Matthew 9:913, 1826
In the name of God: Father, Son and Holy Spirit: The One God. Amen.
“Why does your teacher eat with tax collectors and sinners?”
This last Tuesday will go into the history books. I am sure most of us, if not all of us, sat glued to our television sets last Tuesday evening as we watched Barack Obama receive enough delegates to secure the nomination of his party.
Regardless if it had been Hillary or Obama, history would have been written this last week—it is a history that this nation can be proud of. Had Hillary been the nominee, she would have been the first woman to secure the nomination of her party to be President. Hillary was the first woman, since women received the right to vote in 1919, to come so close to being nominated to be President of the United States.
But it was Obama, the first Afro-American person to do so, who received enough delegates to be the nominee of his party. It has been a long road since Abraham Lincoln, Martin Luther King, Lyndon Baines Johnson, and John Lewis for this historic moment to take place. Last Tuesday night without any question, Obama and June 3 secured a footnote in history.
As I sat glued last Tuesday evening listening to McCain, Hillary and Obama make their speeches, I was also thinking about this sermon that I was going to preach today in this pulpit. The question I kept asking myself was, what is Jesus saying to us in today’s gospel? “Why does your teacher eat with the tax collectors and sinners.” One thing I know for sure, Jesus is speaking a language that would have never secured him either the Republican or Democratic nomination. For Jesus calls us to a different lifestyle and he calls us to be in the company of those who were “tax collectors and sinners.”
In 1st century Roman Palestine taxes were collected by royal officials, attached to the court. The direct taxes, the “head” or poll tax and the land taxes were collected by officials in direct employ of the Romans. The tax collectors about whom Jesus is speaking in the Gospel appointed for today were most likely “toll collectors.” The toll collectors appear at transportation and commercial centers like Capernaum, an important site on the Sea of Galilee where Jesus had his active ministry. Capernaum was well know for its Via Maris trade route as well as its fishing industry. Jesus would have certainly known all the “toll collectors” there (ABD, VI, p.337).
In the first century the tax collector was lumped together with beggars, thieves and robbers. In the Gospel text for this morning the tax collectors were paired with sinners—i.e. non-observant Jews, and with immoral people. Tax collectors were also likened to the Gentiles. In Matthew 11, two chapters after our Gospel for this morning, Jesus is accused of being a drunkard and a “friend of tax collectors and sinners.” This is not exactly a strong recommendation for anyone. Certainly this is not the company one would want to keep if he or she wanted to get the Presidential nomination of their political party. Can’t you just imagine what CNN or FOX News would do with such information!
But it was a tax collector from Capernaum who Jesus called to be his disciple. Perhaps not the best campaign manager Jesus could have chosen! But that is who Jesus chose, a risky, politically incorrect choice even in Roman Palestine.
But Jesus’ association with the “tax collectors and sinners” must be seen in the context of those traditions in the gospels where Jesus’ actions challenge the religious and social conventions of his time, such as the forgiveness of sin and the violation of the Sabbath by plucking grain or healing.
Was Matthew a sinner? Yes. Was he unclean according to Jewish purity laws? Yes. Did he sell out to the hated Romans? Yes. Did he collect too many tolls? Most likely yes. Jesus knew all this. Jesus was aware of all of this. Jesus never said Matthew was none of these. Yet, Jesus said to Matthew: “Follow me.” That is what was important to Jesus, “Follow me.” Sure the scribes and the Pharisees were eager to condemn Jesus, but Matthew followed Jesus to become one of his disciples. In spite of Matthew’s past, in spite of everything, Matthew followed Jesus.
The real problem was that the scribes and Pharisees could not cope with that. They could not cope with the fact that Jesus would associate himself—would lower himself—to associate himself with Matthew. The scribes and Pharisees could not forgive Matthew. They were not capable of forgiving, they could not extend any mercy to Matthew. The scribes and Pharisees were only concerned about the fact that Jesus was breaking the law.
I suspect in our more honest moments, most of us would have to confess that we are like the scribes and the Pharisees. That we are really only concerned about the neat structures which we have made and in which we like to live our lives. And while we “scorn” the scribes and Pharisees today as we hear the Gospel read, I suspect in our more honest moments, we have to confess that we are scribes and Pharisees. The law is so much more comfortable, than to live in the grace that Jesus calls us to live in, when he calls us to “Follow me.”
A wonderful story is told about Jim Bakker and Ruth and Billy Graham.
Do you remember Jim and Tammy Faye Bakker and their “Praise The Lord” ministry? In 1986 PTL’s income was $129 million and included Heritage USA—a 2300 acre religious theme park, a hotel and a shopping mall in North Carolina and its own TV station on 1200 channels.
Jim Bakker had an affair with the church secretary, Jessica Hahn, in 1980 and resigned in 1987 when it came to light that he had paid her about $265,000 in blackmail money over the affair.
After his resignation, the IRS investigated and discovered that the Bakkers had diverted $4.8 million for personal use.
Part of that sum came from fraudulent $1,000 partnerships, which secured each partner three days per year of free lodging at the hotel in Heritage USA. The fraud was on such a scale that it was estimated that about 1500 people a month were being defrauded of their free time-share. Jim Bakker was indicted for fraud in 1988 and sentenced to 45 years in prison and fined $500,000.
When the scandal broke, Bakker’s Christian friends quickly deserted him. He became an outcast in the Christian world. And when he was sentenced, his wife Tammy Faye left him and then divorced him. Six months into his sentence, Bakker was surprised one afternoon when the prison warden called him into his office. Bakker had a visitor: Billy Graham. When Graham came in, Bakker asked him why he had come to visit—because he knew that any association with Bakker would tarnish Graham’s reputation. Graham replied that Bakker was his friend in good and bad times—and now when things were bad, he would stand by his side. And Billy Graham was true to his word.
Bakker’s sentence was eventually reduced, on appeal, to ten years and when he came out of prison on parole, he had nowhere to stay.
So the Grahams invited Jim Bakker to stay with them.
On the Sunday following Bakker’s release, Ruth Graham took him to church with her.
Disregarding what people would think about her, Ruth Graham stood up in church and introduced Jim Bakker to the congregation as her friend Jim Bakker.
I suspect this story about Ruth and Billy Graham is a contemporary parable of the challenge that the Gospel is teaching today: “Follow me.” How willing are we to visit the Jim Bakkers of this world in prison?
When Ruth Graham stood up in church and introduced Jim Bakker as a friend, the first thing that crossed my mind is how frequently we speak about being a friend of Jesus. Can we really be a friend of Jesus if we do not associate with Jim Bakker, or in first century Palestine, with Matthew, the “toll collector” from Capernaum? It is so much easier for us to be a scribe or a Pharisee.
With Jesus’ call “Follow me”, life will never be the same again.
There was a man, a graduate of one of the finest medical schools. He could have had a high paying practice and lived comfortably. He was also a brilliant musician and he could have become famous touring Europe. But instead Albert Schweitzer went to Africa as a medical missionary. When asked why he gave up fame and wealth to work with lepers, he said, “I just had a feeling it was what God wanted me to do.” Jesus comes with his gracious call and things will never be the same again.
To follow Jesus means living a radical lifestyle of love. For Jesus love always trumps law. Jesus, in the second half of today’s Gospel, responds to the leader of the synagogue (in Mark this leader is identified as Jairus) whose daughter had just died. Jesus goes to Jairus’ home and Jesus took Jairus’ daughter’s hand, and the girl got up. In the same way, when Jesus was on his way to the leader of the synagogue’s home, a woman who had been hemorrhaging for 12 years wanted to touch Jesus’ garment because she knew if she would touch his garment, she would be made well. Jesus turned and said to the woman, “Your faith has made you well.”
For a leader of a synagogue—a highly respectable social position—to fall at the feet of an unconventional itinerant preacher was to contradict what society would have told him was right, but his love for his ailing daughter was such that it transcended such social niceties. The woman with long-term hemorrhaging was an outcast from conventional society, and the law prohibited social and physical contact with the religious functionaries. Yet when she touched Jesus’ garment, his response was love and not law. [Nils Chittenden, “Sermon: God’s love transcends human laws and judgments” (Durham Cathedral: 4 June 2005).]
Jesus asks us to “Follow me.” To do so will move us out of our comfort zone. It will mean associating with the Matthews of this world, with the Jim Bakkers, with the lepers of Albert Schweitzer’s world, with a woman who has been hemorrhaging for 12 years, with the hungry and homeless in Washington, with foreign leaders with whom we do not want to speak. Jesus calls us to do business differently than the way we have been doing our business. Jesus calls us to live the radical lifestyle of love that mirrors the Kingdom of Heaven.
The question I have to ask myself: how willing am I, like Matthew, to follow Jesus? Might that also be the question that you will ask yourself this week.
In the Name of God. Amen.