Sermon: St Matthew’s Day, Sunday September 24, 2017, St Petri
9 As Jesus went on from there, he saw a man named Matthew sitting at the tax collector’s booth. ‘Follow me,’ he told him, and Matthew got up and followed him.
10 While Jesus was having dinner at Matthew’s house, many tax collectors and sinners came and ate with him and his disciples. 11 When the Pharisees saw this, they asked his disciples, ‘Why does your teacher eat with tax collectors and sinners?’
12 On hearing this, Jesus said, ‘It is not the healthy who need a doctor, but those who are ill. 13 But go and learn what this means: “I desire mercy, not sacrifice.”[a] For I have not come to call the righteous, but sinners.’
Choosing Matthew to be a follower, future evangelist and gospel writer would be like you or I choosing the most traitorous and unkindly thought of person in society to be a reliable, trustworthy, loyal leader of people.
To us, Matthew the tax collector being chosen to be one of the most influential people there could be in God’s church for all time seems unwise and dangerous. But to Jesus, it seems to make complete sense!
To many, Jesus seems to choose the wrong people for his right work.
In the first century, few people loved the tax-collector. The name itself was a put down; lumped in with that other put-down and quite technical term, “sinner”; a person outside God’s blessing.
Why so? Well, in our day the relationship between taxer and taxed is probably not highly valued (unless you get a good tax return!). But in Palestine of the first century tax collectors were considered on the take and traitorous. The tax collector was collecting for the occupying power (Rome) and usually for themselves on the side. People like Matthew were assumed to be ripping of the everyday farmer, worker and even widow for the hated Romans and his own ends.
For the religiously connected and committed people, there was one more layer of mistrust and judgement on the tax collector. People like Matthew mixed freely with Gentiles and handled Gentile (unclean) money. This made him ritually/technically unclean. He could not be caught dead in the temple or synagogue. So, he and those like him had no way to have sins forgiven or be a part of the spiritual community in any way, even if they wanted this.
Any self-respecting Jewish Rabbi would be bold indeed to invite this untrustworthy, unclean and morally questionable person to join his inner circle of disciples: it would be a gesture of defiance to the established prejudice and legalised corruption.
So, what did Matthew actually do? He was probably not a door to door collector of goods and coins from locals. He had an office. It was in Capernaum, Peter’s home town and the headquarters of Jesus’ Galilean ministry. The place naturally had its custom house, since it lay on the road that leads from Damascus. At the northwest corner of Lake Galilee, that road passed from the territory of Herod Philip to the domains of his brother, Herod Antipas. Customs for goods being transported and road-tolls would be calculated and collected here.
The tax paid was not as exact as the road toll you pay in Melbourne when you drive on the freeway. The whole thing was a touch vague – vague enough for the tax collector to ensure the lining of his own pockets.
The Pharisees, in particular, might despise this tax system, but the trade was a profitable one and much sought after. Whether it was to be pursued honestly or dishonestly would depend on the character of the officer. We don’t really know whether Matthew lived up to expectations of dishonesty or not.
Matthew’s name before being named by Jesus was Levi.
‘And as Jesus passed further on, he saw Levi, the son of Alphaeus, sitting at work in the customs-house and said to him, “Follow me”; and he rose up and followed him’ (Mark 2:14).
What a name: “Matthew”. The Lord gave him the name ‘Mattai’ in Aramaic, ‘Matthew’ in English, meaning, ‘gift of God’. The man assumed to be a traitor of ill repute and unclean heart before a holy God is simply re-named, “Gift of God”.
We hear that amazingly, Matthew, then, got up from his tax registers and took a lesson from the lilies and the birds who never did a day’s calculation in their lives (Matthew 6:25ff.). His master was no longer Antipas, the shrewd ‘fox’, as Jesus named this particular son of Herod (Luke 13:32), but now Matthew is one who, unlike the foxes, had not even a home (Matthew 8:20).
The change destroyed all Matthew’s future business and wealth prospects. Simon and Andrew could have return to fishing, but Matthew had left a lucrative business and could never recover it. He left it gladly, it seems, and completely. Matthew was not the one who kept the accounts for the apostolic group. Judas did that (John 13: 29).
Matthew, the gift of God, seemed pretty happy about being called to Jesus’ mission. That very night Matthew throws a party for all the wrong people! All the unclean, outsides who are assumed to be untrustworthy and probably were to some degree are there. “Tax collectors and Sinners”; as unclean a group as you could get sharing food and wine together, breaking all the food rules and social sensibilities.
The keepers of the rules are not happy. They cannot figure out why all the rules are being broken by this so called “Teacher”.
Jesus makes it so simple. Because sick people need healing. If you know you are sick you know you need some grace. When you get that grace in the form of love and care and calling when you don’t deserve it, can’t pay for it, you are overwhelmed with it.
Paul says it well:
It is by grace that any of us are saved to peace and life and love. This is pure gift. This is not from within us or made by us. It is a gift from a kind and loving God, so none of us can boast of our calling, healing and new name (from Ephesians 2:4-10).
Hope spring eternal! The all-powerful Son of God who can cast woes of divine doom on sinners does not. He reaches out to people who have major problems and issues, in an act of calling, hospitality and welcome.
There is hope for you who think you are too bad, bold or ugly for God! There is hope for those who are scared of God. There is hope for those who struggle, those who cheat and lie, those who are cast out of communities, those who are all alone, those who have harmed and hurt and don’t know how to start the healing. There is even hope for the proud and highly moral people casting many judgements on many people. You can simply leave that office and give up earning credits with God.
And the clincher is this. For those standing in judgement over others in holy indignation or just plain human pain and shame, Jesus says that the God of the universe heart’s desire is not your personal sacrifice to earn his favour, not your demands and assumptions made about others, not your being very, very good and squeaky clean, but mercy. Mercy is his preferred option. His goodness is good and it is enough. Mercy and kindness are his greatest gifts. Mercy triumphs over judgement.
In this mercy Jesus chooses the wrong people for his right work. He turns flawed people into flourishing people. He calls, selfish, lazy and disloyal sinners into his holy team ministry of co-workers in his gospel; making them into a holy priesthood who do his holy work.
Jesus’ call changes the course of this man’s character and life’s direction. Jesus’ call has changed this man’s character and life too. How about you?
You, by your baptism into Christ and the filling of the Spirit are Matthew; once only named “Sinner”, assumed to be outside any grace and life and love of God, now named “gift of God” for others.
So the call goes out to the called ones again;
“…..my brothers and sisters, make every effort to confirm your calling and election. For if you do these things, you will never stumble, 11 and you will receive a rich welcome into the eternal kingdom of our Lord and Saviour Jesus Christ (2 Peter 1:9-11).
“….holy brothers and sisters, who share in the heavenly calling, fix your thoughts on Jesus, whom we acknowledge as our apostle and high priest (Hebrews 3:1).
Jesus calling today.
The sick healed, the lost found, the lonely embraced, character changed, the goals shifted; hope springs eternal in the grace of this man.
Gifts of God, be his gift of mercy.