Jesus versus Religious Folk

Take a look at Matthew 9:9-13 before reading the following. 

Give your imagination a little exercise. Put yourself in your favorite place for coffee and conversation. Seated across the table from you is a fifty-something Euro-american woman whose strawberry blonde hair is bound up in dreadlocks. This is the first clue to her unusual personhood. She smiles and laughs often, which makes anyone more attractive. Her openness and friendliness stand in sharp contrast to the subject matter. She is telling you about the day she had an abortion and then drowned her disgust in alcohol and drugs and then went to bed. Listen to her testimony:

“After a while, as I lay there, I became aware of someone with me, hunkered down in the corner, and I just assumed it was my father, whose presence I had felt over the years when I was firghtened and alone. the feeling was so strong that I actually turned on the light for a moment to make sure no one was there – of course, there wasn’t. But after a while, in the dark again, I knew beyond any doubt that it was Jesus. I felt him as surely as I feel my dog lying nearby.

“And I was appalled…I thought about what everyone would think of me if I became a Christian, and it seemed an utterly impossible thing that simply could not be allowed to happen. I turned to the wall and said out lout, ‘I would rather die.’

“I felt him just sitting there on his haunches in the corner of my sleeping loft, watching me with patience and love, and I squinched my eyes shut, but that didn’t help because that’s not what I was seeing him with.

“Finally I fell asleep, and in the morning, he was gone.

“This experience spooked me badly, but I thought it was just an apparition, born of fear and self-loathing and booze and loss of blood. But then everywhere I went, I had the feeling that a little cat was following me, wanting me to reach down and pick it up, wanting me to open the door and let it in. But I knew what would happen: you let a cat in one time, give it a little milk, and then it stays forever…

“And one week later, when I went back to church, I was so hungover that I couldn’t stand up for the songs, and this time I stayed for the sermon, which I just thought was so ridiculous, like someone trying to convince me of the existence of extraterrestrials, but the last song was so deep and raw and pure that I could not escape. It was as if the people were singing in between the notes, weeping and joyful at the same time, and I felt like their voices or something was rocking me in its bosom, holding me like a scared kid, and I opened up to that feeling – and it washed over me.

“I began to cry and left before the benediction, and I raced home and felt the little cat running along at my heels, and I walked down the dock past dozens of potted flowers, under a sky as blue as one of God’s own dreams, and I opened the door to my houseboat, and I stood there a minute, and then I hung my head and said…’I quit.’ I took a long deep breath and said out loud, ‘All right. You can come in.’

“So this was my beautiful moment of conversion.”

(Anne Lamott, Traveling Mercies: Some Thoughts on Faith, 1999, pp. 49-50, as quoted in Messy Spirituality, Michael Yaconelli, MJF Books, 2007.)

The words you’ve been reading are from Anne Lamott. If you want to know more, you can read her book Traveling Mercies. According to Wikipedia, Anne Lamott is “an American novelist and non-fiction writer. She is also a progressive political activist, public speaker and writing teacher. Based in the San Francisco Bay Area, her nonfiction works are largely autobiographical. Marked by their self-deprecating humor and openness, Lamott’s writings cover such subjects alcoholism, single motherhood, depression and Christianity. Because of her following on Facebook and other online networks, she is often called the ‘People’s Author’.”

Lamott has described why she writes: “I try to write the books I would love to come upon, that are honest, concerned with real lives, human hearts, spiritual transformation, families, secrets, wonder, craziness—and that can make me laugh. When I am reading a book like this, I feel rich and profoundly relieved to be in the presence of someone who will share the truth with me, and throw the lights on a little, and I try to write these kinds of books. Books, for me, are medicine.” (, retrieved on May 31, 2013)

What do you think? How would you react to Anne’s testimony if you were sitting across a table from her? How would she be received in our church? Would we ask her to teach Sunday School? Is she Elder material? Do you think you’ll be Anne Lamott’s neighbor in heaven?

Be careful how you answer those questions. Disciples are people who’re trying to be like Jesus, not people who’re trying to be like you.

People who are merely religious tend to have a very narrow, very legalistic, often self-serving definition of who a disciple is. Merely religious people were the kind of people who were Jesus’ worst critics and were the targets of His sharpest criticisms. Let’s look at an example from the Gospels.

Jesus frequently found Himself at odds with the most religious folks.

In Matthew 9 alone, Jesus had three run-ins with merely religious folks.

  • Jesus vs. the scribes because Jesus healed a paralyzed man by forgiving his sins

    (vs. 1-8).

  • Jesus vs. the disciples of John the Baptist because Jesus & His crew did not fast (vs. 14-17).

  • Jesus vs. the Pharisees because Jesus associated with notorious sinners (vs. 9-13).

The reason for these run-ins? Jesus didn’t follow the rules of the religious folks.

  • They believed in the letter of the Law; He believed in the spirit.

  • They loved their institutions; He loved people.

  • They assumed spirituality was neat and simple; He knew it was messy and complicated.

Jesus explains His association with the least religious folks.

In this instance, Jesus had been hanging out with some religious outcasts because He had recruited Matthew to be one of His disciples (v. 9). In Jesus’ day, tax collectors were collaborators with the Romans. They were locals who’d bought an imperial franchise to collect taxes from their own people.

Nobody ever likes taxes; that alone made them unpopular. But worse than that, tax collectors were hated. Two reasons for this hatred; They collaborated with their conquerors. For religious and political reasons, the Jews hated the Romans & everyone who worked for them. Resistance was futile. Also, the Romans allowed their tax collectors to charge more than what was necessary and keep the difference. Tax collectors were thieves backed by the Roman Legion.

Being a tax collector was a lucrative position. If you could live with being shunned by polite society and religious folks, you could become very rich. Just so you know, when Matthew walked away from all that, he made a BIG sacrifice to follow Jesus. Matthew not only accepted Jesus’ invitation, he also threw a party in Jesus’ honor and invited his fellow outcasts to it (v. 10).

Even so, one wonders why the Pharisees questioned Jesus’ association with these people in verse eleven. In part, it was because their definition of “sinner” was pretty broad: “Everyone who doesn’t follow God our way.”

We don’t need to assume the people at Matthew’s party were conspicuous violators of the Ten Commandments. This group was defined by disrespect for the six hundred-plus interpretations of the Law that the Jewish clergy had written up over the years. The Pharisees and other Jewish clergy also believed strongly in “guilt by association.” They couldn’t think of a reason why anyone would waste their time hanging out with conspicuous sinners other than to join them in sin. So if you were there, you were essentially admitting to your own sin.

It’s my guess that they were genuinely puzzled. They’d heard Jesus’ claim to be a rabbi, a teacher, but here He is, hanging out with SINNERS. It seemed contradictory & confusing.

What we generally assume is that they were being snarky. They phrased their prejudice in the form of a question because that sounds more polite, but they didn’t really care about anyone’s feelings getting hurt. You can ask a question in a way that gives information rather than seeking information.

However you explain their motivation, the Pharisees asked the question, Jesus overheard it, and responds with an explanation and challenge (vs. 12-13).

After healing Peter’s mother-in-law, Jesus quoted Isaiah 53:4 and said that His mission was to heal the sick (Matthew 8:17). He will use that same language here.

In fact, let’s notice the simple fact that Jesus refused to use the language of the Pharisees. Where the religious folk (including Matthew himself; v. 11) called Matthew’s guests TAX COLLECTORS AND SINNERS, Jesus referred to them as THOSE WHO ARE SICK. He identifies them by their need, not by their failings. In the Parable of the Good Samaritan, Jesus defined “neighbor” as “anyone in need,” and we see that same definition at work here. When he does use the word SINNERS, it’s in a general sense: He came to call to repentance people who would admit they were SINNERS. Folks who thought they were RIGHTEOUS didn’t figure they needed to repent and saw no need to respond to His call.

On another – similar – occasion, Jesus added another facet to His explanation of His mission to save sinners. His family had arrived for a visit but the crowd was too think around Him and they sent a messenger to Jesus, telling Him they awaited Him outside. After looking around the room, Jesus said, “HERE ARE MY MOTHER AND MY BROTHERS! WHOEVER DOES GOD’S WILL IS MY BROTHER AND SISTER AND MOTHER.” (MRK 3:31-35) He taught that the most important association in this life is our association with fellow believers.

Christians associate with one another because of our shared experience of being helpless and hopeless sinners who’ve been delivered by Jesus Christ. He is the Guest of Honor at all our gatherings, the head of this Body of believers, the most important set of relationships we have in this life.

Jesus challenged them to join Him in His mission. Let’s keep it simple. Note the three verbs in verse thirteen.


In this situation, “Go” means Jesus is dismissing the Pharisees. They’re being party-poopers and He wants to be rid of their negativity. He’s sending them back to their scrolls, urging them to re-read them with a new thought in mind; “God calls the sick to be healthy.”

When Jesus says “GO AND LEARN,” He’s using an expression that Jewish teacher traditionally used on slow-witted or stubborn students. It’s effectively, “Put on your dunce cap and hit the books. You missed something important.”

In your situation, Jesus is urging you to get off your bottom. Our job as disciples is to make more disciples. That has to happen everywhere we go, not just here. We have to intend to tell others about Jesus as we live and go about our daily lives.


In this situation, Jesus wants them to go back to their scrolls and look up Hosea 6:6; where God said, “I DESIRE MERCY, AND NOT SACRIFICE.” He urged them to read it from a new perspective and see that people are to be the objects of mercy, not the objects of sacrifice. When we dislike, distrust, or disagree with someone, it’s easy to dismiss them and move on. Listen; God does not give up on people – neither should His disciples.

In your situation, this is a call to be confronted by the radical demands of godliness. God is calling you to use your Bible as a means of confronting your own sin first, then salving your hurts afterward. Following Jesus is messy because it involves who you are right now, rambling along at your best pace toward who you ought to be, all the time utterly reliant on God’s MERCY and the MERCY of God’s people.


In the original language, this word means “to invite.” As in, inviting a guest to share one’s home or a meal. An invitation is a simple thing, but our church is perishing for the lack of invitation.

In this situation, Jesus is drawing a sharp distinction between those who’re pretending and those who are not. RIGHTEOUS could just as easily be translated as “self-righteous.” Only the self-righteous are truly hopeless. SINNERS could be stated as “those who’ve hit bottom and found Jesus there, waiting for them.” One kind attempts to pull themselves up by their own bootstraps,” and the other relies on God and His people for their uplift.

In your situation, know that Jesus came to call SINNERS to God. His emphasis is on them, not on the RIGHTEOUS people who’ve already got it all figured out. Let me tell you something scandalous: Jesus said there would be more rejoicing in heaven over one sinner repents than 99 others who don’t need to! Don’t believe me? Read Luke 15:1-7. Don’t you think we’ve got it exactly backwards? We have weekly celebrations for the 99 but rare parties for the one.

When we were on vacation, we attended my parents’ church, the congregation that ordained me 28 years ago. There was a visitor in the greeting line behind me and I heard her thank the pastor for the sermon. She added, “I always like a message that brings conviction on me.” This lady was in a motorized chair and I couldn’t help but wonder what she could have done that needed conviction, but I’ve often observed this behavior among church folk. Her honest reply gave me a lot to think about on our 800-mile drive home.

This passage has convicted me, but I don’t share that lady’s affinity for conviction! This passage makes me squirm because it exposes how unloving and self-righteous I can be, too quick to condemn and exclude. I have to admit, I’d be a little uncomfortable attending Matthew’s party. I might have more in common with the Pharisees!

It’s too easy to be the Pharisees in this story. Of all the people involved, they have the easiest, least complicated role to play. Their view of life is simple. It’s always “us vs. them” and the people who’re “them” are not really people, not worthy of recognition or consideration. It’s easier to love the folks who’re just like us.

Let me ask you four questions:

1. How many unchurched people do you know personally?

2. Of that number, how many would you count among your circle of friends?

3. Of that number, how many have you invited to church? How recently?

For the majority of Christians, the first question is answered “zero.” For nearly all church-going folk, the final answer becomes zero. Here’s the fourth question: When you wonder why the Church in America is shrinking, don’t you think this is a good place to start looking for an explanation? Spirituality is messy but necessary. It consists of love. Let God love you and change you and let God use you to speak to others.


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