Jesus, Matthew, and us

A sermon text, based on Matthew 9.9-13, video-recorded and shared with the people of St. Matthew’s Episcopal Church, Spartanburg, SC, on the Feast of St. Matthew (transferred from September 21 and celebrated on) Sunday, September 20, 2020.

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It is the first century in the Middle East. The occupying Roman Empire casts a wide, oppressive shadow over many lands and peoples. In Palestine, the northern territories are ruled by the descendants of Herod the Great; propped up on their thrones as puppets of the Empire. To the south, Judea, an Imperial territory, is governed by a Roman procurator, Pontius Pilate.

All empires require revenue; largely in the form of taxation. Taxes require collectors. Publicans. Officially-appointed gatherers of publicly-provided income – tolls on imports and exports, custom fees for merchants who buy materials or sell their wares anywhere in the land.

Publicans. In the case of Judea, Jewish collaborators with the Empire. Reviled by the religious authorities as ritually unclean, even irredeemable because of their contact with the hated infidels, the Romans. Vilified by all for their heinous habit, their predatory, parasitic practice of adding a bit (sometimes more) to the amount of the tax; pocketing the difference for themselves.

Enter Matthew. Plodding along, elbowing his way through the jostling crowd of angry people, their eyes narrowed in condemnation, their lips curled with curses. Every day, Matthew makes his way to his station at the custom house. There, to make money for the Empire and for himself.

Enter Jesus. Walking along. Seeing Matthew. Calling to him. Matthew rises from his seat and follows Jesus. Yet, soon, Jesus “sat dinner in the house.” Whose house?

So, it is that Jesus who summoned Matthew, saying, “Follow me,” has followed Matthew to his home. Matthew has offered and Jesus has accepted the hospitality of table fellowship; in Middle Eastern cultures, one of the chiefest forms of welcome, even intimacy.

The other dinner guests? Who else? Matthew’s crowd. Other tax collectors and a collection of other “sinners;” whose lifestyles and occupations I leave to your imagination.

Enter the Pharisees. Members of that social, theological, political party of ancient Judaism; their very name meaning “separated one.” Consecrated, set aside to be the bearers of God’s Law, to be embodiments for the people of what a life lived faithful to God looks like. They are shocked that Jesus, with a following of disciples, meaning that he is recognized as a rabbi, a teacher, would hang his proverbial and literal hat with sinners. “Why?” they ask; though less as a question and more a declaration of their disgust.

Jesus says, “The sick, not the well, need a doctor. I have come to heal the sick.” His word, both a description of his ministry and a veiled, nevertheless pointed dismissal of anyone who, in the light of God’s pure sight, in the hubris of mortal self-righteousness, would dare to declare oneself well.

As for his ministry, Jesus had a special affection for tax collectors. When Jesus taught his followers to relate to unrepentant sinners by continually, unconditionally reaching out, his model (you guessed it), tax collectors.[1]

Clearly, Matthew repented, becoming a disciple of Jesus. And then an evangelist, the author of one of the accounts of the life and ministry, death and resurrection of Jesus. And then an apostle; going out into the world to proclaim, in word and deed, that gospel.

Their relationship tells us all that we need to know about Christian ministry. Our Christian ministry.

We, as followers of Jesus, follow him into the world seeking our sisters and brothers who live on the margins of society. Those who have no (and know that they have no) righteousness of their own. Therefore, those who model for us who we are and are to be in God’s sight.

And we, as bearers of St. Matthew’s name, with the hospitality of love, are to invite all, seeing in them the face of Jesus, into the home of our hearts.

And we, as evangelists and apostles, with the words of our lips and the works of our lives, indeed, with the pages of our personal histories as miniature gospels of Jesus, as we say in our Prayer for Spiritual Growth, are “to preach, teach, heal, and make disciples…(as) God-centered people…shar(ing God) with everyone we meet.”[2]

Illustration: The Calling of Saint Matthew (1886-1896), James Tissot (1836-1902)


[1] Matthew 18.17

[2] Prayer for Spiritual Growth (full text): Gracious Father, we ask spiritual growth for ourselves, our families and friends, and especially for our family St. Matthew’s. Grant us growth in understanding and willingness to be your Body in this world. Empower us to live the mission of Christ: to preach, teach, heal, and make disciples. In joyful thanksgiving for the blessing of your presence in our lives, compel us to share you with everyone we meet. May our numbers increase, our commitment deepen, our lives be joyfully yours. Make us a God-centered people. In Christ’s name we pray. Amen.

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