Thursday, September 20, 2007
The Feast of St. Matthew September 21st.
II Cor. 4:-6
Matt. 9: 9-13
The feast of St. Matthew, and the reading of this day's Gospel, do not teach what many people are going to be proclaiming today. How tempting it may be to read into it the false gospel of a false christ and of a different spirit. One can well imagine clergy persons, especially of a certain denomination which we need not name, entering the pulpit and making much of Christ’s willingness to sit among the notorious sinners. What a message of inclusiveness, of a need to be nonjudgmental. Is it not clear, they may say, that Christ was among them to accept them as they were? Who are we, therefore, to be like the Pharisees and judge others? In fact, I don’t need to imagine it; examples of such an interpretation abound in the latest writings that make their way into my e-mail from friends who are quite distressed, and rightly so, by what is passing for theology and biblical scholarship in certain circles. In fact, I believe that calling it an interpretation is to dignify it beyond its worth.
But, to prove that I seek to be unlike the Pharisees, allow me to confess up front that my fallen and corruptible part, since "in me, that is, in my flesh dwelleth no good thing," would very much like to believe that this is the message. To see in Christ’s willingness to be awhile among the notorious sinners a justification for remaining in my sins. To eschew the preachers who call for repentance as Jeremiahs and John Baptists, party poopers all, Pharisees and hypocrites who don’t appreciate me just as I am, would be very pleasant. Yes, I confess to you people, who at this moment appear to be quite holy from my perspective, that I would very much like to see this message in today’s Gospel.
I believe that this desire to read such an interpretation into the scriptures is why we see a liberal view by many moderns of a particular sin (which I will not name out of respect for the presence of children), even when that sin is not a temptation in their own lives. You see, if Christ accepts those other sinners just as they are, then I do not need to repent either; and we can all of us claim that our desires are quite okay, because God made us that way. If I cannot judge a man who is supposed to have his particular leaning to a particular way of life because it is his nature as God made him, then my way, my nature must also be because God has made me the way that I am too. If instead of being content with one woman, I were to have an insatiable craving for an entire harem- albeit one at a time- I could blame that on God, and say that it is my nature. Then to top it off, I could misuse the passages by St. Paul about the Law and grace, and have a complete hermeneutic on why I can live anyway I choose, and Christ would still sit down and eat with me- just as I am.
Then, by the time I have used fair words and smooth speech to preach this message, I could make all orthodox Christians look like villains for their intolerance. Yes, I am enough of a sinner to understand where this kind of preaching comes from.
But, to understand St. Matthew properly we must remember what struck him most about the name of Jesus when writing his Gospel. The angel said, as he wrote it in the first chapter, "thou shalt call His name JESUS, for He shall save His people from their sins." Jesus, Yeshua, means salvation. Matthew makes a strong point with one word that the angel spoke, that is the word "from." "He shall save His people from their sins." The sinner in me likes it better if we change that from "from" to "in." That would be nice; it would be what today’s inclusive churches call "grace"- it would be so, in their way of thinking, "Anglican." But, what mattered to Matthew was to record those words as they had been told to him. The angel said that Jesus saves us from our sins.
How does the Gospel reading begin this day? Jesus comes across a publican. Publicans were the tax collectors; and they were treated as the worst of sinners. They were outcasts because they were notorious, unrepentant sinners, always spoken of in the same breath with the harlots. This is because they made their money by collecting more than what was demanded by Rome; that is, like the harlots they made their living by committing sins. They were automatically cut off from Jewish society and religion, put out of the synagogue. So also anyone who befriended them. When we see the Lord approaching Matthew, who was also called Levi, it was truly a brave act. It could give ammunition to His enemies. But, those who could make out what Jesus said to Matthew heard the words "follow Me."
The command to "follow Me" was certainly a call for repentance. It was not an acceptance of Matthew’s sins and way of life; it was a rejection of his way of life, and clear condemnation of his sins. It was also the first words of hope that he had heard ever since becoming a publican. The other Jews had not spoken to him this way. He had been cast out of the synagogue simply for being a tax collector, even if he had begun this occupation out of desperation; even if he never liked it; even if he had tried to be fair and to collect no more than what was due. Even if the friendship he had with "publicans and other sinners" developed from loneliness.
Matthew Levi was a Jew, and just how important his Judaism was to him is obvious from reading his Gospel, even from the chronology in the first fourteen verses. It was Jesus who gave back to him his inheritance, his place in Israel. Perhaps that is why his Gospel is so clearly written for Jews, and is steeped in the Hebrew Scriptures to so great an extent. In fact, Eusebius tells us that his is the only Gospel to have been written originally in Hebrew; that what we have is a translation into Greek (Matthew's own translation of his original, that is). Leaving the synagogue to make a living by collecting taxes may have been a hard and painful choice he had made, perhaps out of a desperate situation combined with love for his family. The rejection from his fellow Jews offered no hope to him. But, neither did his associations with other sinners. Their acceptance was not a healing; and people who have been among those who justify and excuse sins can give a very powerful testimony to the fact that there is no comfort in justifying one’s sinful way of life.
What hope would Christ bring had He simply said, "Don’t feel bad Matthew; I accept you just as you are?” Instead of this, Matthew was told, as he well knew, to leave the life of sin behind and to follow Christ. We are all told this same thing; and if we were not told this we would have no hope. This is brought home to me by the confession of a lady, now deceased, who was sure that her sin was beyond God’s forgiveness. She was cut off from her own family because of the open way in which her sin was also known to the authorities as a crime. When I was introduced to her, and when we had spoken a bit, she came to have hope for the first time in many years. She asked me to hear her confession. She wept with joy when I heard it and absolved her. I believe that she died in the grace of God, having joy, not because her sins were accepted or excused; but because they were repented of, and were forgiven. Her family saw the change, and some of them have returned to the Church and to Christ. Remember the lesson that Christ taught to Simon the Pharisee: It is the one who is forgiven much, not the one who is accepted much, who has much love.
Forgiveness is a condemnation of what is left behind; and it is the hope given to the one who leaves it behind. Jesus did not call Matthew in order to be inclusive, for His command was to follow, not to remain. Jesus did not sit among sinners in order to affirm their way; for He made it clear in their hearing that they were sick and in need of His work as the physician. He said, furthermore, that He had come "to call sinners to repentance." Never forget that he said this, and that He said it in the hearing of the sinners who sat with Him, and that He said all of it: Not, "I have come to call sinners"-full stop. Rather, "I have come to call sinners to repentance." It is that "to repentance" part that gives me hope and joy.
You see, if this sinner did not know that he can repent, that his Physician has diagnosed his sin, and that repentance is the cure, he would have no hope. Don’t misunderstand these holy vestments I wear; underneath them is a man who needs the Savior, the Physician who heals him from sin and death, Who calls him to repent and follow. These vestments symbolize that we must, in the words of St. Paul, "put on the Lord Jesus Christ." I put on these vestments to tell all of you the same thing: If we do not put on the Lord Jesus Christ, we cannot be saved. This is not acceptance of sin, it is the opposite- it is hope. It is the hope that only the command to repent and follow can give; and it is the hope of being transformed into the image of the Son of God. This is the way of life and of peace. To be affirmed in sin by a doctrine of inclusiveness is to be lost and without hope. To be told to repent and to follow on to know the Lord by the grace that comes from the Spirit of God poured into our hearts, is to be found, to have life, and to have hope that lasts forever.
As for Matthew, he was forgiven much, and he loved much. He loved so much that we wear red this day. For his love was perfected by martyrdom.
And now unto God the Father, God the Son, and God the Holy Ghost, be ascribed, as is most justly due, all might, majesty, power, dominion and glory, henceforth, world without end. Amen.