When Mark asked if I would consider preaching my first weekend serving as your intern I said “Yes!” but was in all honesty a bit intimidated. As a member of this congregation for just over a year, I do know a bit more about this community than some, perhaps. Yet to speak to you right out of the gate?! Thankfully Mark encouraged me to choose a text and to preach on something meaningful to me. So that is what I’ll try to do this morning.
The calling of Matthew is a text that drew my attention my last year of M.Div studies, some ten years ago, mainly because I think it gives us a picture of the heart of God as well as a picture of God’s heart for us, that is what God asks not just of Matthew- but of you and of me.
When you think of a disciple what words come to mind? What should a disciple of Christ look like? Act like? Speak like? I’ve asked my undergraduate students this in the past and they’ve suggested- faithful? Maybe courageous? Perhaps good- morally. Or maybe certain in their faith- sure of what they believe? The question makes me think of a game my college roomates and I used to play called the “Classified Life,” where we would pick out of dream life from the classifieds, including the descriptions of those looking for a partner (this was long before the days of online dating services!). Surely Jesus, when choosing his closest few and my girlfriends and I just the same would choose reputable, dependable characters.
What challenges me about Matthew’s story, however, is that he is far from reputable and dependable. He’s a mess. He’s broken. And in his actual calling of Matthew Jesus’ heart aches for him. And that is why Jesus 1) Invites the sinner in; 2) Surrounds himself with the sin; and 3) Heals and transforms the sinner in an embodied way. Let’s take a look at these three aspects a bit closer.
This is a small passage in the Gospels, giving us a glimpse of the disciple who may have played a role in writing the entire Gospel story. His autobiography, while brief, is rich in context.
If we scoot back eight verses to the beginning of chapter nine we notice the chapter begins with Jesus entering into Capernaum. Having just left the region of Gad, where He and his miracles were NOT welcome, Jesus returns to Capernaum to be met with a group of men, carrying their paralytic friend on a stretcher. Verse 2 of chapter nine tells us that Jesus, seeing the faith of the paralytic’s friends, forgives the quadriplegic of his sins, and heals him of his ailment.
The passages immediately following the calling of Matthew tell of similar healings. In verses 20-22 a hemorrhaging woman is made well after twelve years of bleeding, and is consequently made clean and acceptable in the eyes of society. The daughter of Jairus, a wealthy Sadducee, is brought back to life in verses 23-26. After this Jesus heals two blind men by merely touching their eyes. In verses 32-33 Jesus casts out demons from a mute man, amazing the crowds.
At the end of the chapter Matthew sums up this series of healings by saying (in verse 36) “Seeing the people, He felt compassion for them, because they were distressed and dispirited like sheep without a shepherd.” Calling his disciples to be of a similar heart, Jesus challenges them in verses 37-38, “The harvest is plentiful, but the workers are few. Therefore, beseech the Lord of the harvest to send out workers in His harvest”
What is so significant about the passage we’re looking at today is that Jesus doesn’t necessarily heal Matthew of anything. At least not explicitly. Rather, Jesus extends a great invitation to Matthew, a sinner.
Matthew was a tax collector and a Jew. In first century Palestine tax collectors were looked down upon by nearly all sects of society. They were viewed as greedy, self-serving, and parasitic because they exhorted more money than necessary from the poor, which could easily describe the majority of ancient Rome. Jews especially despised tax collectors because they often did business with pagans and gentiles, making them ritually unclean. Not to mention that for a Jew a tax collector was the embodiment or real reminder of occupation- of yet another empire governing over Israel and its customs and communities. All that to say, it’s fair to venture that Matthew was far from well-liked. We might say that he was “up and out” rather than “down and out.” “Up” due to some of the privileges he carried, with regards to education and money, and “out” with with regards to the communities surrounding him. He doesn’t fit in anywhere.
When Jesus encounters Matthew at the tax collector’s booth on the border of Herod Antipas’ territory He sees Matthew for who he really is ¾this “up and out”, broken and sick man in need of Christ. He has compassion for him. Compassion- a Latin word that literally means “to break with someone else.” Because Jesus’ heart ached for Matthew, broke for him, he invited the sinner in. And Matthew followed that call.
But what was Matthew called to, exactly? I mean we know he ends up being one of Jesus’ discples, a martyr, a great communicator (at least in part) of Jesus’ teachings and vision. But in the immediate context of this passage where was he called? To what ends? Verse 10 gives us the answer, referring to the company Matthew keeps. He is called to move in and through his broken life, not away from it. Christ calls him to see clearly and know well from whence he came.
I think this is an important point for us today, because it’s easy to read these stories of calling in the Bible- to notice how Matthew follows without delay- and think to ourselves, “I could never do that.” God hasn’t called me such radical ways. I don’t have that kind of calling. But in fact this text suggests that following Jesus isn’t always such a radical departure from our everyday. And that’s actually quite Lutheran by the way- the idea of finding one’s vocation in the mundane tasks of our day-to-day existence. This is why Luther boldly claims that the work of a milkmaid is easily more pleasing to God than the work of the Pope himself! And as we know Luther got himself into a bit of trouble for making such claims!
The heartache of Jesus calls us to lean into the brokenness within our own lives and to recognize the vulnerability of others. Having spent much of last year studying Brene Brown’s work on these themes hopefully some of these challenges are already familiar to us.
And that’s what Jesus does in this text. He not only invites the sinner, but also surrounds himself- even “soils himself” if you will with the sin. In verse 10 we are told that Jesus is having dinner with many “tax collectors and sinners.” These “crooks and riff-raff,” as Peterson translates in the Message and as is sometimes translated as prostitutes, criminals, and belligerents, are egregious sinners. The word “sinner” here implies persons who repeatedly draw upon society in a negative way. And by being in their presence Jesus is sacrificing his religious status, for in this culture table fellowship was a symbol of closeness. By being in their presence he is now seen as unclean; his reputation is at great risk.
Even more radical is the way he is hanging out with such characters. A literal translation of verse ten describes Jesus “reclining” at Matthew’s table, suggesting that this is a definitive all-out party. One reclined while feasting and partaking of much wine, so there was room to spare. This is scandalous incarnational ministry at its best! Jesus calls Matthew to follow him and then asks Matthew to show him the inner workings of his messed-up social life- a life that would have been for all practical purposes forbidden in the Jewish context.
Why? Why would Jesus call Matthew in this way? By taking a closer look at the brokenness of Matthew’s context what was Jesus seeking to accomplish?
To the sick, we see throughout this chapter, Jesus was offering transformative health. To the lost, harassed and aimless, a fearless shepherd. To Matthew, a new place to belong. And the way to transformation in these examples isn’t distance from the brokenness, it is in it and through it. Again, Jesus shows Matthew that in all of his brokenness, recognizing his own great need of Christ, Matthew could be used by Christ.
The uncomfortable part of this passage isn’t Matthew and his scandalous friends. Ironically, it is the religious leaders. The Pharisees, who according to verse 11 don’t even have the gall to personally address Jesus. Instead they ask, “Why is your teacher eating with the tax collectors and sinners?” The English translation here doesn’t quite do justice to what the text is doing, for in the Greek the words for tax collectors and sinners are placed at the beginning of the sentence- tax collectors and sinners you eat with, why?. Matthew’s word order choice here informs the reader that these Pharisees have serious issues with the fact that Jesus is eating with these “crooks and rif raff.” Can’t you just hear it? These wormy, fearful Pharisees pointing fingers from a safe distance. And then (and I LOVE this part) Jesus, upon hearing them (because He was likely nearby) addresses them directly, without shame, saying:
“It is not those who are healthy who need a physician, but those who are sick.”
Knowing that these Pharisees are the so-called “learned ones,” they are the first-century sect responsible for keeping and teaching the law, those who know the Hebrew scriptures and study them, Jesus rebukes the Pharisees, telling them to LEARN the meaning of a famous prophetic passage. The Pharisees are, without question, familiar with what Jesus quotes here, Hosea 6:6, which addresses the Israelites jumping through religious hoops, but continually falling from God.
The minor prophet says, “For I delight in loyalty (mercy) rather than sacrifice. And in the knowledge (acknowledgement) of God rather than burnt offerings.”
In Hosea’s account God is not asking the Israelites to completely abolish or abandon the sacrificial cult, but IS asking them to prioritize interpersonal relationships over the religious ritual.
And that’s easier said then done, isn’t it? Because on some level doing the “right” thing can be easier then relating in the needful way. Let’s face it- compared to the messiness of intimacy, being religious is more tidy, more predictable, more sane. And for this reason perhaps some of you, like me, don’t really find yourselves relating to Matthew. Because at face value you are the reputable character in the story. You do keep good company and give thought to your reputation and Christian witness, even. You have made choices that society praises rather than scorns. And so for you- for me- the calling to heed within this passage is that of the Pharisees. Will they, will we, recognize their own brokenness and by embracing it seek to be God’s harvest hands?
As the Apostle Paul puts it in his second epistle to the Christians of Corinth, God’s grace is sufficient for us and God’s power made perfect in our weakness. Will we boast all the more gladly about our weaknesses, that Christ’s power might rest on us? (2 Cor. 9-10).
And so in conclusion, on this official first day of my internship with all of you here at Augustana, I am “outing” myself. What you have in me, and will have in me, is a broken, weak, imperfect sister in Christ. In our coming months together, by all means, feel free to ask me about the hard things in my life and, as I earn your trust, consider yourselves very welcome to share with me something about yours. And may God, through the power of the Holy Spirit, draw us all deeper into our callings, callings to- like Matthew, work in and through our brokenness that God might use it toward greater compassion for others. Amen.