“And He Got Up and Followed Him”

Scripture – Matthew 9:9-13, 18-26

Sermon preached by Sudie Niesen Thompson

Sunday, June 11, 2023


And he got up and followed him.

I dare say, the tax collector’s response astounds us. When Jesus approaches Matthew at the toll booth, this unlikely disciple does not ask questions; he does not offer excuses or protest the command. Matthew simply gets up and follows Jesus.

I expect most of us are wondering: “Why?” Why does Matthew leave the toll booth and, with it, the status and security of his profession? What compels Matthew to follow a stranger — a man he has never met, a man he may know nothing about?

These are basically the same questions that arise when we read about the call of the first disciples. I expect you remember that story; it’s pretty familiar — much more familiar than the Call of Matthew. In that account, recorded in chapter four, Jesus is walking beside the Sea of Galilee when he sees two brothers casting a net into the water. Jesus says, “Follow me, and I will make you fish for people.” And, immediately, Peter and Andrew set down their net and follow. Right away Jesus calls two more. As he continues walking along the lakeshore, Jesus sees another set of brothers; James and John are mending nets in a boat with their father. Jesus calls out to them and, immediately, they leave their boat and follow. None of them ask questions; they do not offer excuses or protest Jesus’ command. The fishermen simply leave their work and follow Jesus … Just as Matthew the tax collector does.

There’s a pattern to these call stories. Jesus walks along. Jesus sees people going about their daily labor. Jesus calls, saying: Follow me. And new disciples leave their work and follow Jesus.

We could spend an entire sermon psychoanalyzing these first followers. And, while it might be interesting to ponder their motivations, this exercise would distract from the point. As one commentator noted, “If Matthew the Gospel Writer had wanted us to see inside the heart of Matthew the tax collector” … or inside the hearts of Peter and Andrew, James and John … then he would have clued us into their inner thoughts.[1] Matthew the Gospel writer doesn’t detail each man’s discernment process because these stories aren’t really about the ones who are called. Rather, they are about the One who calls — the One who says to unsuspecting strangers: Follow me. These stories are about the One who has the power to re-make the world with a word.

By the time we meet Matthew the tax collector, Jesus’ word has healed a Centurion’s servant, calmed a storm at sea, and sent screeching demons into a herd of swine. Now, with a word, Jesus makes a disciple of a tax collector. And, in doing so, he forms a new community … an unlikely community, united by a common call … a community that only exists because of the transformative power of grace.[2]

You see, in first-century Palestine fishermen like Peter and Andrew, James and John would have avoided tax collectors like Matthew. Most people would have avoided tax collectors like Matthew. Because they were known for exploiting their neighbors. Tax collectors “were contract workers for the Roman government. They were personally responsible for paying the taxes due from their area, but they were permitted to gather those taxes by gouging as much [from their neighbors] as they could manage.”[3] As preaching professor Tom Long puts it, tax collectors were “carp feeding off the river bottom of Roman rule.”[4] The particular tax collector we meet today is probably sitting at a booth set up along the main road leading out of Galilee so he could tax fishermen who were transporting their catch.[5] You can understand why Peter and Andrew, James and John would not have chosen to associate with the likes of such “bottom-feeders.”

And yet — with a word — Jesus forms a community that includes both fisherman and tax collectors … Many tax collectors, in fact. Immediately after he calls Matthew, we find Jesus and his disciples sitting at table with: “many tax collectors and sinners.” Matthew the Gospel writer doesn’t identify the host of this dinner party, but we can assume it is held in the home of Matthew the tax collector. It seems his first act as a disciple is to welcome Jesus — along with Peter and Andrew, James and John — into his home.

The Pharisees catch wind of this surprising gathering, and ask the disciples why Jesus is dining with these degenerates. And Jesus takes the opportunity to tell them — and us — a bit about his mission. He has come to heal those who are sick — in body, mind or soul. He has come to offer mercy.

Suddenly, there is a knock at the door. The party is interrupted again, this time by someone seeking mercy. It is a man who has come to Jesus because his daughter has died. Your pew Bible tells us this bereaved father is “a leader of the synagogue.” That is a detail borrowed from Mark’s account of this story; the original text of Matthew simply calls him a “leader.” But, no matter what, this man is a representative of the community. And, in this moment, he’s desperate. “Come and lay your hand on [my daughter], and she will live,” the father pleads. Jesus and his disciples rise from the table and follow the leader to his home, and — once more — the scene shifts.

But, before they reach the leader’s home, Jesus is interrupted again. Not by religious leaders who boldly question Jesus or by a community leader who boldly asks for mercy. No, this time, the interruption comes from a social outcast who speaks only to herself.

A woman who has been suffering from hemorrhages for twelve years comes up behind Jesus and touches the fringe of his cloak. This woman has likely not touched another human being for twelve years because a discharge of blood would have made her ritually unclean. But despite her circumstance — or, rather, because of her circumstance — she reaches for Jesus’ garment hem. “If I only touch his cloak, I will be made well,” she thinks. And, immediately, she receives the mercy she seeks. Jesus turns and proclaims, “Take heart, daughter; your faith has made you well.” With a word, he heals her bleeding body and restores her to community. The woman who has spent a dozen years on the margins of society is recognized as a daughter of Abraham and returned to the fold. More than that, she now has a place within the Kin-dom of God — the new community Christ is creating.

As soon as he restores this long-suffering woman to health, to community, Jesus continues on his way to return another daughter to life. When Jesus arrives at the leader’s home, he disbands the mourners who have already assembled there, saying, “Go away, for the girl is not dead but sleeping.” And, though the crowd laughs at him, Jesus’ word proves effective once again. For, when he takes the girl by the hand, this daughter rises from her deathbed.

By the end of this passage, Jesus has called forth much with his word. A new disciple has been called. Two daughters have been restored to the fullness of life. Christ’s new community has grown to include fishermen and tax collectors, a leader who stands at the center of his community and a woman who has been pushed to its margins. We might come to the end of this passage and think, Well, those are nice stories. We’ve witnessed a day in the life of Jesus … a call story here, a healing story there. A bunch of people added to the fold. But what do these stories have to do with each other? And what are we to make of them?

Well, as you might have guessed, I have some thoughts on the matter … And I think the answer to this question lies in a simple transition sentence — a line Matthew seems to insert just to move the plot forward. For me, this sentence holds the key: And Jesus got up and followed him, with his disciples.

This is the moment when Jesus rises from the table, where he is dining with tax collectors and sinners, and follows the desperate father to his home. This is the moment when Jesus responds to the urgent need before him, to the cry for help that has interrupted the feast. And, because Jesus gets up and follows, another urgent need finds him — the woman who is desperate for healing, for wholeness. This is the moment when Jesus is confronted with the suffering of this world and chooses to respond with mercy. And Jesus got up and followed him, with his disciples.

But this simple transition sentence echoes another transition sentence: And he got up and followed him. That is, Matthew got up and followed Jesus. Matthew the tax collector got up from the toll booth and followed Jesus, the One who — with a word — creates disciples. And, because Matthew got up and followed, he was there when the leader came in and knelt before Jesus, saying, “Come and lay your hand on her, and she will live.” Because Matthew got up and followed, he was one of the disciples who went with Jesus to the leader’s house. He was one of the disciples who witnessed the hemorrhaging woman reach out and touch Jesus, who witnessed Jesus reach out and take the leader’s daughter by the hand. He was one of the disciples who followed Jesus to places of heartache and daring hope where — with a word from Jesus — new life might flourish.

This is the kind of community Christ is creating when he calls Matthew, and all the rest of us: a community that is confronted with the suffering of this world and chooses to respond with mercy. This is what it means to be a disciple of Jesus: to follow Jesus to places where hearts are hurting, where hands grasp for hope.

Jesus is still creating this community. With a word spoken at the font, Jesus claims and commissions new disciples, forming and re-forming a church to continue his work. And, when we heed Christ’s call to follow, we too find ourselves standing between heartache and hope, witnessing the joy of new life.

This has been the experience of First Presbyterian Church in Mt. Pleasant, Iowa. As part of its commitment to being a Matthew 25 Church, this congregation began seeking new ways to follow Christ by responding to the urgent needs of their community. The pastor of First Presbyterian started by calling up the warden at the local prison. “We as a church are trying to find ways to help our community and love our neighbors,” he said. “You are literally our neighbor. Here are some ideas we have …”

That phone call was the beginning of a partnership between the Correctional Facility and All God’s Creatures, a community initiative that First Presbyterian is launching to meet the need for an animal shelter in their county. Through this partnership, those who are incarcerated will serve as handlers — socializing dogs to make them more adoptable or bottle-feeding kittens every two hours. As you can imagine, this work benefits the animals. But it also benefits those who care for the cats and dogs. The correctional facility has found that the companionship of a pet helps relieve stress and loneliness among those who are incarcerated. And the work as handlers can help these men find employment upon their release from prison. The role requires responsibility and commitment, and instills a sense of hope and pride, all of which helps them re-enter the community beyond the prison walls.[6]

First Presbyterian’s efforts to follow Christ into the world has also brought them face-to-face with those in their community who are suffering. Five years ago, the town of Mount Pleasant made the news when immigration agents raided a concrete plant and detained 32 men from Mexico and Central America. Due to an initiative of First Presbyterian called Iowa Welcomes Immigrant Neighbors, the church soon became a gathering place for family members of the detained men. In the days that followed, this ministry raised eighty thousand dollars to help detainee’s families pay rent and legal fees.[7] But, the congregation’s response didn’t stop there. Following the raid, members of First Presbyterian learned that some of the young men who were detained needed legal guardians. One woman named Lynn, who had been active with Iowa Welcomes Immigrant Neighbors, was approached about helping an 18-year-old named Jonathan, who’d been detained for three weeks. “I knew the moment I set eyes on that kid that I was going to do it, whether it was practical or not. And it has been one of the greatest experiences of my life,” Lynn reflected. Jonathan is still waiting for an interview that could grant him a green card. He’s been working and contributing to the community, and he just got an even better job, Lynn gushed. “I’m so proud of him … It’s just been wonderful.”[8]

We could share more stories, just from this congregation and our partners here. Because, as disciples of Jesus, we are still called to follow Christ to places of heartache and elusive hope; we are still called to respond with mercy when confronted with suffering. And, in doing so, we might discover that Jesus is still forming a new community … a community of sinners and saints … of those who find themselves at the center and those relegated to the margins … a kin-dom knit of those who have come to Jesus in search of mercy and those whom Christ’s mercy has found. Jesus still calls. And, so, we get up and follow him to places where hearts find healing and hope blossoms into new life.


Prayers of the People

Janet Steinwedel


Holy of Holies hear our prayer. In response to all that is difficult and disappointing in our world we claim the commitments of a Matthew 25 church: Give us continued strength for Dismantling Structural Racism, for Irradicating Systemic Poverty, and for Building Congregational Vitality. In this month of June when we celebrate “Pride month,” remind us of our valuing of all people with professionalism, respect, integrity, the joy of diversity and excellence. Give us the courage, the energy, and the skills to be good stewards in all that we do. Know it is our intention to follow the example that you provided for us. Remind us that we have a caring community of friends right here at Westminster.

Lord hear our prayers for peace in a world at war – country to country, person to person, with nature and within our own nature. Help us to see where we create battles that needn’t exist. Help us to heal from the wounds that afflict us, so that we may be harbingers of peace. Do not let us stray– continue to draw us closer to you. Call to us to follow you, again and again. Don’t give up on us in our waywardness. When we get side-tracked, we trust you will guide us steadily in the right direction.

When we feel alone remind us that we belong to one another and to you. Holy Spirit – we are aware of the mystery of divine love that envelops us even in our darkest hours and we are grateful. We know that when we ask you, Jesus, to accompany us to places of desperation and suffering that we can count on your presence. Forgive us our impatience, our intolerance, our busyness, and our belligerence. In this season of Springtime when all is fresh and new – renew our hope and joy. Let us delight in the beauty of color that abounds, in the smell of fresh cut grass, and in a lazy afternoon.

Bless our comings and goings in this season of vacationing. Let the pauses we take refresh our spirits and enable us to face each challenge, each surprise, each daunting moment with resilience and confidence, knowing you have our hand and our backs. We ask and pray these things in the name of the one who comes to us as the hope of the world, and taught us to pray for the world, saying, Our Father who art in heaven, hallowed be thy name. Thy kingdom come, thy will be done, on earth as it is in heaven. Give us this day our daily bread; and forgive us our debts, as we forgive our debtors; and lead us not into temptation, but deliver us from evil. For thine is the kingdom and the power and the glory, forever. Amen.



[1] Thomas G. Long, Matthew (Louisville: Westminster John Knox Press, 1997), 103.

[2] Ibid.

[3] Ibid, 104.

[4] Ibid.

[5] Cleophus J. LaRue, “Commentary on Matthew 9:9-13, 18026,” www.workingpreacher.org.

[6] Mike Ferguson, “Presbyterian congregation joins with its neighbor, a prison, to live out its Matthew 25 calling,” Presbyterian News Service, https://www.presbyterianmission.org/story/presbyterian-congregation-joins-with-its-neighbor-a-prison-to-live-out-its-matthew-25-calling/

[7] Trip Gabriel, “An ICE Raid Leaves an Iowa Town Divided Along Faith Lines, The New York Times (https://www.nytimes.com/2018/07/03/us/ice-raid-iowa-churches.html)

[8] Mike Ferguson, “Presbyterian congregation in Iowa explains how forays into the community fit with its Matthew 25 focus,” Presbyterian News Service, https://www.presbyterianmission.org/story/presbyterian-congregation-in-iowa-explains-how-forays-into-the-community-fit-with-its-matthew-25-focus/