If Jack Welch had been managing Jesus’ ministry campaign, things would have been totally different. You know who Jack Welch is, don’t you? Well, just in case, I’ll introduce you. The former CEO of General Electric and author of the book, Straight From the Gut, he is known in the business world as a savvy leader who travels by means of helicopter and dishes out advice at every turn.
“You can’t grow long-term if you can’t eat short-term,” is just one of his pithy little insights into corporate life. That means, I think, that you’ve got to be willing to suffer small losses in order to make big gains. And Jack Welch is a big-gains kind of guy. He’s all about the art of the deal, turning things to his advantage, and making things grow. If you’ve got stock in GE, you appreciate his business leadership, even if you might resent the helicopter.
Though there is a church-management book on the market that would have us think otherwise, Jesus probably would not have made a good corporate CEO… for a lot of reasons. One is that he simply schmoozed with the wrong people. CEO’s generally run around with other CEO’s. Not Jesus. He spent time with the unsavory element in his world.
We find it in the ninth chapter of Matthew’s gospel where Jesus is accused by the Pharisees of eating “with tax collectors and sinners.”
By the time we get to this point in Jesus’ ministry, things are already beginning to go downhill… downhill, that is, if you look at his ministry from a corporate/Jack Welch point of view. If Jesus had truly wanted to be successful, he would have developed a strategy for currying favor with the big boys, the religious leadership in Jerusalem. Instead, he spends time with the worst element of society in his day, the tax collectors and sinners.
Matthew tells us simply that Jesus was “walking along.” Yes, but where? Is that important, to know where Jesus was walking? It is if you want to get the picture in your mind of what is really going on. Earlier, we are told he has come from the land of the Gadarenes, on the other side of the Sea of Galilee, and has now returned to his own town. That would be Capernaum, the fishing village where he has established his headquarters. Capernaum is situated on the border between two territories. One territory is under the jurisdiction of Herod Antipas, the other is led by Herod’s half-brother Philip.
Now let me ask you: what happens on borders such as this? Cross from the United States into Canada or Mexico and you’ll find out. Border guards check customs and charge duty on items taken from one territory to the other. So the road on which Jesus is walking is just running over with IRS-type agents… people like Matthew, for instance.
Matthew has his tax booth all set up. His calculator is on one side of his desk and his money box is on the other. He keeps his pencils sharp so he can give his “clients” a receipt for the taxes they pay. Matthew is the consummate business man, a private contractor – his own CEO – in league with the governmental authorities, and if he’s a typical tax collector he has learned how to milk the system for a little extra and keep sufficient funds for himself in order to support a nice, comfortable lifestyle.
That’s the way the system works. Everybody knows it, and that is why everybody hates people like Matthew. But people like Matthew don’t mind being disliked. To their way of thinking, money makes up for a lot of problems.
So, Jesus is “walking along.” He goes over to Matthew, takes a look at the coins in Matthew’s hands, sees his ledger and other tax-collecting paraphernalia, and sizes up the situation. That’s one of Jesus’ strengths, of course, being able to perceive things quickly. But frankly, you didn’t have to be Jesus to see what’s going on. Matthew is a tax collector, hated by his fellow countrymen, and looked down upon with scorn by the Romans who have hired him. Matthew is scum. Matthew is unfit. Matthew is a sinner.
Anybody with eyes could see that.
Right then and there Jesus points his finger at Matthew and says, “Follow me.” That’s it, or at least that’s all we are told in the gospel that bears Matthew’s name. “Follow me.” Amazingly, not only does Matthew follow Jesus, leaving his tax booth and all his tax-gathering stuff, he invites the Galilean to his home for dinner that night and calls for all his unsavory colleagues to join them.
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Now, realize what’s going on here. Matthew doesn’t run around with the in-crowd. His picture is never going to grace “High Profiles.” This little party won’t be featured in Soire. Since he is a hated tax collector, he can find honor only among those who share his profession, or other professions just as despicable, and it is most likely that even they don’t trust each other either. They just keep company because they’re the only ones who will have anything to do with one another. So Jesus finds himself, by his own invitation and initiative, surrounded by these kinds of folk.
If you are trying to make inroads into the religious system of that day, you don’t do it by keeping company with these people. You follow the rules, you keep your nose clean and your shoes shined. You wear the right clothes, say the right things, make the right moves… that is, you do these things if you want to move up in the company.
What does that mean? It means that by the time we get to the ninth chapter of Matthew’s gospel, Jesus is already in trouble and we’ve still got nineteen chapters to go. He’s not following the rules, and the people who keep the rules are noticing. The leaders in Jerusalem have not – well, at least not yet – taken issue with Jesus’ theology or biblical views. As far as they know, when it comes to the Bible, he’s as orthodox as they come.
What they don’t like is that he is spending time with sinners.
It really is true that we all want grace for ourselves, but we’re not so willing to allow it for others, especially if they are different from us. It was true of the religious folk in Jesus’ day, and it’s true even now. But if I understand this story correctly, there is none of us any better than anyone else. We are all in the same boat, and all the passengers have tickets marked “sinner”. In other words, God loves everybody, whether they go to church or not, whether they behave the way we do or not.
A man tells of accompanying his wife, an attorney, to bankruptcy court. He was taken aback when the judge entered the courtroom. It is customary, of course, for everybody to stand, but in this case it caught him off-guard because the bailiff cried out, “All debtors rise!”
Is that not what we do every time we come to church? In fact, as William Willimon point out, it ought to be our call to worship. “All debtors rise!”
We, you and I, are living in the red,1 indebted to a God who wipes our ledgers clean every time we ask God to forgive us our debts. We would think that such indebtedness would disqualify us as being unfit to follow Jesus. But we would be wrong, and we have this story, and the one that follows it, to show for it.
Jesus calls to be his disciples people who, by all considerations, appear to be completely unequipped or unqualified to hold such responsibilities. What does that mean? It means that following Jesus has to do with his grace toward us, not our ability to get the job done. Jesus has the full authority of heaven in his very bones, but he chooses not to use it to judge us. He chooses to use such authority to bless us, to offer compassion and grace to us. But then, we are judged if we do not accept his grace.
As has already been pointed out to you, the theme of Vacation Bible School next week is the Lord’s Prayer. Right smack dab in the middle of the prayer – remember, the prayer Jesus gave us himself – he tells us we are to pray that God would forgive us our trespasses.
“Trespasses.” That’s how we Baptists say it, isn’t it? It almost sounds like we’ve inadvertently slipped across a forbidden line between good and not so good. Trespasses doesn’t seem to convey the ominous sound of the word debts, but that’s what the word really is… debts. And if anyone who followed Jesus ought to know what that word means, it would be Matthew. He certainly collected enough of them in his day.
We are, indeed, sinners all. That’s the bad news, and we generally like to get the bad news over with first, do we not? So let’s hurry to get to the good news. The good news is that Jesus is willing to keep company with us anyway. In fact, he chooses to keep company with us, despite – or maybe precisely because of – our indebtedness. And wherever you find Jesus keeping company, you find him offering forgiveness.
My friends, the news just doesn’t get any better than that, does it?
Father, forgive us our debts and give us the courage and insight to forgive the debts of others so that together we can accept your divine grace toward us. Keep company with us, Lord, we pray in Jesus’ name, Amen.
1adapted from William Willimon, “Sinners,” Pulpit Resource, Vol. 33, No. 2, Year A, April-June 2005, p. 44.
— Copyright 2005, Dr. Randy L. Hyde. Used by permission.