September 21, 2014, Feast of St. Matthew
1 Kings 19:15-16, 19-21, Psalm 119:1-16, 2 Corinthians 4:1-6, St. Matthew 9:9-13
The Way of the Sea, also known by its Latin name, Via Maris, parallels the Mediterranean coast as it rises out of Egypt’s Fertile Crescent angling north and east as it reaches toward distant Damascus. In the Philistine Plain, it branches, with one route hugging the coast and the other bending inland.
On this second, inland course it skirts the Sea of Galilee. This is one of the principal trade routes of the ancient world. Merchants in sandals tread its dusty track over and again, hauling their wares to faraway markets.
As the eastern branch courses northward along the Sea of Galilee it passes by Capernaum, the adopted hometown of Jesus of Nazareth. The Roman overlords have taken over customs booths erected along the major routes before the rise of Rome. At each one, the merchant pays a tax on the goods he is transporting.
Typically, it is not Roman officials but provincials who man these stations and demand the tariffs. Capernaum hunkers in the territory of Herod Antipas, a part-Jew who is provincial governor, on the border with the adjoining district.
At the booth on the outskirts of town sits a Jew named Matthew. We may assume he is absorbed in his worldly affairs . . . and his affairs are altogether worldly. Israel loathes her tax-collectors, or publicans, those who exact money from the public.
They rake in most of their unseemly gain by demanding more than the law requires and pocketing the difference. Travelers often do not know the amount due at a given station and so are at the mercy of the publican. They have no right of appeal.
The tax-collector is a collaborator. Matthew works for Herod, but his ultimate employers are the hated foreigners. He is assumed to be a thief, to boot.
Worse, Israel knows only one King, Yahweh in heaven above, and the tax-gatherer is skimming the hard-won wages of Jews to pass on as tribute to Caesar in Rome.
Under Jewish law, the tax-gatherer assumes a place in the company of criminals, slaves and gentiles. He is incompetent to serve on a jury. High-falutin’ Pharisees will not so much as acknowledge his presence.
But he is rich, and Matthew is to all appearances working diligently at growing fatter still on ill-gotten gains when Jesus arrives at his booth and says simply, “Follow Me.”
What, we ask, would Jesus want with him?
The answer is: his pen. Matthew leaves his money behind . . . but he brings his pen.
Jesus has already called other disciples, notably fishermen. He is making them fishers of men . . . but not scribes or secretaries. A tax-collector would have not only a head for figures but also reading and writing skills.
Peter brought a sword, which he used on the eve of the Lord’s crucifixion to lop off an ear; Matthew brings a pen, which is mightier than the sword.
And Matthew’s pen is not just any pen. Those fishermen lack the literacy that would fit them for a role as an evangelist, but they are wanting in something else as well; they also lack the requisite infamy.
The first gospel and indeed the first book in the canon of the new kingdom needs a notorious reprobate for an author, one who can proclaim with power the good news that God has appeared on earth and flung open the gates of His eternal realm to everyone.
Thieves, robbers, prostitutes? The more the world despises them the more Jesus loves them.
Who but one who feels the world’s hatred so keenly can experience so deeply the Savior’s love? Who else can express it so eloquently?
Who better than one reviled by the Pharisees to exhibit God’s power in converting a craven sinner into one whose righteousness exceeds the righteousness of the Pharisees?
Be not deceived . . . Matthew is the right man at the right time with the right pen.
“Follow me,” Jesus says. “So he arose and followed Him.”
God peers into men’s hearts. What has He seen in Matthew’s? We do not know. Certainly, this new apostle has heard of this itinerant preacher who is gaining a swelling following throughout the countryside. Matthew might even have heard Him speak. Had some word of the Lord melted the tax-gatherer’s heart of stone?
Was he, like another publican named Zacchaeus, keen for an opportunity of atonement?
What we know is that without qualm or quibble he arises and follows Jesus. Only one cognizant of his spiritual sickness leaps at the chance of healing unto salvation.
Jesus leads His disciples to Matthew’s house and the newest member of the traveling troupe lays out a meal for them – not them alone but his old friends as well. Who might they be? Who would keep company with a tax-collector but other tax-collectors and sinners?
The Lord breaks bread with them; the Pharisees are aghast. Jesus has cast away ceremonial cleanness as casually as a moth-eaten robe. And He a rabbi!
The Pharisees seem to hold Jesus in sufficient regard that they address their question, which is in fact an accusation, to His disciples: “Why does your Teacher eat with tax collectors and sinners?”
Jesus responds personally, “Those who are well have no need of a physician, but those who are sick.”
What sort of doctor would appear only where healthy people are to be found?
Diogenes, one of the great teachers of ancient Greece and a lover of virtue, never hesitated to contrast the decadence of the Athenians, among whom he lived, with the steely discipline of the citizens of Sparta.
Finally, someone asked, “If you think so much of Sparta and so little of Athens, why don’t you leave Athens and go and stay in Sparta?” Diogenes replied, “Whatever I may wish to do, I must stay where men need me most.”
Those who needed Jesus most were sinners, mortally sick in the spirit. They needed the Great Physician.
A preacher who avoided sinners for fear of corruption would be like a doctor afraid to attend the sick for fear of infection. Yet that describes precisely the attitude of the Pharisees. They are the spiritual leaders of Israel who maintain their righteousness by avoiding contamination from those who most need instruction.
They prize their ceremonial purity so highly that they refuse to venture near souls desperate for God’s mercy. They might catch a nasty case of unrighteousness.
The Lord has come to offer the healing they have withheld from Israel. The Lord has come to launch the movement Israel has failed to launch, that of making the Father’s great glory and His offer of salvation known among all the nations.
Yet when Jesus walks into the midst of them as a living text attesting God’s unfathomable love for the lost they hatch a plan to see Him executed.
Oh, they’re much too tidy even to come in contact with any of the great unwashed. They concentrate on their own spiritual health and look away from the eternal condition of others. Neither before nor since has man devised a more reliable method of forfeiting his own soul.
When a doctor looks at fleshly decay that would curdle the stomachs of the rest of us, does he turn away in disgust or does he dig in up to his elbows to effect healing? These Pharisees are experts in the diagnosis of unrighteousness who are utterly disinterested in providing a cure.
In their earth-bound thinking they are grimly determined to exclude from their earthly society the very people Christ is inviting into His heavenly kingdom.
Yes, Matthew the tax-collector is the right man at the right time with the right pen . . . the right man to join the band of apostles, to follow the Lord for more than three years and to write the gospel that opens the New Testament.
Why do we celebrate a saint’s day for him? Because he felt so keenly the burden of a sinner.
He teaches us the scale of God’s wonder-working power. He teaches us that we may never despair of anyone’s salvation. We know not to whom our Lord next will say, “Follow Me.”
If Christ could find something worthy of redemption in the least, the last and the lost, will we pass judgment on who is deserving of mercy; on who is and who is not beyond God’s saving reach?
Better that we examine our own hearts, that we continue to own up to our status as “miserable offenders” each time we pray the daily office. That word “miserable” comes from a Latin word meaning, “in need of mercy.”
Better that we go on telling God each time we assemble for Holy Communion that our burden of sin is “intolerable” to us. “Intolerable” is from a Latin word meaning, “too heavy to bear.”
Better still that we do not become bloated with our own orthodoxy. I believe we get the gospel right here, as right as we know how to present it and live it. But we must never lose the humility to acknowledge both our own sin and the possibility of error in our doctrine.
We must never relinquish the mercy to take our Lord’s gospel to the least, the last and the lost of our own day, to minister to both their physical and spiritual needs. We must pause regularly before the mirror and check for streaks of Pharisaism in ourselves.
We have not quite finished Jesus’ answer to the Pharisees. He adds:
"But go and learn what this means: `I desire mercy and not sacrifice.' For I did not come to call the righteous, but sinners, to repentance."
Jesus is quoting from Hosea 6, and the Pharisees will have received every withering drop of irony in the statement. “Go and learn” is a rabbinic formula used with those in need of further study of the Scriptures.
The Lord is putting the Pharisees in the same box as those of Hosea’s day who inflated themselves with empty ritual while ignoring the suffering around them.
He is addressing them as students rather than teachers, and novices at that. But He is guilty, too.
Jesus Christ is guilty as charged. He is a friend of sinners. This great shame will redound to His great fame. Imagine being charged with a crime and shouting, “Yes, yes, I did it . . . and it is not only my offense but my very purpose. Your indictment is my badge of honor.”
Our Lord has flipped the thought-life of Israel – indeed, of every human ethical system – on its head. Why else did He come if not to offer a new paradigm for philia – friendship? To teach mankind what it means to be a philos – a friend?
Says the Lord: Your need and nothing more defines Me as your friend; your response to what I offer defines you as My friend. Or enemy.
Says the Pharisee: If you think as I think, speak as I speak, live as I live, come to my table and sup with me.
Says the Lord: If you cry out in your hunger for the bread of eternal life, come to My table and sup with Me.
Says the Pharisee: If this world is your home, feast on the fruit of your own righteousness and die here and decay here.
Says the Lord: If My everlasting kingdom is your home, My righteousness is your sustenance. Feed on Me and live forever.
If, like Matthew, we turn from our treasure and follow Him, we have no need of the riches this world offers.
Oh, but Preacher, we don’t steal our wealth, we earn it. So you do. But all you’ll ever earn will decay. Only what you are freely given will endure. By your sin you have earned eternal death; by His grace you have been given eternal life . . . if you are poor . . . poor in spirit.
We look back and we ponder: Who among us shall say, “I am not such a miraculous work of the Lord as Matthew?” Not I. Surely not I. To diminish our sin is to demean God’s grace.
Beloved, it is fitting that at this juncture we gather on a feast day. This Sabbath marks the end of the season of prayer and fasting I called to invoke God’s mercy on this church. Today we break the fast. We have told our Lord by our response how important His church is to us.
I do not know the answer you supplied . . . but He does. In the fervent hope that He will allow us to continue, I will begin teaching weekly on worship. May we pour our hearts and minds, bodies and souls, into the worship of a God so great in His infinite mercy that He desires not the death of a single sinner, not even one of the least of these. Amen.