Wednesday, September 20, 2017

Year A St Matthew 2017 What to Do with a Tax Collector

Year A St Matthew’s Feast (Observed), 20 September 2017
St James the Less, Ashland, VA
“What to Do with a Tax Collector?”

Matthew 9:9-13
As 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. And as he sat at dinner in the house, many tax collectors and sinners came and were sitting with him and his disciples. When the Pharisees saw this, they said to his disciples, “Why does your teacher eat with tax collectors and sinners?” But when he heard this, he said, “Those who are well have no need of a physician, but those who are sick. Go and learn what this means, ‘I desire mercy, not sacrifice.’ For I have come to call not the righteous but sinners.”

Today we pause to remember St Matthew. Gospel writer and reformed tax collector. Scholars might argue on whether the Gospeler and the apostle were the same person, but even if not penned from his hand, a community around him probably was responsible for this version of Christ’s story. According to tradition and the name, at least. The Gospel of Matthew holds a unique slant towards Jewish believers in the early church, looking at the fulfillment of prophecies in the Hebrew Scriptures and lineages holding Jesus in the Davidic line. The modern controversy over authorship is nothing compared to the controversy over who he was.

Now we might not like taxes, but we do not hate tax collectors. I say that now, but I have never been audited. That aside, in Jesus day, to become a tax collector cost a small fortune. One had to bribe the Romans, a foreign invading army, for the privilege of stealing from their friends in neighbors. Now taxes are taxes, not stealing, but the collectors had to recoup their expenses on the bribes to get the job. So they would steal double and more over what was supposed to be levied. Remember Zacchaeus, the wee little man, who promised to repay all that he stole as a tax collector? The term is mentioned just over 20 times in the Gospels, and it is often naming them a sinner or a particular person. They were seen as traitors, Roman collaborators, and thieves rolled into one. They were despised.

In fact, one of the many accusations against Jesus is that he spent time with sinners and tax collectors, even eating with them. Ptuh! [fake spit]

That is why we get the job of Matthew even mentioned. Who was this Jesus? Someone who had a bad reputation because he hung out with the wrong crowd. So often in Scripture we hear the phrase “sinners and tax collectors” used together that we immediately think bad, even though the Gospels meant to fight that. They were intentional in including that Matthew was a tax collector because it was so scandalous. Scandalous, and an obvious sign that something special was going on. We call the Grace.

In our lectionary reading two Sundays back, you may have even thought that. If someone in the Church sins, we are supposed to lovingly confront them and hold them accountable, and if they do not listen, we take another or a couple with us to help clear the air. If that does not work, we bring it to the Church. [Matthew 18]“...if the offender refuses to listen even to the church, let such a one be to you as a Gentile and a tax collector.” Now a Gentile was a non-Jew, remember Matthew’s Jewish orientation. Now at the outset, it may seem that Jesus is saying to ostracize them. But how did Jesus treat tax collectors?

He broke bread with them. He loved them. And like with Matthew in today’s reading: “As 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.” Jesus invites him in, and welcomes him. He gives him extra Grace. When we have difficulty with someone who is not living up to the high calling of Jesus, maybe that is what we are to do as well. LOVE THEM ALL THE MORE, INVITE THEM INTO A DEEPER RELATIONSHIP, AND PERHAPS, THEY WILL FOLLOW JESUS. Just like St Matthew.

As we bump into the Matthews in our lives, may we always remember this. Even the greatest of sinners, whatever the sin, could become a mighty proclaimer of the Gospel. Amen.

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Blessings, Rock