Sunday, June 08, 2008

Sermon - Pentecost 4 - Matthew 9:9-13

"The Difference Between Sinners"
4th Sunday after Pentecost
Matthew 9:9-13
What if you could write your own obituary? What would you say about yourself? Would you want it to be flattering, yet understated? Would it list all your accomplishments in life, where you've worked, lived, and how you were regarded in the community? Or would you rather have someone else write it, so they could say all those nice things about you that you know you deserve, but it would just look bad if I said them myself?
Here we read about the calling of Matthew, the tax collector. And guess which Gospel we read it from? Matthew's Gospel. Here the apostle writes about his own encounter with Jesus, in which the Lord called him to follow. Probably the most pivotal even in his life. How notable that he gets to include his own story in the Gospel account. This Gospel would be read by billions of Christians, around the world, for thousands of years. So how would Matthew portray himself? What would we remember about him?

That he was a sinner.

Yes, St. Matthew the Apostle and Evangelist, St. Matthew, the writer of the very first New Testament book – when you read his story you find out he was clearly a sinner.
Yes, a tax collector.

Now, even today, no one likes the tax collector. Three of the scariest letters together in our language are I-R-S. But in ancient Israel it was even worse. Because the taxes went to Rome, those hated pagan occupiers. And the Jews who collected those taxes were seen as turncoats and traitors. Working for the dogs. Preying on their own people. And worse. Most tax collectors were assumed to be skimming off the top, taking more than their fair share, and grew quite wealthy at the expense of the people. You could even say that “tax collector” and “sinner” were basically synonymous in that day.

So here was Matthew, sitting there doing what tax-collectors do, at his tax-collecting booth. And Jesus comes right up and calls him to follow. It's more stunning than you might think.
For Jesus doesn't wait for him to quit. He doesn't say, “well, Matthew, this life of greed and corruption is bad news for you, and you can only be my follower once you've proven yourself. So clean up your act, then come talk to me later.” He says, simply, “Follow me”. And in this short sentences calls Matthew to repentance AND faith. Matthew's trust in the Lord leads him to respond just as immediately, as he left behind his tax-collecting booth and followed the Savior.
And Matthew wasn't the only sinner or tax collector to find forgiveness with Christ. Jesus found many of them, and even ate with them, to the great disturbance of the Pharisees. If Jesus is really a moral teacher, a man of God, someone with a message worth hearing – then why would he even associate with sinners like these?

The Pharisees, no doubt, thought Jesus should be eating with and socializing with and chumming around with people of good moral character and standing. Pillars of the community, who had the respect of good, observant Jews. People who deserved his company. People, well, like them. It's as if Jesus was saying these sinners and tax collectors were more worthy of his time, more deserving of his attention than they, the self-important Pharisees were.
But that wasn't it either. After all, we know the Pharisees were sinners just like the sinners and tax collectors. So why then would Jesus eat with these and not those? Why would he spend his time among the riff-raff and not in the courts of power and prestige? He gives the answer.
He is the doctor. He's here for the sick.
Those who know and feel their illness, will see need for the doctor. Those who think they're healthy, even on death's doorstep, will have no need of healing. Obviously the Pharisees thought they were just fine and dandy with God. They had defined holy living in such a way that it made it possible for them to attain, but they were ignorant of their true disease and need for healing. The sinners and tax collectors, on the other hand, knew their sin, and welcomed the healer.
Jesus saw this as a teaching moment, and told the Pharisees to go learn a lesson. What does Hosea mean when he says God desires, “mercy not sacrifice”? And what can we learn from all this?
Well for one, we can see that there are different kinds of sinners. The real distinction that matters is not how big the sin, or how scandalous, how embarrassing or who gets hurt. No, the distinction Jesus cares about is, “Does the sinner know his sins” or, “does the man who is sick see his need for the physician?” This is what separated the tax collectors from the Pharisees.
When Jesus reminds them, and us, that God desires “mercy, not sacrifice”, he's saying quite a bit. He's not saying that God desires good works for us to meet the conditions so that he can save us – for certainly, neither the tax collector or the pharisee had enough good works... nor do you or I. None of us could be seen as merciful enough, loving enough, to our fellow man to make up for all the debt of sin we owe to God. So Jesus isn't looking for works of mercy from us to earn us credit with him.
Then what about sacrifice? The Pharisees doubtless trusted in the sacrifices – but as outward acts of religious duty. And this was not God's intention. Oh the sacrifices had their place, but these too were turned into works of man, rather than blessed avenues to receive God's grace. After all, these sacrifices all pointed to Christ, the ultimate sacrifice. Christ, in whom true mercy is found.
And here it is. The mercy that truly counts is the mercy God shows us. It is that mercy that changes us, not only in God's mind, but in reality. It is his mercy that instills acts of mercy in his people. We love because he loved us. We are merciful to others because he is merciful to us.
Jesus is not against the sacrifices, either. These were prescribed by God for the Old Testament people, and they were good. But they were not meant to become outward works – so that merely going through the motions gave one a sense of self-righteousness. This is a twisting of trust sacrifice.
Still, the sacrifice that truly counts is the one that he, Christ, makes for us. His own body and blood given and shed at the cross, and given to us now to eat and drink at his altar. Perhaps some, too, make this gift into an empty ceremony. What a shame that would be. Instead, may we all see God's mercy in it, as he offers us forgiveness, life and salvation in the body and blood of Christ? See this gift for what it is – the medicine of immortality from the Great Physician himself.
Sinners and Pharisees, tax collectors and prostitutes, pastors and laypeople, young and old – all kinds of sinners are called by the Great Physician. All are in need of a doctor, but not all can see it. Jesus reminds us today that we do, in fact, need him. And he has, in fact, come for us all. To offer the sacrifice of himself – the sacrifice that brings mercy – the mercy that makes us merciful.
Matthew wrote about himself – as a sinner. But as a sinner who knew it, and responded in faith to the one who makes house calls. Our Great Healer and Doctor of Souls, Jesus Christ. May we all see our disease, and find our healing in him, as he comes in blessing and promise to this house, today. Amen.

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