Matthew, The Tax Collector
Pentecost 3A Matthew
In today’s world
in America, what do you think is the most despicable occupation?
According to a recent Harris poll, accountants were at the very
bottom of the list with only 14% of Americans thinking that
accountants had an honorable occupation. Others at the bottom of the
list were bankers, business people, lawyers and journalists and
union leaders. http://www.businessweek.com/bwdaily/dnflash/sep2000/nf20000911_461.htm
At the top of the
list of most admirable occupations? Doctors, scientists, teachers
and ministers were at the top. These were all occupations that serve
the welfare of humanity.
But at the bottom
of that were those people who worked with money: bankers,
businessmen and accounts. Yes, money related jobs were at the bottom
of the list.
I wonder where tax
collectors would have been on that list if their occupation had been
rated. I would guess at the lowest rung of the polls. Tax
collectors? That word still rings of prejudice in many people’s
IRS? Do you have feelings about the initials IRS? Internal Revenue
Service? Do you ever hear anyone say that they work for the IRS and
collect taxes? If so, it is like they work for an enemy bureaucracy,
that unfathomable agency called the IRS. Have you ever had ever to
sit across the desk from an IRS agent who collects taxes for the
federal government? If you have, are there any feelings in your
heart towards IRS agents and tax collectors?
I telephone Sue
Stockman who works for the IRS and used to be a collections agent.
She said that “prejudice against IRS agents is alive and well in
our society. When people first find out that I work for the IRS, it
is a great conversation stopper. These people hear horror stories
about the IRS and afraid that all IRS agents are out to get them.”
Yes, prejudice and fear of IRS agents is alive and well in our
Today is a tax
collector story. It is the story of Jesus’ call of his first
disciples and one of Jesus’ first twelve disciples was a tax
collector by the name of Matthew. The first thing we know about
Matthew is that he was a tax collector.
following is a famous painting of the call of Matthew, the tax
collector. The setting is sixteenth century Germany but a viewer can
get the feeling of Jesus calling young Matthew while Matthew was
doing commerce at the village tax office.
second thing we know about Matthew he was a tax collector at the
small town of Capernaum which was located on the banks of the Sea of
Galilee. We can easily
find Capernaum on the map.
We see two
powerpoints, first of the land of Israel, then the Sea of Galilee,
and at the actual village of Capernaum which was the hometown of
Jesus in his adulthood and the central location of so much of
Jesus’ adult ministry.
A third thing we
know about Matthew is that many scholars think that Matthew, the tax
collector, was the final editor of the Gospel of Matthew. Many
scholars also think that he may have been a composer of the final
version of our Gospel of Matthew.
When you see
paintings of St. Matthew by artists from the past, he often is
carrying a large book with him, symbolic that Matthew may have been
the final editor of the Gospel of Matthew. An early Church Father by
the name of Irenaeus (200 CE) concluded that Matthew, the tax
collector, was the “author” of the “Hebrew book,” the Jewish
Gospel of Mathew.
The painting below
is by Rembrandt. Notice the book, symbolic of Matthew being the
final collector (author) of the Gospel of Matthew. Notice the young
angel looking over Matthew’s back. The young angel was the source
of inspiration to Matthew, inspiring him to write the Gospel of
Matthew. See the young
angel whispering into Matthew’s ear the message that he is to
write. Matthew is rubbing his chin, contemplating what the angel is
saying to him.
fourth thing that we know about Matthew was that tax collectors were
thought of as scum in their society. Jesus knew that tax collectors
had the worst possible reputation of all people in Jewish society.
The tax collectors were scum if anyone was scum. The tax collectors
were the dregs of society. Why? For three reasons. First, they
collected taxes. Second, they collected taxes for the Roman
government. Third, they made big money off of collecting taxes.
Common folks often resent people with big bucks and those tax
collectors made big money. If
anyone was considered a thief and a betrayer in Jewish society, it
was the tax collectors. The tax collectors were the richest people
in town. They had the finest donkeys, the finest houses, the finest
clothes. And they worked for the hated Roman government. You
add all this up and you realize that the tax collectors were THE
despised people of that first century Jewish society.
invited one of these shysters, a tax collector, of all people, to be
his disciple. This was not
“politically correct.” This was a “no-no,” especially to the
religiously impeccable Pharisees.
gospels also lump tax collectors along with other social rejects
like robbers and prostitutes. The word, tax collector, was
synonymous with a thief. With a robber. With a crook. Tax collectors
were to be treated as pagans. “That is, don’t have anything to
do with them. Stay clear of them. Don’t hang out with them.
Don’t count them as your friends. Stay away from tax collectors.
Tax collectors are as crooked as the letter Z.”
Biblical commentator says that “tax collectors were universally
hated and notoriously dishonest.” The tax collectors were
disbarred from attending the synagogue and they were considered
unclean by the Jewish law.
fifth thing that we know about Matthew was that he was part of the
inner core of Jesus’ twelve disciples. Jesus called one of the tax
collectors to be part of his inner core of disciples, part of the
inner twelve disciples. Talk about sending a signal. Talking about
sending a message. Jesus asked the worst scum of society (in the Pharisees eyes)
to be one of the inner twelve, one of the selected few, one of the
inner core of disciples. Jesus was sending a message to these
Pharisees. Jesus was sending a big and clear message to these
Pharisees: my disciples are from a class of people that you would
call the worst of sinners.
Jesus is sending us the same message today. Today, Jesus does not
get hung up on religious niceties and call people who think they are
religiously clean and more impeccable than other folks. Today Jesus
still calls people who know they are sinners bigtime to be his
disciples, to be part of the inner core, to be his loyal followers.
sixth thing we know about Matthew is that he owned a home. It must
have been a large home to accommodate such a party as described in
the gospel lesson for today. At that party, he had several of his
friends who were tax collectors over for dinner, plus other people
who were thought of as sinful or despicable people, plus some
Pharisees. Matthew’s home must have been large enough to
accommodate a good size party.
that introduction, let us momentarily focus on the gospel story for
today. Let me tell you the story about Matthew, this tax collector,
and what happened at his home one particular day.
day, immediately after Jesus had called Matthew the tax collector to
be one of his inner twelve disciples, Matthew invited his new master
to his house for a dinner. Matthew had also invited all of his
friends. Matthew’s friends were what the Pharisees would have
regarded as “big time sinners.”
was there for dinner that day at Matthew’s home? Notice the words,
“many tax collectors.” Not simply one but many tax
collectors. Tax collectors were thought of as scum, as bad as
robbers, adulterers, prostitutes and other pagans. And here were a
whole bunch of them. Many tax collectors. It was as if Matthew had
been an evangelist and asked many of his “own kind” to come and
have dinner with this Jesus. And they were all eating together at
notice the word “sinners.” There were people whom the Pharisees
would consider other “big sinners.” The
poor, the crippled, the lame, the blind, the lepers. The riff raff.
The scum of Jewish society. Jesus was eating with these people,
having a meal with them, chatting, laughing, drinking wine, telling
stories with these “scuzz balls.”
The Pharisees were
watching the action around the table. The Pharisees didn’t
approach Jesus directly. In my mind, the Pharisees weren’t part of
the action at the table; they were standing off to the side, leaning
against a wall, standing apart from the other obvious sinners, not
wanting to touch or smell them. The Pharisees approached Jesus’
disciples and asked them, “Why does Jesus eat a meal with such
contemptible folks as these?” Overhearing the Pharisees and
knowing their hearts, Jesus replied, “Those who are well have no
need of a physician, but those who are sick; I have come to call not
the righteous but sinners." You Pharisees need to go and learn
the meaning of this teaching from the Book of Hosea, “The Lord God
desires mercy and not sacrifice.” I have not come to call the
righteous but sinners to my banquet.”
Ouch. Talk about
calling a spade a spade.
the “get go,” from the very beginning of his ministry, from the
first minute, from the very first scenes in Galilee, Jesus said that
his disciples would be sinners and not self-righteous folk like the
Pharisees. Yes, his closest disciples would be sinners, sinner big
time, and not self-righteous folk.
This was Jesus’ first
run in with the Pharisees. And it was only the beginning.
This was Jesus’ first battle with the Pharisees. His first
confrontation with them. His first war of words with them.
And it occurred at Matthew’s house in Capernaum.
The story of the
conflict with the Pharisees continues. That is, two stories later,
Jesus healed a man with a withered hand on the Sabbath. The text
says, “Then Jesus said to the Pharisees, "Is it lawful to do
good or to do harm on the Sabbath, to save life or to kill?"
But Pharisees were silent. He looked around at them with
anger; (Yes, with anger. Yes, Jesus had anger.) He was grieved
at their hardness of heart (Yes, Jesus was grieved at their
hardness of heart) and said to the sick man, "Stretch out your
hand." He stretched it out, and his hand was restored. The
Pharisees went out and immediately conspired with the Herodians
against him, how to destroy him. … They (the Pharisees) were filled with fury and discussed with
one another what they might do to Jesus.” (Mark 3) The Pharisees
were furious at Jesus and made up their mind right away that they
wanted to have this Jesus of Nazareth killed.
dye was set. The mold
was cast. The plot was beginning and would end only when these same
Pharisees plotted, planted and killed him on the cross on Good
Friday three years later.
whole life, Jesus was crystal clear about the Pharisees: The
Pharisees were hypocrites, phonies, pretending to be religious but
they were not. The Pharisees felt superior to others around them who
did not attend synagogue, felt superior to those who did not tithe
and felt superior to those who did not pray in public. The Pharisees
wanted praise and attention more than any thing else. They would
pray in the synagogues so people could see them praying. They would
give money to the beggars so other people could see them giving.
They covered their clothing with ashes so people could see them
being pious. It was all for show. They wanted praise, respect,
honor. They wanted to be treated as “top dog.”
then get to the end of the Jesus story. You get to Matthew 23
where Jesus was in Jerusalem for his last chapter of life here on
earth. You listen to Jesus’ sharpest, most cutting, most lethal
teachings about anyone in the New Testament. Listen to Jesus’ woes
against the Pharisees. Talk about “in your face.” Talk about
“eyeball to eyeball.” Talk about nose to nose.
to you, scribes and Pharisees, you hypocrites! for you
tithe mint and dill and cummin, and have neglected the weightier
matters of the law, justice and mercy and faith; these you ought to
have done, without neglecting the others. Mt 23:23
to you, scribes and Pharisees, you hypocrites! for you
cleanse the outside of the cup and of the plate, but inside they are
full of extortion and rapacity.
to you, scribes and Pharisees, you hypocrites! for you
are like whitewashed tombs, which outwardly appear beautiful, but
within they are full of dead men's bones and all uncleanness. Mt
Wow. Talk about
strong medicine. Talk about strong language. Talk about laying down
the gauntlet. Talking about calling a spade a spade. Nose to nose.
Face to face. Eyeball to eyeball.
what was the reaction of the Pharisees? The same reaction they had
at the beginning of Jesus’ ministry. The Pharisees plotted and
planned to kill him. And they did.
does this story for today about “Jesus at Matthew the tax
collector’s house” mean for our lives today? That is the big
question. What does this story mean for you and me?
Jesus wants us to have hearts like Mathew the tax collector who was
keenly aware of his own imperfections and sins. Jesus wants us to
have hearts that know of our infinite and ever present sinfulness
deep in our own soul, a sinfulness that contributes to all conflicts
in our lives. Rather than looking at other people as the source of
the conflict and problem, Jesus wants us to have hearts that deeply
and wisely know of our own personal imperfections…and contribution
to the problem at hand.
wants us to remember at all times that we are sinners, the worst of
sinners, so society thought of Matthew. Matthew knew that he was the
worst of sinners. So did the young Timothy who said that he was the
worst of sinners. (I Timothy 1:16)
wants us to know that the core of inner disciples was composed of
sinful, imperfect, flawed people, like Matthew. Tax collectors were
considered the worst of the lot in Jewish society, and Jesus was
attracted to such people.
of us do not think of ourselves as robbers, prostitutes, murderers
and terrorists, but Jesus wants us to be aware of our flawed and
sinful personalities. We
are like Matthew. We are ordinary people who have a deep reservoir
of sin within us. We are sinful folk and we need the doctor to heal
and forgive us. In the story for today, we Christians are invited to
“own up” to our moral and spiritual sickness. In the story for
today, we Christians are invited to “own up” to our part of the
conflicts that are going on in our lives. We are invited to be
honest with ourselves and our own sinfulness that lies deep within
Only people who
were big sinners and knew they were in need of God’s mercy and
forgiveness would be his disciples. Matthew’s eyes were open to
his own sinfulness; the Pharisees’ eyes were blind to their own
imperfections, sins, flaws, and character defects. In his deepest
heart, as Matthew examined his own life, he knew he was a big time
sinner; the Pharisees did not. When trouble happened in Matthew’s
house, Matthew looked first into his own soul and actions to
identify the problem. When trouble happened at the Pharisees house,
the Pharisees looked at the other people in the house as the
source of the problem.
We may recall
another parable of Jesus about the Pharisees. “Jesus told this
parable to some who trusted in themselves that they were righteous
and regarded others with contempt: "Two men went up to the
temple to pray, one a Pharisee and the other a tax collector. The
Pharisee, standing by himself, was praying thus, "God, I thank
you that I am not like other people: thieves, rogues, adulterers, or
even like this tax collector. I fast twice a week; I give a
tenth of all my income.' But the tax collector, standing far
off, would not even look up to heaven, but was beating his breast
and saying, "God, be merciful to me, a sinner!' I tell
you, this man went down to his home justified rather than the other;
for all who exalt themselves will be humbled, but all who humble
themselves will be exalted."
Jesus wants us to
be humble and call out to God, “Lord please have mercy on me, a
sinner!” Please Jesus, you know how selfish I am at the core. How
self centered I am. How self serving I am. Please Jesus. Forgive me.
Change me. And forgive me again.”
That is the way
Matthew was. That is the way Jesus wants us to be in our inner
hearts. Jesus said that
those who know they are sick want a physician. Matthew knew that he
was morally and spiritually sick; the Pharisees didn’t.
I want to be
clear with you: God knows your heart. God knows the sinfulness of
your heart and mine. The Lord God knows that we need a savior
to forgive our sinful hearts and sinful actions. We are not to
from this story about Jesus at the home of Matthew the tax
collector, Jesus does not want us to be like the Pharisees,
to have hearts that are hard towards God, to have hearts that are
hard towards other people whom the world considers “obvious
sinners,” “outsiders,” “back sliders.” Jesus was angry at
the Pharisees because their hearts were hard. Their hearts were not
soft. Their hearts were not full of the compassion of God.
Jesus’ heart was full of compassion for the lepers, the poor, the
maimed, the blind, the lame and other despicable people in Jesus’
society. The hearts of the Pharisees were not. This was the problem.
This is the problem if our hearts are hard and not compassionate to
the “so-called” sinners of society.
thought that they were better than the other more obviously sinful
folk like the lepers, the poor, maimed, blind and lame. The
Pharisees were proud of their uprightness and moral rectitude and
did not perceive that they were lost. The Pharisees were like the
older brother in the parable of the Prodigal Son who stayed home
with the father and did not realize that he was lost.
of us are attracted to people who are conceited and full of
themselves like the Pharisees were.
In your imagination, would you think of a person or persons
who are religiously conceited and think that they are religiously
better than other folks? None of us are attracted to them.
Pharisees had hard-hearts to other people in need. In the stories in
the gospels, they never lifted a finger to help sick and diseased
people around them. Their hearts were calloused to human suffering.
of mercy, the Pharisees were good at going to church, giving
their tithe, spouting their Bible verses, quoting religious
platitudes, looking pious, giving the distinct impression that they
were religious folk.
both Old Testament prophets, such as Hoses and Amos, many folks were
guilty of ritualism. That is, these religious folks loved their
religious rituals more than having hearts filled with compassion and
mercy for the needy around them.
is an age old trick: go to church and do religious things as a
substitute for mercy. That is what the Pharisees of old did. That is
what the Pharisees today still do. They go to church and do
religious things as a substitute for being merciful and kind, the
way Jesus was.
problem for the Old Testament prophets was that people “did
religion” as a substitute for doing justice and righteousness for
the needy. The same problem exists today when people “do the
church thing” as a substitute for doing mercy in our world around
We end where we
began: with Matthew. The call of Matthew. We can see that scene so
clearly in our eyes. Not simply Matthew but a whole bunch of tax
collectors over at Matthew’s house, along with other sinners. What
a mess of humanity: lepers, lame, blind, all social outcasts. Jesus
had just called Matthew to be one of his core disciples and the
Pharisees knew it. We can visualize the Pharisees standing stiffly
off to the side of the room, not wanting to get too close to those
other despicable people. But Jesus knew their hearts. Jesus always
does know our hearts. Jesus said to them, “Only those who know
they are sick go to a doctor.” The Pharisees didn’t get it and
so Jesus said, “You Pharisees need to learn to practice mercy,
like God is merciful and full of steadfast compassion. You Pharisees
go to the synagogue as a substitute for knowing the compassionate
mercy of God.”
And thus the
conflict began between Jesus and the Pharisees.