Wednesday, September 23, 2015

Calling All Sinners

In our parish, we elected to observe the Feast of St. Matthew today (9/23/15), using the option presented on BCP p. 17: "Feasts of our Lord and other Major Feasts appointed on fixed days, which fall upon or are transferred to a weekday, may be observed on any open day within the week."

It's one thing to minister to sinners. It's another thing to put them in charge.

Today we celebrate the Feast of St. Matthew, the tax collector whom Jesus called to be a disciple. Imagine, if you will, what that symbolized to his contemporaries. Tax collectors were Jewish individuals who worked for the Roman Empire to collect revenues from the citizenry. Keep in mind that no one liked the Romans. They were the unholy occupiers of this Holy Land. At times, they used brutal tactics to quell any rebellion in this far-away province of the Empire. Revenues were crucial, and everything necessary was done to ensure that the money kept flowing to Rome.

Paying taxes to Caesar, using a coin that had a forbidden graven image of the semi-divine emperor and an inscription that declared that emperor's eternal reign, was itself an act of faithlessness for Jews. Remember the episode in which some Pharisees asked Jesus whether it was lawful (in the Jewish sense) to pay taxes to Caesar (Matt. 22:15-22). It was, in effect, a Catch-22. Refuse to pay and the Romans would brand you a traitor and lock you up. Pay the taxes and your own religious authorities would declare you unfaithful. What must it have been like, therefore, to serve as the agent of Rome who takes all the taxes from his people and then delivers them to the evil overlords?

On top of that, consider that tax collectors were inherently dishonest. They were paid a commission on what they collected. Squeeze more from your fellow Jews, and your family lives well. Develop a soft spot in your heart for your peers, and your family struggles. No one had anything good to say about a tax collector. But that's exactly who Matthew was. He was, by definition, a cheat and a thief. He was Jewish but could not show his face in religious gatherings. He was hated. He was despicable. He was a slimy, creepy, Roman-sympathizer. He was the very definition of sin. And he is exactly who Jesus called to be one of the twelve.

It is controversial when a minister spends time with notorious sinners. If I developed a prayer breakfast for loan sharks or a bible study for drug dealers or a dinner group for prostitutes, I think it would raise eyebrows. If I started a "take a meal and a bible to strippers" ministry, I would have some explaining to do. But what would it mean if I invited someone like that to be our children's minister or teach a bible study or serve on the Vestry? What if I made a notorious sinner my right-hand-man or right-hand-woman? Can you imagine?

Jesus called Matthew to be a disciple (Matt. 9:9-13). "Follow me," he said. Immediately, Matthew got up from his tax booth and followed Jesus...right to dinner with a bunch of tax collectors and other sinners. The Pharisees were appalled. "Why does your teacher eat with tax collectors and sinners?" they asked the disciples. And Jesus replied, "I have come not to call the righteous but to call sinners." Notice that language. Jesus isn't just ministering to the sinners. He's not just offering them a healing touch or a moment of his attention. He is surrounding himself--inviting into discipleship, establishing his ministry, and building God's kingdom--with sinners like Matthew. In calling a tax collector to be his disciple, Jesus showed us that his ministry isn't for sinners it's of you and me.

If we are committed to continuing the ministry of Jesus--if we call ourselves Christians--we must stop reaching out to the outcasts as if they need our help and start identifying ourselves in their company. We are the tax collector. We are the prostitute. We are the loan shark and the drug dealer. Christian discipleship is not based upon a model of inviting sinners to choose holiness before following Jesus. It is the sinner who does the following. Christianity is not for good people because being a Christian is not about being good. Being a Christian is about being a sinner whom Jesus has called to follow him. We do not choose holiness. God, who is holy, chooses us. Jesus, who is holy, chooses us. It is his choice of us that makes us holy--not our choice of him.

We, the church, are not the antidote for sin. Coming to church will not make you holy. Saying your prayers will not make you holy. Reading the bible will not make you holy. Being nice to other people and treating them the way you want to be treated will not make you holy. Following Jesus will not make you holy. Jesus Christ alone can make you holy. That is good news. We, the church, are not inviting people to embrace a life of holiness. We are spreading the good news that Jesus Christ is inviting sinners like us to follow him right into God's kingdom.

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