share a meal with a bunch of other tax collectors. The Pharisees referred to these people as scum. Scum is an unpleasant word, and one that we use too often and too easily in our world. Jesus made His displeasure known, pointing out to the Pharisees that He could only reach people who recognised their unworthiness and need. Jesus then gave the Pharisees a piece of homework; “Now go and learn the meaning of this Scripture: ‘I want you to show mercy, not sacrifices’ for I have come to call not those who think that they are righteous, but those who know they are sinners” (Matthew 9:13 NLT). The Scripture Jesus quoted is Hosea 6:6. In the KJV this verse reads: ‘For I desired mercy, and not sacrifice; and the knowledge of God more than burnt offerings.’
In a nutshell Jesus is telling us three things. First we need to recognise our need. If we think we have it all together, know everything, and need nothing, then He can do nothing for us. Second we need to know God. Jesus gives us this opportunity. Even though we can’t walk alongside Him the way that the disciples did, or be part of the crowds who heard Him speak, Scripture brings Jesus to life in an incredible and challenging way. Lastly, we need to channel our efforts into following the example set by Jesus – exhibiting mercy and compassion. To do these three things we have to spend time with Jesus. Just like the disciples. We have to listen to Jesus, and we have to learn from Jesus. He is calling us to follow Him. The question is do we recognise our need like Matthew the tax collector did, or is our attitude more like that of the Pharisees?