“Who’s In?”

Matthew 9:1-17

It has been a couple of weeks since our last reading in the Gospel according to Matthew. In today’s Scripture reading Jesus and His disciples travel back across the lake after being kicked out of the country of the Gergesenes for freeing two men of evil spirits and wiping out a herd of swine. They return to Capernaum and it doesn’t take long for the crowds to appear to listen to Jesus and to be healed. This story of the paralytic is also told in both the Gospels according to Mark and Luke. Their rendition provides more detail of the paralytic’s friends having to lower him down from the roof because of the crowds. Matthew’s account of this event reveals some interesting details of how Jesus works. Jesus recognizes the faith of these men and in doing so turns to the paralytic and tells him to cheer up, and forgives his sins. 

Now if you were one of the friends who had just lugged your friend up to the top of the house, dug a hole in the roof and lowered him down, because you thought Jesus would heal your friend, and instead Jesus forgives his sins, what would you be thinking? But notice, Jesus has a method in His madness. Because look who else is in the crowd observing this. Matthew tells us in verse 3 that some of the religious scribes were talking amongst themselves how blasphemous “This Man” was, only God could forgive sins. 


The religious men were correct in thinking God is the only one who can forgive sins, but they were incorrect in thinking that Jesus was not God. This is the first time Matthew mentions any direct opposition to Jesus’ teaching and healing. It’s almost like Jesus set the religious men up for this. 

Jesus immediately confronts these scribes with their very thoughts, providing even more proof of His deity. Jesus calls their thoughts “evil” and asks “which is easier, to say, ‘Your sins are forgiven,’ or to say, ‘Arise and walk’?” Both of which are impossible with humans. However, healing the man would provide immediate proof, as you can’t actually see someone’s sin being forgiven. Then Jesus answers His own question by providing visible proof and heals the man. Jesus tells the man to pick up his bed and go home. Thus providing proof of His claim to have not only authority to forgive sins, but also to heal. It seems the crowd understood because we are told 

“When the multitudes saw it, they marveled and glorified God.” 

The remaining verses of today’s Scripture tells us about who Jesus was choosing to be part of His closest followers. This also continues the conflict between Jesus and the religious leaders of His day. In verse 9, Matthew describes his own invitation from Jesus to join Him. He also reveals that he was a tax collector. Jesus didn’t stop there, He actually invited Himself and His other followers to Matthew’s house for dinner. The religious leaders thought they had proof, right there, that Jesus was not God, because in their minds, God would never invite a tax collector to be in His group, much less eat dinner with him. The religious leaders were offended, not only that Jesus claimed to be God, but that He associated with all the wrong kinds of people and claimed His community is the “Kingdom of God.” Basically, the community Jesus forms around Himself doesn’t fit the categories of what the religious leaders think it means to be the people of God. 

Jesus is creating a whole new way of thinking about who is in and who is out and what it means to be a part of the family of God. For those in Jesus’ day, He was being deeply scandalous and they didn’t know what to make of it. 

While we read through this story, I think we should be asking a similar question concerning our own church community. This story should challenge us and our perception of what it means to be a church community around the person of Jesus. Before we go further in reading through the rest of today’s Scripture I want to present a new framework and ask some questions of this story and provide some possible implications of what can come out of a story such as this. 

In order to establish this new framework, I am going to use Paul Hiebert’s analogy of mathematical theories and how one knows if they “in” the group or “not” in the group. Paul Hiebert was born in India to a missionary family, in 1932. He grew up in India and traveled to the United States to attend college. He returned to India as a missionary but eventually came back to the states to teach at Fuller Theological Seminary before becoming Distinguished Professor of Mission and Anthropology at Trinity Evangelical Divinity School. He spent time reflecting on his personal experience on the mission field and wrote extensively on its shortcomings. He loved Jesus, but upon reflecting on the ways the missionary community was going about sharing Jesus He became self critical. He realized the Western Christian missionary groups were sharing more of their western cultural patterns then they were Jesus. 

He knew native Hindu Indians who were very curious about Jesus, but the idea of becoming a Christian was actually repulsive to them. Not because of who Jesus was, but because in order to become a Christian it was expected they drop all of their cultural existence and become westernized. They would have to eat, dress, sing, and behave like westerners or they wouldn’t be allowed into the community. He started to write about ways for people to just present Jesus and not their culture. He used analogies from math theories to answer these questions. How do you know what something is? 

Or, how do you define identity? 

How do you know who you are? 

Who are you? 

We all have different ways of answering these questions. Hiebert came up with two different ways to answer the question, “Who am I?” or “What group do I belong to?”

He saw an analogy with the mathematical terms called a “bounded set,” vs. a “centered set.” In the bounded set, there are particular attributes that everyone agrees on to make you part of the set. 

In Heibert’s experience the missionary community had clear markers to determine if you were “in” as a Christian. One needed to have a memorable, personal encounter where you recognized your own flaws and failures and you needed Jesus and you said some kind of prayer to Jesus asking for forgiveness.  After that event there were definite changes in your behaviors and you began a devotional time and reading your Bible and attending religious events. These were clear definitive markers as to whether you were in the community or not. But Hiebert looked at church history and realized it has never been that simple. Historically humans keep making the lines thicker and keep adding things to this list. 

We tend to add things that are unique to the culture or place we belong. For example, in some European cultures having a drink of Scotch or beer would not be seen as keeping you out of the Christian community. Not so in some American churches, “Don’t drink, smoke or chew or hang out with those who do,” right? That becomes just as important as to who you are. 

This way of thinking has strength, it’s clear, 

you know what to do and what not to do, 

you know who is in and who is out. 

Hiebert believed however, that this way of thinking of how I know I am a Christian, would have made Jesus bummed. As we read the stories about Jesus, this doesn’t seem like what Jesus was thinking when He began His movement. 

Hiebert read his Bible and compared Jesus’ movement to another math theory known as the centered set. Rather than finding one’s identity by a list of accomplishments one has achieved, in a centered set, you have a very clear center. 

The question is not whether I am in or out, the question is about movement. 

Am I moving towards the center or away from the center? 

That simple question defines one identity. 

Unlike the bounded set, the strength of this is not clear, you can’t always tell who’s in and who’s out. The centered set theory is messy and as humans we don’t always like things messy. 

But Hiebert believes and so do I, that for Jesus, the identity of whether one was in or out was determined upon one thing, whether they were following Jesus. 

Let’s go back to today’s Scripture and see how it fits Hiebert’s theories. In chapter 9, verse 9, we read that after healing the paralytic, Jesus passes by the table of a tax collector and tells him to follow Him. Matthew does just that. Why would Jesus seek out a tax collector to be a part of His group? Jesus has only once before gone into someone’s lifespace and told them to follow Him, back in chapter 4, when He approaches Simon Peter and Andrew while they are fishing. 

Fishermen, maybe, but a tax collector? Really? 

One also has to ask what was going on in Matthew’s mind? 

Being a tax collector during Jesus’ day was for any Torah abiding Jewish person the epitome of what was going wrong in their world. Tax collectors were Jewish men who had basically sold out to make money. Today we would equate them to being mafia. 

There are real social realities and political implications to the decision Jesus has made to ask Matthew to be a part of His group of disciples. Not only did Jesus ask Matthew to be a part of the large group of followers, but Jesus chose Matthew to be one of His closer 12 apostles. If you take a quick look at the beginning of chapter 10 you can read the names of the 12 men chosen to be closest to Jesus. 

Check out this list, three have additional information or background of what they did. 

  • Matthew the tax collector, bad guy, but something radical happens and he surrenders himself. 
  • Also there is Simon the Zealot, a religious fanatic with a sword, ready to spill Roman blood. They were like the Robin Hoods of their day. Matthew’s former life was mafia, working with the Romans. Simon’s former life was killing the Romans and anyone working with the Romans. 

This begs the question, who was going to have a really difficult time getting along in Jesus’ circle? No way was this unintentional for Jesus to invite both of these men to be a part of His closest circle. He has chosen two people who were on the opposite ends of the spectrum. Yet, Jesus called them both to follow Him, and they comply. 

Here we have the upside-down kingdom at its best. Jesus was redefining what it meant to be a part of the family of God. It doesn’t have to do with a list of accomplishments or how horrible of a person you have been in the past. 

All that matters is that at this very moment Jesus offers you the invitation and you accept and become a part of His family. 

  • As a side step, look at the third guy, Judas. How close was he to Jesus, and no one even knew what was going on in his head. He was with Jesus on His very last night and from the outside he looked to be as close to Jesus as you could get, but on the inside he was far away. 

As we continue to read on in chapter 9, we discover that the centered set model continues to get even messier. Verse 10, Jesus goes on to have dinner at Matthew’s house. Not only are Jesus’ disciples there, but we read there were more tax collectors and sinners at the party as well. Just how uncomfortable do you think Simon the Zealot must have been at this party? Also, from the outside looking in, what does this look like? 

This looks really sketchy on Jesus’ part, but for Jesus, He is comfortable with who He is and is not threatened by being around sinners. These sinners know who Jesus is and they know He wouldn’t agree with the choices they have been making, and yet they still want to be around Him. Why? Perhaps because He loves them and He seeks to be around them? 

For the Pharisees, they come undone. They see Jesus as a social deviant, undermining everything that Judaism stands for. They choose to ask the disciples, not Jesus himself, 

“Why does your teacher eat with tax collectors and sinners?”

Jesus turns and answers them by telling them the healthy ones don’t need a doctor, the sick do, and He quotes from Hosea 6:6, 

‘I desire mercy, not sacrifice.’

God is looking for those who have mercy for others above those who are able to perform religious rituals. 

Not only do the Pharisees have difficulty with Jesus hanging out at dinner parties with tax collectors and sinners. John the Baptist’s followers have heard and they travel in from the desert to ask Jesus, verse 14, 

“How is it that we and the Pharisees fast often, but your disciples do not fast?”

John and his followers are confused. They live a life of monastery and call the people of Israel to repent. 

They see Jesus’ dinner parties and mingling with sinners as not living up to the idea of what a religious leader who is preaching the Kingdom of God should be up to. 

What happened to prayer and religious devotion? 

Again, how does one know when they are “in”? 

Clearly John’s followers believed it had to do with being solemn and denying oneself of food and pleasure. And Jesus doesn’t deny this, there were certainly times when that behavior was necessary, but for Jesus, this was not one of those times. Jesus wanted to make it clear that He had come to introduce something new, not to patch up something old. This is what salvation is all about. Jesus didn’t come to destroy the old law but He came to fulfill it. 

Jesus reminds them not to try to understand what He is doing in light of what they had been doing.  There is something new here. 

Your identity of whether you do the right thing or not doesn’t mean you are in or not. 

Jesus reminds us that the Kingdom of God is near, and in God’s Kingdom we should not be afraid to come close to anyone. By coming near to those who need mercy and grace Jesus offers an opportunity for them to turn and follow Him. And when they do so, they have the opportunity to celebrate forgiveness and life and be a part of a community where Jesus is the center and the story of His grace is the center.

What are we supposed to do about this? 

One is very personal. You can be a part of the church and from the outside it looks like you are in the set, but what if you fail to walk towards Jesus any other time of the week? 

Some of us may be in times of decisions and difficulties or at work or with others where we have choices to make of how we are going to respond. Are we going to walk towards Jesus and do what He would do or are we going to go the other way? 

There is also our corporate reality.  

  • If we are part of a bounded set, we pay more attention to the boundaries. 
  • If we are part of a centered set, uniformity doesn’t matter, but what does matter is that we pay more attention to Jesus who is in the center. 
  • In the centered set we are unified in this, that a Matthew or a Simon may differ in their view about politics and on Rome or whatever, but 
  • Are they becoming more generous? 
  • Are they becoming more loving to people they don’t like? 
  • Are they becoming more merciful or more humble and closer to Jesus? 
  • Jesus said it clearly when He quoted Hosea 6:6

‘I desire mercy, not sacrifice.’

Let us keep our focus on Jesus and walk towards Him. 

Let’s pray.