Saints and sinners sitting at the same table.

Saints and sinners sitting at the same table.
Photo by Zach Reiner / Unsplash
As Jesus went on from there, He saw a man called Matthew sitting in the tax collector’s office; and He said to him, “Follow Me!” And he got up and followed Him. - Matthew 9:9

The scene is set, and the moment is tense

Who is a tax collector? 

  • The greed of the embezzler.
  • The cowardice of the drive-by killer.
  • The counterfeit of the televangelist. 
  • The morality of the pimp.
  • The audacity of the terrorist.
  • The ethics of the dealer.

Enter a first-century tax collector. 

Caesar permitted these guys to tax freely as long as Caesar got his due. And boy, did they tax freely:

  • The boat you're on.
  • The fish you catch.
  • The water you work with.
  • The crops you grow.
  • The house you live in. 

And Matthew (our scene's tax collector) wasn't hiding anything. He was a public tax collector. He showcased his greed, and people hated him for it. 

Everyone except Jesus. 

"Follow me." 

Matthew must have been ripe. It took Jesus half a breath and two words to convince a crooked man to accept such a radical invitation. 

Was Matthew tired of being rejected? Did he have everything the world had to offer and still feel empty? Did curiosity overtake him? Was he looking for something more? 

I don't know why Matthew took a chance on Jesus, but I know what the reaction on both sides of the booth would have been: this guy?

I imagine Matthew loading up the cardboard box in the office with his office plant and coffee mugs stacked neatly inside, telling his co-workers he'd been. .been transferred. They wouldn't understand the Jesus following thing.

Then I imagine the jaws of Jesus' other disciples hitting the dirt road when Jesus extends the same invitation to Matthew that he had to them. Are you kidding?! Jesus, you couldn't possibly be grouping us with this scumbag.

The tables we sit. 

Believe it or not, I don't even find this to be the most radical moment of this scene. That comes later in Matthew and Jesus' first real conversation with one another. 

Maybe Matthew still has his cardboard box tucked under his arm, or perhaps Jesus is sitting with him for a meal. 

Matthew shares his problem, "It's my buddies. You know, the guys."

"What about them?" Jesus asks.

"Well, we kind of run in the same circles. I'm gonna miss them. James, John, and Peter are all cool, but they are Sunday morning guys. Not really my crowd. My bud Jim talks a lot of smack, but he's always got my back. And my gym buddy Bruce is huge, but I've never had a better friend." He pauses, wondering if this has all been a big mistake. 

"So, what's the problem?"

"I'm just going to miss them."

Jesus smiles, "Oh, Matthew. You are not understanding. I'm not here to quarantine you. Following me is not about forgetting your friends. In fact, I want to meet them."

"Are you serious? These guys are not good guys. Half of them are on parole. I'm pretty sure Josh is dealing on the side, and Andy doesn't own a shirt without a beer brand on it." 

"I'm not inviting them to church, Matthew. Let's have dinner. At your place." 

And Levi gave a big reception for Him in his house; and there was a large crowd of tax collectors and other people who were reclining at the table with them. - Luke 5:29

Quite a story. 

Matthew goes from a dealer to a disciple. He throws a party that makes the religious folk pissed, but Christ proud. The bad guy looks good; the good guys are actually bad. 

Quite a story. 

What do we do with a story like this?

The Good & Beautiful Project

This is part of a larger project. I am spending time with the cast of characters in the Bible to determine what made their lives good and beautiful. Last week, we spent time with Joseph, and this week, we are spending time with Matthew. 

Obviously, I am taking some liberties. Matthew is not here to tell us what was good and beautiful in his life. 

So, I am filtering what we do know about these characters through a three-pillar framework: coherence, purpose, and significance. A good and beautiful life is associated with the feeling that your life has a story (coherence), a story that is going somewhere (purpose), and a story that has cosmic, existential significance (significance).

Was Matthew's Life Good & Beautiful?

I have been studying with a guy who reminds me of Matthew.

He's a little rough around the edges and doesn't care what people think. He hangs with a rough crowd and fits right in. 

I've been praying for God to help me meet more unbelievers. God answered.

I was bold enough to ask this guy if he wanted to study the Bible together. To my surprise, he said yes. We have been studying for about four weeks at this writing. 

I asked him recently if there was someone in his circles he'd like to share Jesus with one day. He said yes

Last week, I entered a room with six of his friends. We talked and laughed, and one of them, at the time of this writing, will be joining our Bible study in two days. 

Incredible story, huh? 

Well, get ready to check out and check off. It's a great-sounding story when you leave out the grimy details. Jesus doesn't leave those details out of his story, so I won't mine, either. 

All of these interactions have been in a bar

I think Matthew lived a good and beautiful life because he knew Jesus, not as a man who forced him to sit at his table but as a man who was willing to sit at Matthew's table (with Matthew's friends) first. 

My guy's friends objected at first, "Do you know what those people teach?" they contested. 

"Here is what I know," he told them. "He met me in a bar." 

The Significance 

Religious people tend to believe we are the only ones who want to be a part of a story with cosmic, existential significance. We quickly saddle our high horse and run over anyone in our way. 

People in the world are looking for the same significance we are seeking. 

  • This is why Matthew quickly said yes to Jesus. 
  • This is why a guy completely unlike me said yes to my invitation. 
  • This is why his friends said yes to inviting me around their beer-littered table. 
  • This is why one of his friends said yes to joining us to study God's Word. 

You don't have to be weird to live a good and beautiful life. You don't have to stop liking your worldly friends. Just the opposite. 

A good and beautiful life is found when you look up and find yourself surrounded by ungodly people, and Jesus is there smiling with you.

For Reflection

  1. What's good about having saints and sinners sitting at the same table?
  2. Why do religious people often think we are the only ones who care about existential significance?
  3. Which side of the booth is it for you?