Personal, But Never Private

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Why did Matthew get up? I don't mean why did he get up in the morning to go to work - I mean why did he get up from his work to follow Jesus? There is nothing to indicate that Matthew, the tax collector, knew Jesus. Did Jesus know Matthew? Well, that's also hard to know. Our only clue is that the story seems to take place in Jesus' hometown for just before he called Matthew, Jesus had come " to his own city." Maybe when Jesus was growing up, he had seen Matthew sitting there in the tax office day after day. Even if he didn't know Matthew Jesus knew how people felt about tax collectors. "Collaborators," some people called them, squeezing taxes from their own Jewish people on behalf of the government. Jesus must have heard that kind of talk growing up in Nazareth.

So when Jesus called Matthew he knew it would confirm what some people already suspected: Jesus had no standards. He chose the wrong people. He was already in trouble for daring to forgive sins. Now he was calling someone whose daily work was seen as sinful. (Surely Jesus had heard people talk about "tax collectors and sinners" - the two words went together like bread and butter or lox and bagels). Why Matthew got up remains a mystery. We can't explain it any more than the story at the sea when Peter, James and John left their fishing boats without looking back. There must have been something about Jesus' presence that was so compelling that people responded in a way even they could not explain. Perhaps that's how it is with the most important things we do in life. How can you explain falling in love?

We know only that Matthew got up and followed. One verse is all we have. I suppose we could say his reasons were personal - perhaps Matthew never told anybody why he did it. All we know is that suddenly the scene shifts from Matthew's empty tax office to a meal in someone's house.

Whose house? Maybe it was Matthew's. Wouldn't Matthew be likely to invite his fellow collectors to a meal? Who else would invite them? It's hard to imagine they would be welcome many places! Besides, there's no indication that it was someone's house - no other name is given and the dinner seems to take place right after Jesus has called Matthew to follow him. Being called by Jesus always ends up being a communal affair. Jesus' calling and community is abundantly clear in this compact passage. Five verses: one for the call, one to get seated at the table, one for the "good people" to complain, and two verses for Jesus to lift up his radically different sense of community.

Now we need to careful with stories like this one. It is far too easy for those of us who are Christians to scold the Pharisees for being judgmental, snobbish, rude - and cowardly! After all, they didn't even dare to go directly to Jesus with their compliant to them: "Why does your teacher eat with tax collectors and sinners? It's important to remember that probably everyone in this story is Jewish: Jesus, his disciples, the tax collectors, at least some of the sinners and the Pharisees. This gospel was written many years after Jesus' life, death and resurrection. Tensions broke out between Jews and those who came to be called "Christians." These tensions seep back into the gospel stories and we are always in danger of painting "the Jews" as the problem. Now this isn't only the tragedy of anti-Semitism; it's also an attitude which distances It's about those nasty Pharisees - not me.

Reverend Barbara Brown Taylor shakes us into a new vantage point when she tells the story with new "tax collectors and sinners" - and without the Pharisees:

So if I were putting together a sinners' table at Huddle House, it might include an abortion doctor, a child molester, an arms dealer, a garbage collector, a young man with AIDS, a Laotian chicken plucker, a teenaged crack addict, and an unmarried woman on welfare with five children by three different fathers. Did I miss anyone ? Don't forget to put Jesus at the head of the table, asking the young man to hand him a roll, please, and offering the doctor a second cup of coffee before she goes back to work.

Barbara Taylor has chosen these folks carefully, remembering to include those who would have been considered "unclean" in Jesus' day: people who did dirty things for a living, other folks who did immoral things - goodness knows, I suppose we could put several government officials at the table given this past year's daily news... Then there were the Samaritans and the gentiles. But this is where her story really takes a turn; instead of the Pharisees, the local ministerial association is meeting at this very same restaurant. Now if you're not a minister, you might picture your church women's group or members going out for pie and coffee and after rehearsal. Whatever group you choose, the point is that I'm in it and you're in it. Then, the story goes on:

The religious authorities all have good teeth and there is no dirt under their fingernails. When their food comes, they hold hands and pray. They are all perfectly nice people, but they can hardly eat their food or drink their coffee for staring at the strange crowd (at the far table)

The chicken plucker is still wearing her white hair net, and the garbage collector smells like spoiled meat. The addict cannot seem to find his mouth with the spoon. But none of those is a heartbreaker. The heartbreaker is Jesus, sitting there as if everything is just fine.

Barbara Taylor didn't mention that the folks who are staring might be a group of seminary professors from New York City, including a Lutheran minister who teaches preaching. Well, you get the drift. I'm there sitting at the table staring, maybe you are too. Her picture is startling enough - but the thing that would be even more amazing is if these tables got together. If the people from the ministerial association or the Businessmen's Bible Study or the seminary professors asked Jesus, "Do you mind if we move our tables next to yours so we can get to know one another better?" For even if we can stop staring, even if we smile kindly from afar, it's just not the same as eating at the same table.

Now it may seem that way but Jesus wants everybody at the table -- but some don't want to sit with Jesus as long as the others are there. Yet this story is not simply an everybody-come-kind-of-story. It's not the same as Jesus' parables about going out into the highways and hedges to get people to come to the banquet. Jesus seems to change the subject when he realizes the religious leaders are complaining about his dinner partners. "Those who are well have no need for physicians, but those who are sick." Well nobody had been talking about doctors or sick people until Jesus brought it up. "Go and learn what this means," Jesus went on, "I desire mercy not sacrifice." He's quoting the prophet Hosea here: mercy - or the word could be translated compassion - is more important than sacrifice or ritual. If you don't have compassion then all the rituals in the world would not bring you closer to God. That's the word the prophet Hosea brought from God centuries before: "For I desire steadfast love and not sacrifice, the knowledge of God rather than brunt offerings." (Hosea 6:6).

Jesus concludes by saying, "For I have come to call not the righteous but sinners." I suppose we could interpret Jesus' words to mean: "Then go out and sin to your heart's content! The more you sin the more Jesus will want you at his table!" But that's not quite it either. We need to go back to Jesus' Sermon on the Mount for help on this one. Do you remember how that sermon begins? With blessing, sometimes called the Beatitudes. Among Jesus' blessings we find these words: "Blessed are those who hunger and thirst for righteousness for they will be filled," followed by "Blessed are the merciful for they shall obtain mercy." (Matt. 5:6-7) Mercy and righteousness are side by side. Righteousness means right - relation with God, mercy or compassion right relation with our neighbor. This right relatedness is crucially important for Jesus. Indeed he says, "Unless your righteousness exceeds that of the scribes and Pharisees, you will never enter the kingdom of heaven." (Matt. 5: 20)

Now what's going on here? Didn't Jesus say, "I have come not to call the righteous but sinners." Is Jesus for righteousness as a concept but against righteous people? Not really. The clue is back there in blessing. Jesus blessed those who hunger and thirst for righteousness. They will be filled, that is , they will eat at the table. They're hungering for right relation; they know they haven't arrived. They admit their own need, their deep hunger, their longing. That's probably what moved Matthew to get up from his tax table - he was hungry for relationship with God, thirsty for water in the parched places of his soul. When Jesus called him Matthew could feel a hand of blessing on his head.

It was personal, that call and that sense of blessing, but it certainly was not private. Soon Matthew's house was filled with others who were hungering and thirsting for God, who knew the meaning of mercy because they had finally been accepted. Long ago a wise woman had a vision of God which looked like a giant wheel with many spokes. You might picture a bicycle wheel... I always see the wheel of an old wooden wagon on our farm. A big round hub at the center and wooden spokes moving out toward the metal rim. Find whatever wheel you want - just make sure you can see the spokes. God is at the center of the wheel; we and all other people are on the rim of the wheel, each of us finding our place at the end of the spokes. God longs to draw us in, to hold us close. The spokes which are wide apart at the edge are almost touching as we move toward the center. It's clear that there's no way to be drawn to God at the center without moving closer to one another.

I know it's not always easy to do that. It may be that the tax collectors and sinners will have to be the ones to make the first move because the "good people" at the other table don't know where to begin. I don't know which table you're at. I'm not always sure where I'm sitting.


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