January 10, 2023
TODAY’S SCRIPTURE REFERENCE:
“Now go and learn what this means: I desire compassion rather than sacrifice. I came to call the sinners [into God’s presence] and not the righteous.” (Matthew 9.13)
I catch myself being led into scripture from an unexpected angle by the Holy Spirit and find a perspective that 1) had always been there and 2) was waiting to teach me something of great value and benefit. While I have no doubt that others have seen that perspective and benefitted from it, it behooves me to share it. To do so allows the Spirit to move in the lives of others who have not yet been exposed to that perspective or who in their own busyness of “finding other things to learn” have forgotten or put aside an already discovered challenge and charge. So, it is with this passage of scripture which has stood in front of me and you for three days since Epiphany. In truth, if we are indeed mighty ones of God, then every day is an “epiphany,” a revelatory experience of the something new and something more which God has to show us, teach us and command us to “go and do likewise.”
Here Jesus was sitting in table fellowship with Matthew, Matthew’s friends and the disciples. These were the intentional guests of Matthew who had been invited to “come and see” the redeemed Matthew and the Redeemer of Matthew. It was, so it seems, Matthew’s way of demonstrating “if it is good enough for me then it is good enough for you!” And how true it was and is! We dare not forget that Matthew’s friends were a cadre of individuals who were very much like himself. They were sinners and tax collectors and of Jewish background and lineage. They were, in the words of Jesus, “the lost of Israel.” Lost, but not forgotten. Wandering and now found. Struggling but now given the opportunity of a lifetime…an eternal lifetime of peace, love, joy, kindness, goodness, mercy, self-control and patience. Yes, the fruit of the Spirit is what was set as the bountiful feast before them all. It really wasn’t about what was on the table that they all hungered and thirsted for. It was “who” was at the table that would make all the difference. And following the words of the psalmist David who spoke of redemption and salvation as a sheep before the Good Shepherd, such a table would be set in the presence of “their” enemy. Who would be their enemy?
It certainly wasn’t Matthew. Matthew was their friend and confidante. They were of a kindred spirit and like mind. We do not know what it was like to live in those days under Roman occupation and Jewish hypocrisy. It was the kind of days that could and did easily turn good people into struggling people. In the eyes of those who had “plenty,” such people were not seen as struggling but as bad people. They were called sinners and outcasts. And some had the “luxury” of being necessary evils in order to sustain those who had “plenty” and their own hypocrisy by which they called themselves “righteous.” The signs of “their righteousness” were fine robes, long phylacteries, splendid sandals, fine jewelry, perfumed bodies and coifed hair. They had money to drop in the coffers of the Temple as a tithe which every else would know was a mere token. They called it sufficient and meeting the expectation of the Law. They were the ones who stood to the side or the back of the Temple court watching the lowly pursue “their” righteousness and declare “I thank You, God, that I am not like one of those sinners.” Those “sinners” were the friends and family of Matthew who had chosen to become a tax collector with such hope of survival among the so-called righteous. No, Matthew was not their enemy.
What about the disciples? Here was a band of men, who save for one- Judas of Kerioth, were Galileans. Galileans were not looked upon as equal to “sinners and tax collectors,” but there was a general disdain for them because they were of “the Northern Kingdom.” Yes, in the days of Jesus there was no such thing as a “Northern Kingdom,” but old views die hard. They were those who “lived on the other side of the track” so to speak. The “Northern Kingdom” had been that part of Israel which in its day was actually called Israel. What was the other part called? Of course, we know it as Judea, or the land of Judah, whose capitol was Jerusalem. Yes, Jerusalem was not the capitol of “Israel” in those days. In those days, Samaria was the capitol of the Northern Kingdom called Israel. Does the word “Samaritan” resonate in your memory as a people who were not truly respected by the true Israelites? And who were the true Israelites but those who were from the land of Judah and Jerusalem. Remember the Samaritan women? She suffered under a veil of many unacceptable identities: woman, Samaritan, common worker and “a loose woman who had been married five times and now merely lived with a man who was not her husband.” There certainly was a story there to be told. And each of the disciples had such a story to tell. It did not mean they did not believe in God. It did not mean they did not trust in God. It did mean that in certain “circles” they were not of the righteousness of God. They didn’t belong. But, Jesus said they belonged. Jesus said the friends of Matthew, as Matthew himself, belonged. So, if they belonged they weren’t the enemy. Who was?
Well, as in most “public” parties, there are party crashers. Matthew’s party would not be the exception to the rule. I have no idea what rite of purification “they” had to endure to expunge the fact they were present at the party. There had to be something. Or did there? You see, in through the door of Matthew’s house walked some appointed Pharisees and teachers of the Law representing the “righteousness of Israel.” They were sent to “watch” Jesus and catch Him in what they determined was hypocrisy, sacrilege and heresy. They would question and test Jesus and His disciples like “quality control experts” to find that fatal flaw which would not only disqualify the claim of “Son of God and Son of Man” but then further qualify any who followed and believed in Him as “true sinners and outcasts lost to Israel.” These were the enemies present who surrounded the redemption and evangelism party where a spiritual banquet of faith, hope and love was in abundance. They were true to who they were. But, so, too, was Jesus because He refused to see them as the enemy. Rather, He would see them as “one of the lost of Israel, too” and worthy of redemption if they would just accept, learn and believe. These were the “enemies” in the story. In modern parlance to the tax collectors they were “frienemies.”
The question out of today’s reflection is “Where are we sitting in Matthew’s house as invited guests?” Are we the redeemed or the Redeemer? Are we a disciple or a disciple-in-the-making? Are we the enemy whether of God and His righteousness or of ourselves and our self-righteousness? Is the point of Jesus’ presence in the room and His ministry of creating holy ground where those in attendance could see and hear the Word of God lost to us or worse- lost on us? Are we in the room for just a good meal and a good time? Or are we in the room for communion and eternal life? The question is mine. The answer is yours. More to come on this tomorrow. Until then. Shalom, y’all!
Father, You have authored salvation and made it available to us regardless of our place in life. You know we are all seen as sinners when we stand before You. You have made the difference available to us in Jesus Christ and that difference is sinner forgiven or sinner unforgiven. We pray thanksgiving for our forgiveness and the blessing to learn more and be more of who You have desired for us to be in His Name. AMEN.