Encountering Jesus’ decisions
Sermon by Wayne Matheson on 22 September 2019
Reading was Matthew 7:24-29
One day an obscure monk named Martin Luther stands before a very powerful tribunal that could excommunicate and perhaps kill him if he doesn’t renounce his idea of salvation – justification by faith alone. He says,
My conscience is captive to the Word of God. Here I stand. I cannot do otherwise.
Five hundred years later you and I are here partly as a result of that one decision. I believe that outside of God, the greatest and most remarkable power in this universe is the power of decision. The power of being to choose to affect eternal destiny is a unique reflection of the image of God, and you have this power right now. Every day marriages are made or broken. Children are loved or neglected. People’s character gets strengthened or shipwrecked. Destinies are carved out – all because of this power of decision that God has given to humans.
Nobody understood this better than Jesus. Jesus never simply gives out information for the sake of giving out information. One of the great illusions of the church in our day is that information alone can produce spiritual maturity. If we want to create spiritually mature people pump them full of more information.
Jesus relentlessly presses people to make a decision based on his teaching. That decision is to be connected to action – often-costly action.
“Do you want to be healed? Stretch out your hand.”
“Pray and don’t give up.”
“Go and sell all you have. Decide, act, and then come and be my disciple.”
“I’ve set you an example. You also are to wash one another’s feet.”
“Peter, come to me on the water.”
“Go and sin no more.”
Above all Jesus says,
Follow me, follow me, follow me.
Nobody ever went away from an encounter with Jesus saying, “That was a good talk.” Always with Jesus people have to face the question: Will you choose? Will you act? Will you decide? Will you obey? Will you submit? Will you follow?
Kings, beggars, judges or lepers, it didn’t matter. Jesus takes every human being’s choice with unbelievable seriousness. When human beings encounter Jesus, it is decision time. Know this: Jesus is still in the decision business. He is going to ask us to make the decisions of our life in light of the one great decision to follow him no matter what. Today will look at brief encounter that one individual has with Jesus – Matthew.
Matthew’s life revolves around two decisions. The first was made long before this story. According to an old saying there are only two things in this life that are certain. Death and taxes. Tax collectors have never been popular people through the history of the world.
In Israel, tax collectors were in a whole other category. Israel was occupied by Rome, and Rome was primarily interested in how much money it could wring out of occupied countries. So instead of having Rome collect taxes, they would have natives of each of those countries do it. In this case, they’d get Israelites to do it. The way it worked was they would allow Israelites to bid for the right to be a tax collector for a particular area. For example, somebody might say, “I’ll bring in five million dollars for Wellington,” and they would get the job. That person could collect as much in taxes as he could get away with. Anything he could get away with that he could collect, and he had to give to Rome what he had bid. Everything else he got to keep.
It was assumed that tax collectors were guilty of massive dishonesty because that was the case. There was a saying, “For tax collectors’ repentance is hard,” because tax collectors had cheated so many people, they wouldn’t even know who to go back and make amends to because the list was too long. One Roman writer wrote about a town that erected a statue to an honest tax collector because corruption among tax collectors was so common.
Tax collectors in Israel were despised not just as corrupt but as traitors who had sold out their brothers and sisters to their enemy, Rome, for profit. They were deprived of political and civil rights. Tax collectors couldn’t serve as a witness in the courts. They were not allowed to serve as judges. A devout Israelite would not let a tax collector touch the hem of his robe.
Matthew has betrayed his people, corrupted his morals, and is sitting at a tax booth trying to rip off travellers, and he would have lived and died right there. Except one day, Jesus, stops at his toll booth. Apparently, Matthew has heard Jesus teach before about a God who extends grace to tax collectors. Jesus gives a very short talk:
Matthew does not now need more information. He doesn’t need another illustration of forgiveness or further explanation about grace. He needs to decide what he is going to do. There comes a point where information must be acted upon. If you don’t, if you keep on accumulating more information without responding to it, without taking action based on it, if you just keep piling it in without responding to it, you will get inoculated against it. Your heart gets hardened to it. Matthew sits there. Here is whatever financial security that he could accumulate because nobody else is going to hire him. The only people who will accept him are other tax collectors or other sinners equally disreputable. His future, his faith, his destiny, his eternity hangs on what happens next. This is his moment. He stands and walks around his booth. He looks this man from Nazareth in the eye and says,
Let’s go. I want to be with you. I’ve decided.
I want us to understand what this decision involves for him. I want to read Matthew 9:9 again and then look at the passage of the same story in Luke. There is a two-word phrase that is in Luke but not Matthew.
As Jesus went on from there, he saw a man named Matthew sitting at the tax collector’s booth. ‘Follow me,’ he told him, and Matthew got up and followed him. (Matthew 9:9)
Jesus went out and saw a tax collector by the name of Levi”- the same person – “sitting at his tax booth. ‘Follow me,’ Jesus said to him, and Levi got up, left everything and followed him. (Luke 5:27)
What is the phrase? He “left everything.” Matthew had money, possessions, financial security. This decision cost Matthew more than it does any other disciple. Matthew is the only one that has the one-verse parable; Jesus said,
A man finds a treasure in a field, and in his great joy he sells everything that he has and buys the field so he can possess the treasure.
Anytime somebody sees how good it is, this life that Jesus offers, anytime somebody really gets it – they realise they get to be a part of that life. Anything they have to give up to be a part of that life they do it with joy because of how surely good life in this kingdom is. I think Matthew paid the highest price of any disciple. The rest of them, the fishermen, all could have gone back to fishing if they needed to, if things with Jesus didn’t work out. Matthew could never return to his old profession. That door was closed.
When somebody encounters Jesus, it is decision time. That decision will involve action that is very powerful, and I want us to see this is not just true for Matthew. This is Jesus’ whole ministry.
Jesus tells a story about the power of decisions. The more that I study this parable, the more I am struck by how absolutely brilliant it is in its insight to human nature and human destiny. This comes at the end of the Sermon on the Mount. Now some people think the Sermon on the Mount is a list of rules of moral principles or a list of ethical guidelines and it looks a little foreboding. That is not what Jesus is primarily speaking about.
The crowds gathered yet they had heard talks on rules before.
When Jesus speaks – it stops people in their tracks. Matthew summarises Jesus’ whole message, From that time on, Jesus began to preach,
Repent, the kingdom of heaven has come near (Matthew 4:17)
and then in verse 23,
Jesus went through Galilee, teaching in their synagogues, proclaiming the good news.
When you think about the Gospel and ask, what is the gospel that Jesus had to preach, it was the gospel of Good News of the Kingdom of Heaven, and that it has come near. This process has begun. The Kingdom is not here in its fullness yet. There are other kingdoms that defy it, complete with it.
Jesus is saying all this information comes down to decision. There is something very universal about this story. It strikes at something deep about human nature. Some of you may know there is another story very similar to this. See if you can guess which story it is. In this story, every character builds a house and every house faces a test. If the house is built wisely it endures, if it is built foolishly it collapses.
Anybody want to guess? The Three Pigs. Every pig builds a house. One uses straw, one sticks, one bricks, but they all build. Every pig faces the wolf. They all hear the same knock,”Little pig, little pig, let me come in.” They all respond, “Not by the hair of my chinny, chin, chin.” In this story whether the house survives, or collapses depends on the wisdom with which it was built.
Jesus says everybody builds a house. Another way of saying this would be to say everybody constructs a life. Like it or not, wisely or foolishly, you are constructing a life. You are building your house. The way that you do it is by making choices. You alone can do this, and you cannot avoid doing this.
Many people don’t want to face this truth, because it feels like a burden to them. They want to let somebody else, a parent or a spouse or a boss make these choices. Sometimes very authoritarian churches thrive because people want somebody else to take responsibility for making choices for them.
Sometimes people get tired of choosing. In our day we face what experts call “choice overload,” because we are inundated with the need to make decisions. When we are indecisive, when you put off making decisions, those too become part of your house. The choice we never make, the conversation we never have, that too becomes part of your house.
You are building your house. You cannot avoid this. People don’t drift into deep and vital prayer. People don’t drift into generosity of spirit. People don’t drift into deep community. People don’t drift into evangelistic passion. People don’t drift into discipleship. Jesus never expected that they would. That is why he always pressed for decision.
Jesus says everybody faces the storm. The big, bad wolf comes to every little piggy’s door. We have a way of thinking that circumstances make our lives and that our lives would be good if we could construct them where there are no storms. You cannot choose your storms. This is a deep truth of life. They will come. Circumstances do not make our lives. They do not build our houses. They do not create our souls. The ultimate storm Jesus is talking about in this parable is the judgment of God, which will come one day to every house. God will not judge you for the circumstances of your life, but for the decisions of your life. Storms reveal what the foundation is.
Everybody decides what they are going to build their life on. This foundational commitment is actually basing all our other choices. Not just in theory, but in actuality. We all must build our houses on something. What are our choices based on really?
Jesus shows his brilliance when he assesses the problem of the man who built on sand. He doesn’t say that the man was deliberately wicked or intentionally twisted. What adjective does he use to describe the man who built the man on sand?
You understand this. Whenever children do something foolish, their parents will often try to lead them on a decision evaluation exercise. Parents will ask a question, always the same question. My parents asked it of me, I’ve asked it of my children. One word, three letters – “Why?” “Why did you leave your bike under my car?” “Why did you have a contest to see who could stick the spaghetti noodle farthest up your brother’s nose? Why?” The answer is always the same, three words, “I don’t know.” Of course, they don’t know. If they were doing things for reasons, they wouldn’t have done such stupid things in the first place. If you were to ask the foolish man, “Foolish man, why did you build your house on the sand?” what do you think he would say? “I don’t know. It seemed like a good idea at the time. It just happened.”
Nobody sets out to build a house on the sand. No architect says, “One good storm will wash this house away. Let’s put it here.” It just happens. If you were to ask Matthew, “How did you become a tax collector?” what do you think he would say? “I don’t know.” No child says, “I think I’ll become corrupt and deceitful when I grow up. I’ll choose rejection and humiliation from all the people I love the most. I’ll make sure the only people who hang out with me will be the kind that drag me down morally and spiritually. I’ll make sure I’ll sear my conscience and cut myself off from God and his people. I’ll sign up for a life of loneliness and self-loathing.” Nobody chooses that. Matthew made easy choices when the hard ones would have cost too much. He got hardened to the suffering of his own people until it didn’t pierce his heart anymore.
The Sermon on the Mount back in chapter 5 starts with these words,
Now when he saw the crowds, he went up the mountainside…His disciples came to him and he began to teach them
and at the end of the sermon we heard,
The crowds were amazed at his teaching because he taught as one who had authority and not as their teachers of the law.
That last statement has a precise meaning. The crowd is not saying ‘He is a good teacher and really knows his stuff.’ Jesus is claiming something no other teacher or rabbi would claim. Did you hear it in the reading?
There is a rabbinic saying from the time of Jesus attributed to a rabbi named Nathaniel. It says,
Whoever studies Torah and does good works may be likened to one who lays a foundation of stone and bricks that raising water cannot overturn.
Sound familiar? Did you spot the difference? Not whoever hears Torah and does it, but whoever hears these words of mine. The coming of the kingdom has begun.
Jesus comes to tax collectors and sand builders and foolish little piggies, and says,
You can choose again. You can choose wiser. You can choose deeper. I’ll forgive you. I’ll teach you. I’ll guide you. I’ll go with you. I’ll partner with you, and I will give you power.
He will do that for you. Who knows what might change? He will not do one thing for you. He will not choose for you. That you must do on your own. Jesus himself will not do that for you.
Jesus and his kingdom are right here, and there are worlds of possibility open to us as there were to Matthew. That might shape us, feed our mind that might cause us to think new thoughts, how we spend this precious gift of time, how we make our life a gift of God. You – and I – we must choose. Then invitation is to encounter Jesus; to hear his words, “Follow me” and to decide…