Sermon for the Feast of St. Matthew
Ezekiel 1:4-14 + Ephesians 4:7-14 + Matthew 9:9-13
First, before we get into today’s Gospel, you may be wondering what on earth the connection was between the Old Testament Lesson from Ezekiel and the Feast of St. Matthew. You heard, in Ezekiel’s vision, about those four winged, living creatures, with the face of a man, of a lion, of an ox, and of an eagle. For many, many centuries, the Christian Church has associated those four symbols with the four Evangelists (the four Gospel-writers): Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John. Matthew is usually represented with the simple face of a man.
The story of St. Matthew is a story of God’s grace to sinners, and our Gospel today especially highlights Jesus as the great Physician and healer, not for the healthy, but for the sick; not for those who have their own righteousness, but for those who are sinners in need of God’s forgiveness.
Before he was called to follow Jesus, Matthew was a tax collector, or a “publican,” as the King James translated the word. This is a good opportunity for us to remember why the first century tax collector was so despised in his society. For all the complaints people have about the IRS or the county assessor or the tax man in general, it’s nothing like the way things were in the Roman Empire.
The tax collector back then in Israel was either in the service of King Herod on behalf of Rome, or of some other Roman official. He was considered a traitor, a sell-out to his own people. When collecting property taxes, he would often just invent the value of a piece of property and over-inflate it, overcharging his fellow man. Then, if a poor man couldn’t pay his taxes, the tax collector would loan him the money out of his own pocket—and then charge huge amounts of interest, which he would keep for himself. No one bothered taking the tax collectors to court over this, because the judges were usually bribed by the tax collection ring to give the tax collectors immunity. As a result, the whole profession was so tainted that tax collectors were often just excommunicated from the Jewish synagogue. Even their offerings were not accepted. They were ranked by the Jews below adulterers, below prostitutes—with violent robbers and murderers.
Now you understand, I hope, why it was such a big deal for Jesus to associate with tax collectors on a regular basis. Now you understand why it matters that St. Matthew was a tax collector when Jesus called him to be His companion, His friend, His student, and one of His apostles, who form the very foundation on which the Christian Church is built (Eph. 2). It says something about Jesus.
We don’t know how much Matthew had heard about Jesus before or if there was more said on this day than is recorded, but from the brief words recorded here, we assume that Matthew must have heard some things about Jesus. We assume that he heard how Jesus had a reputation as one who welcomed sinners—without ever condoning their sin, as one who thought sinners were worth saving, worth rescuing, and even worth suffering for. In any case, Matthew had heard enough so that all it took now were these two words from Jesus, “Follow Me.” And Matthew did, from that day on.
Jesus’ reputation for welcoming sinners was confirmed by His choice of Matthew, so that, when Jesus went to that dinner at someone’s house (maybe Matthew’s house) after calling Matthew away from the tax office, it says that, behold, many tax collectors and sinners came and sat down with Him and His disciples. You can just imagine how tentative they must have felt at first. “We heard Jesus was a prophet from God. He couldn’t really want to be seen with us, could He? He knows who we are. What will He say to us?” So they slowly approach Him and His disciples. They see Matthew there with Him. He was one of them. Maybe it’ll be all right?
It was all right. It was just what Jesus wanted. They sat down with Jesus. What do you suppose He said to them as they ate together? I’ll tell you this: He didn’t just make small talk with them. He didn’t ignore their sins as if they weren’t worth talking about. He didn’t tell them that God loves them just the way they are. Instead, you can be sure He treated them with love, and that He did address their sins. And you can be sure that He called them to repent of their sins. And you can be sure that He spoke to them of God’s mercy, how God wanted to be a Father to them, wanted to be reconciled with them, and that Jesus Himself was the Person through whom all reconciliation comes. That’s how the conversation went, in a nutshell. You know that, because that’s the summary Jesus gave to the Pharisees who were there.
True to form, the Pharisees criticized Jesus—though they weren’t brave enough to speak to Him directly; they had to go through His disciples. Why does your Teacher eat with tax collectors and sinners? They really couldn’t figure out this whole “mercy thing,” could they? It was absolutely foreign to them, to think that a respected member of society might actually stoop down to sit together with people who had a sinful reputation. It was absolutely foreign, this idea of trying to rescue those sinners and win them back for God.
Jesus answers their question: Because a physician is always surrounded by sick people. It’s the nature of his vocation. Jesus said to them, “Those who are well have no need of a physician, but those who are sick.” This is Jesus. This is how He wants to be known, as a physician who has come to help those who are sick—and nobody else. Not physical sickness, but spiritual sickness—the sickness of sin. As we discussed just last week, Jesus has come to be the Good Samaritan who sees the wounded, dying man on the side of the road and goes over to him to help. So also here, in Matthew’s Gospel, Jesus goes where the sinners are, not to condemn them, not to deny their sickness, but to heal them.
But lest the Pharisees get the idea that they were well and had no need of Jesus, Jesus points them back to a passage from the Old Testament prophet Hosea: But go and learn what this means: ‘I desire mercy and not sacrifice.’ The Pharisees brought sacrifices to God, as if they could earn God’s favor by doing things for Him. But all along, the chief thing God wanted—God demanded! — was love for Him and for one’s neighbor, mercy toward one’s neighbor. Mercy toward those who are needy, toward those who are lost. Mercy doesn’t mean you can save everyone. Most people simply refuse to be rescued from their sins. But mercy does mean wanting the lost to be saved, and rejoicing when they are. Mercy does mean you’re willing to sit down and speak God’s Word to those who have a sinful reputation. For all the offerings and tithes that the Pharisees brought, for all of their strict obedience to the laws, they neglected the most important part: mercy.
But then, see how Jesus reaches out to the merciless Pharisees, too. He shows them that they lack the mercy God requires. He shows them they’re sinners, and then says this: For I did not come to call the righteous, but sinners, to repentance. Whether a person was a tax collector or a harlot or a proud, condescending Pharisee, whether a person is an adulterer or an alcohol abuser or a murderer or proud, condescending church member, no one is righteous in him or herself. All are sinners. But if you’re a sinner, that means Jesus came for you, to die on the cross for you, to earn heaven for you, and to bring you into it.
It means He came to call you sinners, not to tell you your sins don’t matter, not to tell you it’s OK to keep living in sin, but to call you to repentance, as He says. To call you to recognize your sins against God’s holy commandments, to mourn over them, and to trust in Christ, that God will most certainly forgive you your sins for His sake, because He suffered for you, He died for you, and He wants to associate with you, to sit down with you, to eat and drink with you.
Again, that’s the great gift we have been given here in the Sacrament. It’s Jesus, who knows exactly who you are and what you’ve done, and still wants to share this meal with you of His own body and blood. But it’s for sinners only, not for good people. It’s for sinners only, who are sorry for their sins and want forgiveness from God for the sake of Christ. Here in the Sacrament, the Great Physician comes and heals you again, both by forgiving you your sins, and by strengthening you to say no to sin, and yes to mercy, yes to a new life of devotion to God and your neighbor, even yes to the cross, to suffer pain and loss rather than sin against God.
That’s how Matthew’s life went. He left the tax office behind, took up his cross, and followed Jesus. Let us give thanks to God for the witness of St. Matthew, because through his Gospel, the Holy Spirit has taught us to know Christ our Savior, from his human genealogy and divine origins in chapter 1 to His resurrection and Great Commission in chapter 28. Through Matthew’s Gospel, we have come to know this beautiful truth about Christ as the Great Physician who came to call sinners, like you and me, to repentance. Let us heed His call every day. Amen.