(Matthew 9: 9-13)
When I started here at the church over four years ago the Staff-Parish Relations Committee asked me what type of ministry I thought I might have. I told them that based upon my experience as the Drug Court prosecutor that I might be the kind of pastor these “sinners” could relate to and feel comfortable around. And after I started many of them visited the church which thrilled me to no end. I mean, I wouldn’t make a big deal about them visiting and tried not to do anything to embarrass them. I even had them sit with Teresa just so they didn’t feel they were alone. After the service I would go down, greet them, give them a hug and tell them how much I appreciated their coming. But then they never came back. Had I done something wrong? Finally, one of my closest Drug Court participants explained it to me. They didn’t come or come back because I knew them and because I knew them, they were worried other members of the congregation would put two and two together and figure out they were recovering drug addicts and alcoholics. They were “sinners” and didn’t feel worthy or comfortable coming to church with normal people. If they only knew how unnormal you really are. I watched many of you greet them graciously and welcome them to the church in a way that has caused many people to come back and give us a second look, and even become a part of our family. It’s not that they were made to feel unwelcome. They just felt out of place. Do you see the irony? This is the place they needed to be. Where did we or I fail them?
Feeling as though you belong, that you have a place at the table is what Matthew is telling us in our scripture reading for this morning. In the 9th chapter of the Gospel of Matthew we learn that Jesus is in Capernaum and, after healing a paralytic, he saw a man named Matthew sitting at the tax collector’s booth. Jesus stopped and said: Follow me. Matthew got up and went with Jesus and the disciples back to his house for a meal where many other tax collectors and other “sinners” joined them. We’re told that when the Pharisees saw this, they asked his disciples, “Why does your teacher eat with tax collectors and sinners?” On hearing this, Jesus said; It is not the healthy who need a doctor, but the sick. But go and learn what this means: ‘I desire mercy, not sacrifice.’ For I have not come to call the righteous, but sinners.
To get the full effect of this story I think it is important to also look at what Mark and Luke wrote about the encounter in their gospel accounts. According to my NIV Study Bible, all three accounts describe the people at the dinner as tax collectors and other “sinners” in quotation marks as if “sinners” was some sort of dirty word, you know, “those” people. In the Gospel of Mark, Matthew is referred to as Levi, son of Alphaeus, and Luke identifies him as Levi. When referring to the tax collectors and “sinners” Mark says that there were many tax collectors and “sinners” eating with Jesus and his disciples, for there were many who followed him. This indicates to me that it may have been more than Jesus and a handful of disciples as we know them. Disciples in this context probably included a larger entourage. In fact, in Luke’s gospel we are told that Levi held a great banquet for Jesus at his house, and a large crowd of tax collectors and others were eating with them. One of the reasons that tax collectors were despised was that they had a tendency to cheat the people from whom they collected taxes and ended up being quite wealthy themselves. Rome didn’t care who they cheated as long as Rome got theirs. So, I think it would be fair to assume that Matthew had a pretty nice house and could afford to throw a pretty nice dinner party for this rabbi who had shown an interest in him and his disciples. In the Jewish culture, eating with others was a form of social acceptance, so this meal represents forgiveness in action for all the tax collectors and sinners at the table. A rabbi, a man of God, has no problem breaking bread with them or being seen in their company.
So, as this dinner party is going on and everyone is having a good time, laughing, talking, and getting to know one another, off to the side are the Pharisees, the experts and teachers of the law who find the whole affair totally inappropriate. By now, you’d think Jesus would be getting a little tired of being stalked by the Pharisees trying to catch him in that “gotcha” moment. The only thing they lacked was an iPhone where they could capture the moment they were looking for, post it on social media and discredit this unorthodox ministry. When Jesus hears the Pharisees ask his disciples; “Why does your teacher eat with tax collectors and sinners,” he responds; It is not the healthy who need a doctor, but the sick. But go and learn what this means: I desire mercy, not sacrifice. For I have not come to call the righteous, but sinners. Anyone else would have told them to mind their own business and remind them that they were not invited to the party. He sends them a not-so-subtle message for them to think about. He says he desires mercy, not sacrifice. What’s that supposed to mean? He’s just some rabbi from some backwater dusty town in Galilee. Who would sacrifice anything to him and why should he desire mercy? And, what does he mean when he says he didn’t come to call the righteous, but sinners? Call for what? Who does he think he is? And can you imagine what the tax collectors and other sinners thought when they heard Jesus dress down these self-righteous Pharisees? Yeah, what he said!
Maybe if these Pharisees and teachers, these experts in God’s law spent as much time trying to figure out how to apply God’s law to the lives of God’s troubled children they wouldn’t be so obsessed with discrediting Jesus’ ministry. If they just weren’t so hypocritical, saying one thing and doing the complete opposite. It was a problem then and continues to be a problem for organized religion today. People love to criticize us on social media every time something bad happens and we Christians either fail to act or act inappropriately. And, to a certain extent, they do have a point. But those who do the most complaining are also the same ones who don’t expend any energy or resources seeking solutions to problems they think we should be addressing like feeding the hungry, clothing the naked, helping the poor. It’s a whole lot easier to be a blame thrower.
And that’s one of the problems with organized religion. When they don’t get what ever it was that they expected to get from the church they leave and then spend their waking hours pointing out all that is wrong with Christianity and so-called Christians. And that’s why Jesus was there having dinner with tax collectors and other sinners. They had a problem with organized religion and organized religion seemed to have a problem with them. Those representing organized religion felt threatened by Jesus and didn’t want to listen to the complaints of the people, God’s people, because it would require change, a different way of doing things, a different way of doing church. It’s kind of weird, but I think if we really did church the way Jesus wants us to do it, it would make a lot of people uncomfortable, those who like things just the way they are and see no reason to change. And, Jesus was promoting a different way of doing things, of doing church by eating with sinners. He wants us to follow his example and get out of our comfort zone. Don’t be afraid of the criticism, embrace it and learn from it. Christianity is a religion of second chances, of unlimited chances, as many chances as it takes to save the sinner. It’s like when people tell me they had a bad experience one time with organized religion. I tell them I get it, and in 1976 I had a bad experience with a Jack-in-the-Box hamburger but that didn’t stop me from trying McDonald’s, Burger King and Dairy Queen. I then ask them if they think we deserve a second chance. Usually they shrug their shoulders and say probably so.
When Jesus visited Matthew and dined at his home with tax collectors and other sinners, he hurt his own reputation among the religious elites in order to reach out to those who were lost. He didn’t seem to want to be a part of their elite religious circle. Jesus didn’t care what they thought. He saw Matthew as a bridge to others who needed to be saved. We too have to look for those bridges to reach these people who may feel they’re not good enough for God, or not good enough to associate with God’s people. I think we’re really trying and may be making progress. I mean we’re already known in the community as “that” church that helps the homeless. But where’s the bridge? We’ve had some limited success with a few of the people we’ve actually helped joining us on Sunday mornings before the pandemic and had one couple join us for potluck. Even this week I had a person we helped ask me when we would be holding church again. I know that many, if not most, times they are asking just to be polite, but you never know, which is why I always follow up the visit with a note thanking them for coming in along with additional words of encouragement. Maybe this pandemic is our bridge as it has forced us to take our message online and we are now reaching a much larger audience. I don’t know what it will translate out to once we are allowed to worship in person again, but we have to keep getting our message out that Jesus desires mercy, not sacrifice. Let us seek the guidance of the Holy Spirit who will show us how to prepare a table where we sinners can eat with the lost and searching sinners, where we can talk, laugh, tell stories, and get to know one another as Christ would have us know our brothers and sisters, as family.
Please pray with me.
Loving and all compassionate Father, how amazing is your grace that you loved us so much that you sought us out when we were lost in our sin and wretchedness. How sweet the sound of the loving words of your son, Jesus Christ, who told us of his unconditional love for us. We were once blind to this love but now we see that this grace has relieved our hearts of fear and uncertainty. What a life we now have secure in the knowledge of your promises that nothing can separate us from your love. Move us, as your beloved children and disciples of Jesus Christ to seek out other sinners who think they are not good enough to have a relationship with you and invite them to your eternal banquet table. In Jesus’ name, we pray, Amen.