“Jesus Did Not Come for the Righteous”
a sermon based upon Matthew 9:9-13 (page 842 in the pew Bible)
“Jesus Did Not Come for the Righteous” a sermon based upon Matthew 9:9-13 (page 842 in the pew Bible) by Rev. Dr. Paul A. Lance, Minister First Congregational United Church of Christ 201 South Second Ave., Alpena, Michigan 49707 July 9, 2017
In today’s story, the religious authorities (the scribes & Pharisees) complain about the company Jesus keeps. “Why does he eat with tax collectors and sinners?” they ask his disciples. Jesus’ response is memorable: “Those who are healthy have no need of a physician, but those who are sick [do]. I have come to call not the righteous, but sinners.”
I love that pithy & precise statement from Jesus. I can imagine how thrilling it was for Matthew, the tax collector, and for the other disciples to hear Jesus answer the Pharisees’ criticism with such punch. “I came not to call the righteous, but sinners.”
In the media age in which we live, “sound bites” are the norm. Spokespersons and community leaders always have their “talking points,” slogans, & “sound bites” ready to inform or to inspire.
At this year’s General Synod, I picked up a couple of the slogans: Don’t “do” church, “be” the church! Or this t-shirt, on one side: “To believe is to care; to care is to do.” And on the other, the vision of “A Just World For All”. And the denomination’s new focus on “Three Great Loves”: love for children, love for neighbor, & love for creation.
Sound-bites and snappy slogans. I think Jesus did it very well, too. “Those who are well have no need of a physician, but those who are sick [do].” (Bumper sticker #1) Go and learn what this means: “I desire mercy, and not sacrifice.” (Bumper sticker #2) “I came not to call the righteous, but sinners.” Three short sentences, packed with meaning, and easy to remember: Jesus’ mission statement in a nutshell.
Tax collectors like Matthew were not well liked in Israel.
As Jesus was walking from village to village, and especially when they crossed the Sea of Galilee (as he and his disciples had just done at the start of this Chapter), they would have passed several “toll booths” or “taxation stations” set up by King Herod Antipas.
The government had them along every border of Galilee to collect import-export duties of goods passing through from one district to another. Government-imposed tariffs. They would also collect the annual per capita census tax which was required by Caesar from all residents, as well as collect the ten-percent Temple Tax from Jews.
Tax collectors were avoided, if possible, and (not unlike IRS agents of today) generally shunned. Merchants didn’t like how the tariffs, taxes, and fees imposed by the government added to their cost of doing business. Jewish nationalists (called Zealots) resented paying taxes & tribute to the Roman Empire, which occupied their land militarily and politically. And the enormous expense of King Herod’s brand-new Temple in Jerusalem saddled the people with additional assessments. It was hard enough to eke out a living in the harsh Middle East of Jesus’ day…taxes made things worse! Peasants were going bankrupt.
We all know (deep down) that we shouldn’t blame the IRS agent for the high rate of taxes Americans pay -- federal programs, income taxes, Social Security FICA payroll taxes, not to mention sales taxes, local business & property taxes, county assessments, state mandates, and all the rest of the fees & fines that burden our financial lives -- because the tax collector doesn’t make the rules. Politicians do that! Take it up with your Township or County Supervisor, or the bureaucrats in Lansing, or that giant sucking sound coming from Washington, DC, saddling our economy with 17 trillion dollars in debt.
Granted, the Internal Revenue Service may have unfair advantage in its legal and police powers -- confiscatory policies and little-known clauses in the tax-code that can trip up even the best intentioned tax-payer -- but that doesn’t make the IRS employee a “collaborator.” It’s their job.
So, too, Mat-ti-yah (which means “gift of God” in Aramaic -- “MatTheos” in Greek), a local individual had been appointed by the authorities to do this necessary thing for the well-being of the Realm.
We shouldn’t blame the messenger for delivering bad news. He was the collection agent for his King.
But then along came Jesus with a vision of a new kind of kingdom, God’s Realm, in which grace and generosity, not legal demands & possessiveness, were to be the norms. “A just world for all.” Where all would dine together in a great banquet of heaven on earth. Where people were no longer seen as debtors over against their landlords, no longer either a slave or a free person, no longer a Roman subject or Jewish citizen; above all, no longer considered either righteous or sinner! In the Kingdom of God, these categories were immaterial. Jesus had broken down all the walls, all the social barriers.
So, when Jesus saw Matthew sitting at the tax booth, he said to him: “Follow me.” And the tax man got up, followed Jesus, and (apparently) promptly threw a party!
Immediately the scene shifts to inside his house, where many more tax collectors and sinners had come to join Jesus and his disciples for dinner. The Pharisees – whose very name (in Hebrew) means “separated ones” -- objected to this “open table” fellowship in which all sorts of people were welcomed as equals.
“Why does he do this?” they asked his disciples. “Why does your teacher eat with tax collectors and sinners?” Why does he sit with them?
Jesus’ answer was pithy, potent, and precise -- “If you are well, you have no need for a doctor’s services; but if you are sick, you seek such a one. I have not come to call the righteous, but sinners.”
It seems to me (as I mentioned a moment ago) that Jesus knew very clearly what mission he was on, and how to articulate it. He even gave them a homework assignment… Go and learn what Hosea meant when he said that “God desires mercy, not sacrifices.”
The point Jesus was making is that if the Pharisees were truly righteous, they were already “in” with God! They would be merciful, as God was merciful. They would be generous, as God was generous. They would know that God loved them and that God was with them.
If, however, a person was being called a “sinner”… or was being publicly shunned… it was likely that their sense of God’s nearness and affection was undercut. Jesus came to seek and to save that which was lost -- to publicly include among God’s people those who were being rejected by the dominant society.
The tax collectors at that table, and their fellow citizens -- who were labeled “sinners” by the proud law-spouting religious authorities -- had found in Jesus one who was not cowed by the Pharisees’ righteousness nor beaten down in his personal sense of self-esteem. Jesus challenged their assumption that good, healthy, “holy” folk should only care about their own kind -- and let the “sinners” stew in their own juice. You kno0w, people who say things like: “They’ve made their own bed; let ’em lie in it. They’re law-breakers, outcasts, sinners! Such ones should not be welcome in fellowship with the righteous!” And so, the Pharisees ask Jesus’ disciples why he did so.
Jesus faced his critics with calmness and clarity. He accepted the Pharisees’ challenge in their own terms, granting them the status of being “righteous” (even going so far as to call them “healthy,” whole, “well”). If you are well, he says, then what I’ve come to do will have no relevance to you, any more than a healthy person would have any use for a physician. Go on about your business, my friend, knowing that you are perfectly fine! Keep up the good work. It’s no skin off your nose. If you’re well, then be happy! Be blessed, you who are righteous. You don’t need a doctor, if there’s nothing to fix up.
But… if you have broken parts, or lost & lonely moments… periods of alienation or depression; if your spirit is stuck and unable to move… or if evil thoughts and destructive deeds are part of your daily experience… I’m here for you, like a doctor, to let you know the Good News that God knows you, and loves you, and is with you for your healing. Follow me, my friend. Join the party. You are welcome here!
I wonder how often Matthew and the other tax collectors at that table -- not to mention the fishermen and other so-called “sinners” that had begun to follow Jesus -- had been cowed into silence by the self righteous attitudes of those pious, law-keeping Pharisees? In Jesus they have found a champion who will challenge the religious stereotypes with clarity and with confidence.
His opponents struck the first verbal blow, in their attempt to separate the saint from the sinner (“our” kind from “their” kind), but the counter-punch that stopped the debate was gracious and inclusive toward them, as Jesus answered their concern.
Sometimes Christianity seems belligerent -- as though we are supposed to convert the (already) righteous to a different way of thinking… namely, our own way! But Jesus is more generous. If you, or me, or anybody, feels good about themselves in relation to God -- and feels good about their relationships with one another -- Jesus gives us a “high five” (a “go ahead” more power to ya) and sends a little love our way. Those of you who (like me) have been raised from birth in Christian homes – raised with the “nurture and admonition of the Lord” (as was promised by our parents at our infant baptism) are “in like Flynn”! You’re OK in God’s eyes. Be confident in your salvation, just as you are.
Let the healthy be whole! Don’t try to fix people who are righteous, who act with compassion, who prefer mercy to sacrifice. If they are well in their walk with God, they won’t need what Jesus has to offer. If that’s you, well, bless you! Keep up the good work, First Church! Praise God for your faithfulness, for your witness, as people living with Christ’s Spirit.
But don’t look down on the unfortunate ones whose lives are not whole. Don’t rag and bag on them. Don’t feel superior to them. And don’t let them fall off your radar of human compassion. We are Jesuslike when we seek and save that which is lost. We are “Christian” when we come alongside the one who is in need of what we have to offer. (Schmoozing with the righteous folk doesn’t add to the tally.)
If Jesus is our role model, we have to be able to face opposition (like he did from the religious Pharisees) with equanimity, calmness, & clarity. No rancor… no belittling “one-ups-man”-ship. The ability to hold one’s own when faced with criticism not only reveals one’s own innerself-confidence, it builds the confidence of those who would follow. In silencing the snipers with his potent response, Jesus strengthened his leadership position for the disciples and gave us a role model to emulate.
I have always found that I teach best in settings that are congenial to my own way of thinking. Here at First Congregational, for example, I anticipate an audience of broad-minded, inclusive, intelligent, fairly liberal, very faithful church-going people. It makes preaching a pleasure.
But I’ve also been among exclusivist Calvinists & Evangelicals, narrow-minded Christians, and anti-intellectual Bible believers, where their preconceived ideas (like the Pharisees Jesus encountered in today’s story) make it a whole lot harder to model an inclusive “Gospel Jesus” approach. (I’ve pretty much given up going to those clergy-lunch meetings where everybody is expected to believe the same narrow, judgmental social values. And when I bring a different perspective, I’m accused of “sowing confusion.” No, I don’t want to argue with anyone about God.)
And so I am inspired by how easily & graciously Jesus responded to the criticism of his opponents. He did not come across as defensive, did he? He affirmed the Pharisees’ own self-understanding as being “righteous” while marginalizing them from his movement, whose mission was elsewhere: to call “sinners” to become his followers; those alienated from God and from their neighbors to be brought back IN to the Kingdom of God. Jesus knew what business he was in and how best to go about it. Nay-say-ers would not get him down. He wouldn’t jump track from his Good News Gospel embrace because of other people’s unresolved issues.
In choosing a despised tax collector, Jesus went against conventional wisdom.
Have you noticed how people often look only at surface appearances, first impressions, when meeting others -- or we rely on a “reputation” we’ve heard from others. In calling the tax collector Matthew to follow him, Jesus was looking beneath the surface of an unpopular profession. And I suspect Matthew deeply appreciated being chosen!
His reaction was similar to Zacchaeus, another tax collector (Luke 19:1-10), who announced -- also during a dinner party hosted for Jesus in his home! -- that he would give away half of all his assets to the poor… and repay four-fold anyone who had been over-charged in taxes. Zacchaeus, unlike those Pharisees, demonstrated that he did understand that God “desires mercy and not sacrifice.” Doing good for others, not just holding religious services… Demonstrating compassion toward ALL, whoever they may be. Mercy. Grace. Generosity.
I also think of the punch-line to Jesus’ parable of forgiven debt (Luke 7:41-43): The one who is forgiven most responds with the most love.
Finally, I am struck by the diversity of disciples Jesus has called together. His first recruit, Simon Peter, was a fisherman, but another Simon (known to us as the Zealot) was a nationalist freedom-fighter! I presume they are both at the dinner party in Matthew’s house. Can you imagine an insurgent having to work alongside an IRS agent? Jesus saw something in these widely divergent people such that he wasn’t afraid to choose them both for the same team sitting at the same table eating with sinners… people unlike themselves.
As was amply demonstrated in Baltimore last week during the UCC’s General Synod, diversity does not weaken a church -- it enriches the pool of talent, temperament, and experience available.
With clarity of vision like Jesus’ own, and with compassion toward all, let us be just such a church.