Again I’m behind in my blogging, and that was due to two events: 1) serving as the “Lead Spiritual Director” on a FITS TEC retreat, and 2) doing so while sick, knowing full well that I’d only make things worse for myself by doing a good thing while in not-so-good condition. So I’ve been delayed—I came home from the retreat with the worst inner ear infection of my 46 years of life. Otitis Media—my old nemesis—now more often attacking me as I’ve aged. Recovery time has taken longer than usual this go ’round.
The physician in Urgent Care wouldn’t even allow me to leave until I was given two injections in my bum, a prescription for some serious antibiotics, and a verification that someone was in the office to drive me home! That whole equilibrium matter—frustrating to feel weebly-wobbly.
A sacrifice made by me for others, led to a sacrifice made by others for me who allowed me time and rest to recover. And now I’m back, and that, as they say is that!
So last Sunday we celebrated the Feast Day of St. Matthew and the Gospel was this:
9As Jesus was walking along, he saw a man called Matthew sitting at the tax booth; and he said to him, “Follow me.” And he got up and followed him.
10And as he sat at dinner in the house, many tax collectors and sinners came and were sitting with him and his disciples. 11When the Pharisees saw this, they said to his disciples, “Why does your teacher eat with tax collectors and sinners?” 12But when he heard this, he said, “Those who are well have no need of a physician, but those who are sick. 13Go and learn what this means, ‘I desire mercy, not sacrifice.’ For I have come to call not the righteous but sinners.” (NRSV)
Can’t you hear the Pharisees? Their disgust, consternation, and arrogance?
And don’t we honestly add our voice with their voices in chorus?
Don’t we cry loudly, “No way! Jesus, stop it! He is scum! He screws the people out of money! He helps the oppressor oppress! Have nothing to do Matthew—we don’t! Jesus, neither should you!”
And what does Jesus do? He goes to Matthew in spite of us. He tells Matthew, “Follow Me.” Nothing weebly-wobbly here—the command from Jesus turns Matthew in a new direction, a different direction. And Matthew, having been told to follow Jesus, turns away from his life before. His turn takes him into the company of the One who offers him forgiveness rather than condemnation, absolution rather than judgment, birth into something new rather than death in the continuing of old ways. “Follow Me,” Jesus says. And follow Matthew does—all the way into salvation, mercy, grace, forgiveness, and new identity.
“Follow Me,” Jesus says. And follow Matthew does, all the way into a happy exchange where all the sin of Matthew, and you, and me, are nailed to the cross in the body of Jesus—Ancient Israel’s God incarnate. Matthew gets the grace and Jesus takes his sin. We, too, get the grace and Jesus, too, takes the sin. What a happy exchange, indeed!
In the moment of “following” Matthew is changed, forgiven, freed! His new identity is in Jesus—not in tax collecting, not in the opinions of others, not even in his own self-perceptions whether of praise or doubt. His identity is in Jesus–no longer in himself.
His sins go to Jesus. His failings go to Jesus. All of it goes to Jesus. And in Jesus he gets a risen life, a new life.
What happens next? After so great and happy an exchange, Matthew hosts a party!
And, at this party, things get really out of hand—for the guest list bears “tax collectors and sinners” into the company of Jesus. Bad enough that they come, even worse that Jesus eats with them! “Israel’s God, sitting down with sinners, such a sorry sight,” in chorus we decry out of our pharisaic view.
For isn’t it true that we are irate with Jesus for sitting with these unclean, dirty, damnable sinners because we think he ought to be sitting with us?
Haven’t we worked at getting ourselves clean?
Don’t we think that we live lives so worthy of his attention that it grates on our last nerves that he is in company with “those people?”
And isn’t it true that the only thing keeping us from the party over at Matthew’s house is us?
And we can’t see this can we, for aren’t we too blind in our self-righteous sinfulness to see that we are condemning others simply because they sin differently from me or you?
And to the last, aren’t we too busy judging Jesus for the company God keeps to find the time to join Matthew’s happy exchange party crowd?
Maybe it is none of these. Maybe it is all of these. Or maybe we’ve reduced the powerful doings and sayings of Jesus into a personal morality, individualized, self-focussed, private ethics regimen—-one that has us so caught up in “getting-it-done/believed-just-right” to allow us the chance to rest in the One who has already handled the matter. Perhaps, that’s it! Maybe we’re just too busy trying to get it right and believe it right, too busy in our process to follow Jesus. He’s partying at Matthew’s house and we are letting perfectionism and our private personal morality quest keep us at bay. It’s sort of sad, really. Aren’t we choosing stuff over Jesus—and missing the party is the result?
And—since we are in the company of Pharisees—maybe my grandma’s old maxim is true, “You are your friends.” Perhaps it’s equally true, that old saying, “Birds of a feather flock together.”
And since we are in the company of Pharisees—we have to ask, “are you a Pharisee?” Well, “Are you?” And, “Am I a Pharisee?” Well, “Am I?”
Is there someone you won’t sit with at Table? Is there someone you see as beyond the company of Jesus? Is there someone you hate, and you burn at the notion that Jesus loves them in spite of you? In fact, you are stunned, appalled, enflamed, that Jesus loves them in the same instant that Jesus is loving you? Is there even one sinner that you see beyond the reach of Jesus, outside the company of God?
And shouldn’t that prove troublesome—presuming to know who does and does not fit in the company of Jesus? For since we know who God should and should not consider God’s company, aren’t we declaring ourselves to be well? And if we are caught up in the “vetting” of company for Jesus, perhaps we need to hear his words again.
Hear Jesus, “Those who are well have no need of a physician…”.
Ponder Jesus saying , “Go and learn what this means, ‘I desire mercy, not sacrifice.’”
And come to terms with the scandalous nature of Jesus saying, “…I have come to call not the righteous but sinners.”
Over the top? Yep. Scandalous? Totally. Irritating as all hell? Sometimes. Truth! Clearly. Jesus says it. What else can it be?
So where do we go from here? Jesus tells us. We already know. His words to Matthew are words to us, too, “Follow me.” That’s all there is to do. We aren’t the well. What about sin? We have the disease already. All there is to do is follow the One who is the cure.