Grace, mercy, and peace to you from God our Father,
and from our Lord and Savior, Jesus Christ. Amen.
The sermon for today, the Feast of St. Matthew, Apostle
and Evangelist, is based upon the Gospel lesson just read, from the account of
Have you ever had the experience of reading or hearing
a Bible text, and felt really, really connected to one of the individuals who
appeared in the story? Did it seem that you could closely identify with him or
her, because of some shared experiences or similar circumstances?
If you’ve read or heard the Bible enough, that
identification is almost inevitable, because the Bible is not just God’s story;
it’s our story, too. The Scriptures record the breadth and height and depth of
the human experience—triumphs and tragedies, kindnesses and killings. It’s as
though God wanted each and every one of us to look to the Scriptures and to be
able to think and say, “Yes, that’s often what it’s like. That’s a lot like
how it was for me. That’s just how I felt, too.”
In fact, if you can’t relate in many ways to a great
many individuals you read about or hear about in the Bible, check your pulse.
You’re either dead, or in denial.
With which individuals in the Bible, and in what
circumstances, do you sometimes identify? Is it Abraham? He’s certainly one
of the most well-known and faithful individuals we’re told about in the Bible.
Called by God to trustingly leave his place of residence. Promised that in
spite of his and his wife’s frustration so far, he would become the father of a
great many nations. Told that all humanity would be blessed through him.
Abraham believed God, we are informed, and it was counted to him as
Maybe Moses is more your type. Escaping certain death
as a child, by being discovered and protected by someone with influence.
Growing up with everything that wealth and power could offer. Later rebelling
against that upbringing, and bringing hardship upon himself due to his own rash
actions. Finally getting his act together, and living a life of faith and
purpose. A leader; one who remained vigorous and had all his wits and senses
about him, even in his later years.
How about David? Good looking, athletic, heroic,
popular. Came from a good but not wealthy family. Worked hard. Took
advantage of his opportunities. Even as a young man, someone you could count
on to pull off the big play when the chips were down. Caught the eye of those
who were in a position to elevate his standing in life. He finally reached the
top after overcoming lots of troubles and setbacks.
How about Paul? Brilliant. Graduated at the top of
his class. Knew his facts, inside and out. Persuasive; able to mount a solid,
convincing argument while thinking on his feet. Not intimidated in difficult
circumstances, or by powerful people. Patient. Well-traveled. Willing to
endure hardship for the greater good.
Do you see yourself in any of those people, at least
in part, or occasionally? Sometimes I do. Most of the time, I don’t.
But Matthew… now there’s a guy I can connect with, for
a variety of reasons. There he was, minding his own business. Well, Caesar’s
and Herod’s business, really, but you know what I mean. He was just doing his
job. He was crunching the numbers to arrive at the right answer. The primary
focus of his day-to-day life revolved around money, and how he could get more
of it—for himself, and for his employers. And, while his countrymen probably
didn’t see it, and even despised him for his choice of career, he was actually
doing beneficial work.
After all, without taxes, how would the empire and the
province function? They had to pay those who kept order in society. They had
to construct roads to enable commerce. Buildings for the government to operate
in. They had to pay the public employees. Sure, maybe the collection of taxes
put a pinch on people sometimes, but Matthew’s profession was useful and
Matthew probably didn’t like being blamed for the fact
that this job sometimes made people angry. He was comfortable, and while his
lifestyle might not have been lavish, he didn’t have to worry where his next
meal was going to come from, either.
Yeah, I could relate to that. It was a lot like my
life used to be. Money wasn’t a problem. I was doing useful work,
contributing to the betterment of those I worked with and worked for. What we
accomplished was directed toward the overall improvement of our nation and our society.
Yes, it’s true that sometimes that work harmed or displaced people, and often
it could cause them some hardships. Many people didn’t have a very high
opinion of the sort of work I did. Still, on the whole, it was always focused
on making the big picture better, even if a lot of little pictures got crumpled
up on the way.
Then came the big interruption. Jesus came to
Matthew, sitting there at the tax booth minding his own business, and with two
little words—“follow me”—turned his world upside down. The next thing Matthew
knew, he was involved in learning more about God’s Word. He was preparing
himself to share the Good News and to proclaim Jesus’ teachings to others. It
wasn’t convenient. It wasn’t fair. It wasn’t like the life he knew before.
Yep, sure as shootin’, I could identify with Matthew.
How about you? Has God turned your life upside-down
yet? Has His call sparked you to learn His Word and spread His Good News? Or
are you still comfortably seated in that tax collector’s booth of your worldly
But then I read a little further in the text. There
was Jesus, at Matthew’s house, associating himself with the outcast and the
downtrodden. Even going so far as to sit down for a meal with them! That was
a huge deal in the ancient world. To break bread with someone was to show
acceptance, to place one’s self on an equal footing with everyone at the
Yes, presidential candidates might try to be all
folksy, and they’ll wander into the local diner to rub elbows with farmers and store
clerks and auto mechanics for a photo op, but you know how it really is. But
back in Matthew’s day, people of good social standing like rabbis certainly
didn’t have dinner with tax collectors and other undesirables.
There, too, were the Pharisees. The upright,
well-educated, cautious, never-set-a-foot-wrong Pharisees. With their noses in
the air and a chip on their shoulder, they go to Jesus’ disciples and lodge a
complaint: “Why does your teacher eat with tax collectors and sinners?” In
other words, “How dare He call Himself a rabbi, and associate with this
rabble? How can He speak of the kingdom of heaven, and hang out with the dregs
of this world? Why doesn’t He meet our expectations?”
Then it hit me: I can identify with the Pharisees,
too. How often have I avoided taking my complaints and concerns directly to
God, and instead bother others with them? How many times in my life have I
isolated myself from those who I considered beneath me? How many times have I
thought I had all the answers, had everything figured out, considered all the
angles, and couldn’t reconcile what Jesus was doing with what I thought ought
to be done?
Yes, I’ve been a Pharisee, plenty of times, and I
imagine that so have many of you. We complain behind others’ backs. We whine
when the world doesn’t conform to our view of how things should be. We elevate
ourselves in our own eyes, and throw unflattering labels on those who don’t
meet our approval, those who aren’t “like us.” Worst of all, we question God
and His ways, expecting Him to justify His actions or His words to us.
Through it all, we’re often blind to the fact that
we’ve done any these things. For the times we are Pharisees toward God and one
another, we should all repent.
It wasn’t until the last paragraph of today’s Gospel
text, though, that the real connection, the real identification for me with
this Bible story, became all too apparent. No, it wasn’t Jesus. And it wasn’t
a doctor, the example He gives as He confronts the Pharisees with the real purpose
of His mission and His ministry.
No, the individuals I can most closely identify with
in this Bible story—and so should you—are the sick, and the sinners. It’s true
that sometimes we’re like Matthew—sitting fat, dumb, and happy in the midst of
our earthly lives—and that God comes to us and wrenches us out of our comfort
zones to follow Him and serve Him in ways we might never have expected.
It’s also true that many times we live as Pharisees,
questioning God’s ways and thinking that our ways might be more fitting, more
right, more expedient.
But that just goes to show how sick with sin we truly
are, and how desperately we sinners need Christ’s healing. We weren’t just
sitting comfortably in our lives, waiting for the Son of God to wander by one
day and offer us a new opportunity to think over and consider accepting. We
were so sick with sin that we were dead in those trespasses; not a shred of
righteousness to call our own. We were beyond any earthly cure; beyond any
ability to reach out and to seek His grace and mercy. So dead that we didn’t
even realize it.
That was your identity, and mine. That was
Abraham’s—who decided that he needed another plan to have that promised heir.
That was Moses’—who made excuses for his reluctance. That was David’s—who
tried to cover his sin, and even put it out of his own mind for a while. And
that was Paul’s, too—persecuting the Church of Christ. Sick sinners, one and
To each and every one of us, God beckons. He sees us
occupied with the things of this world, dead in our trespasses, and He speaks
His Word. “Follow me,” He says, and all that goes with it. “Follow
me to the font, where your sickness will first be washed away, so that you
might become a beloved child of the Father, one with whom He is well-pleased.”
“Follow me to the mount, where I will teach you my
ways and my will, setting the lamp of my Word before your feet and preparing
you to be a servant and a light to the world. Follow me to Jerusalem, and join
me at the meal, for I not only dine with sinners, but I feed them with my body
and blood for the forgiveness of their sins.”
“Follow me in taking up your cross. Crucify your
sinful self with the daily death of repentance. Follow me even to the grave,
and beyond it to the joys of heaven, and you will rest in the blessed assurance
that where I am, there shall my servant be also.”
The great miracle in all of this, of course, is not
that you or I can identify with Matthew, or the Pharisees, or even as being
numbered among the sick sinners whom Jesus came to call to spiritual health and
The great miracle, the unfathomable wonder of it all,
is that in Jesus Christ, God has identified with you. He identified with you
in your humanity, in your temptations, and in your frailty. And for those
agonizing hours of His passion, through all the suffering and pain of His
torture and crucifixion, He identified with your sinfulness, and bore the
torment of its punishment for you, that you might not be condemned and lost
His identification with you as a sin-sick soul has
assured you of a new identity in Christ—an identity which our heavenly Father
sees as seamless, whole, and perfect. Praise be to God Almighty, then, that
Jesus came not to call the righteous, but sinners—and has called them to a
righteousness that ensures our place at His heavenly banquet table.
May this confession, faith, and promise remain ours,
to life everlasting. Amen.