I Came to Call Sinners: A Lenten Reflection on Matthew 9:9-13
Everyone knows of people who do not seem to matter. We are aware that children die of starvation and disease in many places in the world, even perhaps in our own cities and towns, but we do not know most of them personally. We see people in our daily walks or during our errands all the time, but we do not know them. Whatever their stories might be, they do not really seem to matter to us. They are unknown, and for the most part will remain that way. And sometimes many of us wonder if we really matter. It’s easy to exist from day to day and wonder whether anyone out there thinks of us as important, or even meaningful; anyone outside of our own loved ones anyway.
It is our world, really, that reinforces such an opinion. We read, daily, about another corporate layoff. The economics are simple, really. Drive your employees hard, and when they begin to lose productivity due to exhaustion or old age, dump them out on the street so that you can use up another employee. And it seems that the world has grown comfortable with a certain number of its population consigned to die of disease or malnutrition, though medicine, food and the means to deliver these things has existed for many years. We live in a world where there most certainly are people who do not seem to matter. Sometimes our world can be so very calloused, so it’s no wonder the people do not seem to matter.
What we should recognize is that the landscape has not changed much since the days that Jesus walked the earth. You see, Jesus too encountered people whom the world labeled as inconsequential. Consider the man in Matt 9:9-13, Levi, better known to us as Matthew. Matthew was important in his own right as a tax collector. With a Roman soldier on either side, he had the right to enforce the taxes and the means to skim a bit off the top for himself. But to his own people he would have been a traitor, a disgrace to his family (a family who were forced to disown him) and he certainly would not have been welcome in a synagogue. In fact, the rules of collaboration were strict. Those who attended to the taxes of the infidel occupation army were considered as dead. This “shunning” would have rendered Matthew a non-person in first century Israel.
In fact, if we were to read all of Matt 9, we would see that the thing that binds together Matthew, a young girl who had died (vv. 18-26), the bleeding woman (vv. 20-22), and a demon possessed man who was mute (vv. 32-33)—the thing that binds all these people together is that they were all “untouchable” by anyone in Jesus’ position. And as such, they were a people without place, a people without a future, a people without dignity, and in a very real sense, they were cut off from life, though only the little girl is dead.
Of course we see immediately that Jesus pulls each of these folks out of their situation and returns them—restores them, really—to a position of life and dignity again. He calls Matthew to leave his tax booth and follow him, and Matthew complies. If we were to read further we’d see that Jesus’ encounter with the bleeding woman, allowing her to touch his robes, rescues her from the destructive power that consumes her and makes her “well” or “whole” again. The little girl who is dead is invited to get up, and she does. Thus Jesus follows the lead of the prophets, notably Elijah. But what is surprising about this is not only that they are brought into the scope of who it is that God is redeeming, but also what it means as whole for what God is doing in redemption through Jesus Christ.
You see, Jesus is about is the restoration of Israel itself. And each of these individual stories points to the greater story of Israel. That’s why in texts preceding this one, Jesus uses imagery: wedding feasts and patched cloaks and new wineskins for the new wine. All of these images speak to the coming age of restoration that appears with Jesus himself. God is, in fact, establishing the new age in the midst of the present one. It is in this context that the stories Matthew and eating with tax collectors and sinners must be heard.
You see, these stories cause us to ask: Who is to be included in that new age? That was the question they were meant to prompt. These stories, as well as the following stories of the healing of the lepers and the demoniac, help us to see that the welcome of the new age will be much wider than was thought in Jesus’ day. The call is to sinful Israel. That is the surprise. Not just to the sinful within Israel, but to the nation itself. Their exile is finally over. God is present again. But not to restore them alone. God now means to bring all people, even “the least of them” along for the ride. It is a call that will rankle the religious leaders in Jerusalem, and eventually leads to their putting Jesus to death. But it is at the same time incredibly good news. For the kingdom that is established destroys the powers that enslave us, and bring healing and wholeness to all.
The good news here, thus, is twofold. Certainly it was good news for Matthew, the bleeding woman, the little girl. They are restored to life and community again. Certainly it is also good news for Israel as a nation. They too will receive once again their place as “light to the nations” and “servant people.” But hidden within these restorations is the call that goes along with the healing and forgiving power of God’s grace. Once restored, each person is called now to bear witness to the coming “kingdom” of God. That is to say, each bears witness to the reality that God is present and ruling in the world. These people do not have to use words to do this. They are living signs of the reign of God. They point to Jesus as God’s anointed, through whom God’s plan comes to its decisive fullness.
Matt 9:9-13 calls us to be living signs, too. We too have been restored and gathered by the far-reaching grace of God. We have been initiated into the coming kingdom in baptism, and our forgiveness, our healing, our new life, our restoration is underway. But we too are then called to bear the same witness, to live differently in the world. This difference is summed up in two phases: Bearing witness to the kingdom. Proclaiming that kingdom in word and deed by welcoming all people, with a special eye on those who are labeled “inconsequential” by the world.
We need to be a church that lives as if all people matter, because to Jesus they do. We who have been touched by Jesus are called to bear witness to the kingdom of God. This is not, in its first century context, primarily about informing people that they can go to heaven after they die. (That is a side benefit, but is not the main point.) It is primarily about proclaiming that God has, in Jesus, indeed changed the outcome of history.
So what does being a witness for Jesus really mean?
It means being a witness who says “no” to the powers that exclude others in the world.
It means being a witness who says “no” to the powers that drive us to serve only ourselves while we live in this fractured world.
It means being a witness who says “no” to the searching for life and purpose and meaning apart from God.
It means being a witness who says “yes” to God’s way of life through self-giving, even through death.
It means being a witness who says “yes” to God’s invitation to all people to join in the wedding feast.
It means being a witness who says “yes” to the understanding that all of us are linked in one great body, the Body of Christ, and in that body everyone matters.
The Lord’s Supper, our communion meal with Christ is one way in which we can bear witness to this reality. It is, as we often sing, the foretaste of the wedding banquet to come. Should not all of the wedding guests invited by Christ himself share in this feast? In our text there are not barriers of age or of sin or of status in the community. Not only this, but all the people at the table, from the largest to the smallest, have the same place and the same standing at this meal. No one gets more or less food. Each one is accounted equally. The invitation is open to all. It is not open just to the righteous, or those who pretend for the moment to be righteous. It is open to all of us.
In Matt 9:9-13, it is clear that it is especially open to the sinners (or those considered such). Our challenge today is to ask ourselves the very hard question. Who is God including in this feast that we regularly exclude? How can we see their inclusion as a good thing, rather than a bad thing? Who would Jesus be eating with that we avoid? How can we invite them to the table? Who are the people in our midst who are lost, neglected, thrown away? How can we see them as people and invite them to the one who alone can restore their dignity, just has he has restored ours?
Certainly is it easier to feel good about ourselves by pointing out the faults and failings of others. Certainly it is easier to point our fingers in blame at others for all the problems of this world. There is no shortage of religious rhetoric in that regard today. But the road of the cross, the road in which we recognize that we ourselves are sick and in need of healing is much more difficult. The road that says that God’s solution is already victorious in Jesus Christ does not fear to face the self with honesty, nor face others with open welcoming arms. The proclamation of the very Gospel itself depends on it.
For in God’s eye each one of us matters. None of us are consumable. None of us are trash to be thrown away. None of us are inconsequential. Jesus says, “I came to call lost sinners to repentance.” How we live, what we do, changes dramatically when we are grasped by this loving God. And what we do thereafter matters a great deal as well. We are called to witnesses to the love of God and to welcome our neighbors around us.
At the end of Matthew’s Gospel in chapter 9, he records these words about Jesus:
He saw the multitudes, he was moved with compassion for them, because they were weary and scattered, like sheep having no shepherd. Then he said to his disciples, “The harvest truly is plentiful, but the laborers are few. Therefore pray to the Lord of the harvest to send out laborers into his harvest.” (Matt 9:36-38)