Sermon for the Feast of Saints Matthew, Apostle and Evangelist, 2014 (Year A)
Text: Matthew 9:9-13
Grace, mercy, and peace be unto you from God the Father and from Jesus Christ our Lord.
Dear friends in Christ,
JESUS COMES ONLY FOR SINNERS
We all know from our Sunday school days that in New Testament time tax-collectors were hated and looked down upon. We remember what a shock it was for people when Jesus called Zacchaeus down from the sycamore tree. Perhaps we remembering hearing that tax collectors handled foreign money which contained graven images of Caesar and so were thought to have a life tied up in idolatry. So consider what a scandal it was for Jesus to call a tax collector to follow Him. Now we can look at the reaction of the “bad guys”, the Pharisees, but let’s instead look at the reaction of the “good guys” that is, the other apostles and evangelists.
First of all we have the fact that when the Pharisees question the disciples about why Jesus eats with tax collectors and sinners, they don’t seem able to give an answer to their objections. Jesus has to defend Himself in that regard. Well, we know the disciples didn’t always get it before the resurrection, perhaps we can let it go that they were put on the spot and didn’t know what to say. But consider what we know from the Evangelist St. John. Of all the disciples, who was chosen to be the treasurer for the group, but Judas Iscariot? Why? Don’t you think that a former tax collector would be the best pick for managing the money? Yet, it is Judas not Matthew who is entrusted with the group’s finances.
But what about after the resurrection? Matthew, Mark, and Luke all include lists of the twelve apostles. Each one of them lists Matthew, but when Mark and Luke tell the story of Jesus calling him from the tax booth, they use a different name, they call him Levi then. Now whether this is to protect Matthew from embarrassment or the Church, or an entirely different reason we cannot say. Matthew uses a strikingly different approach in his account of the Gospel. He not only uses his common name Matthew (as opposed to Levi, which was possibly a family name), but when he lists the names of the apostles in the very next chapter he refers to himself as, Matthew, the tax collector. Matthew isn’t afraid to be known as a tax-collector or a sinner because he knows Jesus comes only for sinners. He knows that may be a scandal to some, but it doesn’t seem to bother Matthew, because it is true.
The message of sin and grace permeates all the Scriptures, but uniquely so in the Gospel written by the first evangelist. He makes sure to include the Lord’s Prayer with its fifth petition, “forgive us our debts as we forgive our debtors.” He makes sure to record Jesus’ words following the Lord’s Prayer as well, “For if you forgive others their trespasses, your heavenly Father will also forgive you, but if you do not forgive others their trespasses, neither will your Father forgive your trespasses.” Matthew records Jesus’ promise to Peter that he would be given the keys to the kingdom to lose and bind sins and two chapters later he records the bestowal of those keys on the Church. Matthew includes an entire discourse spoken by Jesus on how sin should be handled in the Church always seeking the brother’s repentance, even when he seems a long way off. And let us not forget that Matthew alone in all of Scripture tells us the significance of Jesus’ name when he records the words the angel spoke to Joseph, “You shall call His Name Jesus, for He will save His people from their sins.” Add to this that of the four places Scripture records the words of institution of the Lord’s Supper, only Matthew mentions the forgiveness of sins.
Why is this tax collector and sinner so concerned with sin? Because he is concerned about salvation. Because he knows that Jesus comes only for sinners, and that means Jesus came for him.
Matthew doesn’t mind if we remember him as a tax collector instead of as an apostle and evangelist. It is the Pharisees who would be offended if we remembered the bad about their lives and not the good. But Matthew is a different character than the Pharisees, he’s a different character than most of the world. Our twisted pride wants to be known for our charity, our wisdom, our good looks, our hard work, anything but our sin. By the power of the Holy Spirit, Matthew breaks that mold. He cares not so much how he is remembered, but how Christ is remembered. And like John the Baptist, Matthew knows that he must decrease that Christ might increase. If Matthew puffs himself up in his telling of the gospel story, then Jesus must be brought down. If Matthew makes little of his sinful past then he diminishes the Savior he seeks to proclaim. Oh how easy this is for us to do! It is so tempting to try to whitewash our lives.
In addition to sin and forgiveness, one of the central things in Matthew’s account of the Gospel is the power and certainty of the word of God. In the Sermon on the Mount the one who hears Christ and clings to His Word is like a man who built his house upon the rock. In the parable of the sower the seed is the Word of God. When the centurion comes to Him Jesus’ Word heals his servant without even entering his house.
But how often do we take in the word of God, but rather than let it have its way with us we insist that we must have our way with the word of God. The Bible calls something a sin, yet we find some way to justify ourselves. We look down on abortionists and homosexuals because they reject God’s Word which says life is a divine gift and our bodies are to be temples of the Holy Spirit meant to live as He has ordered creation. But what do we do about the passages of scripture that tell us to love our enemies, pray for our leaders, not covet what God has withheld from us and the like? We say these are little things. We play games with God’s Word so that is doesn’t condemn us, but we can continue living life our way and not God’s way. But in doing so we make ourselves like the Pharisees. We ask what Jesus would want with those others when He could hang out with the cool kids in the lunch room, with us. We make our sins little, but then we make our Savior little.
Martin Luther said that addressing errors in theology is a bit like trying to keep a drunk peasant on a horse. You prop him up on one side and he falls over on the other. You try to push him back up and he falls over on the first side again. You see this among so-called Christians today. On the one hand, you have the Westboro Baptists who rebuke the sin in others so severely that they leave open no door for repentance while not acknowledging the place of sin in their own lives. On the other hand you have the Joel Osteens of the world who will tell you all about how happy God want you to be, but will not tell you that Jesus saves you from your sins, because that means they would have to call you a sinner and that’s not nice. This drunken peasant rides on and will do so until Christ comes again.
How have you denounced sin in others without seeking their repentance? How have you tried to address the speck in your brother’s eye without first removing the log from your own? Or how often have you let both speck and log remain because removing them was too much of a bother.
Matthew won’t put up with such nonsense. He won’t try to cover up his sin, so that others think he is a great guy, because if he did then they would not know what a great guy Jesus is. When Jesus calls Matthew, something amazing happens. The house where He is eating supper is swarmed with tax collectors and other great sinners. There Jesus is recognized for who he is, a great Savior. This is all that Matthew wants. He wants Jesus to be known as a great savior.
“Follow me” says Jesus. And Matthew’s life is forever changed. The tax booth and the foreign money are left there. Matthew leaves behind the comfort of a lucrative career to follow a homeless carpenter. He would spend the rest of his life learning what it means that God desires mercy, and not sacrifice. For God would have us be merciful to each other. But first He is merciful to us. Jesus doesn’t just eat with sinners, he joins us in every aspect of our lives in this fallen world. He is born like us, He grows like us, He mourns the death of friends like us, He endures hardships like us, He finds life in the very words of God like us, He even suffers and dies like us becoming sin for us so that though we die, we no longer must die in sin but to sin. And He lives again so that we might live in Him and with Him.
Like Matthew we do not need to be ashamed that we are sinners. It must be said that neither are we proud to be sinners. We reject sin, it is not part of us though we live in it daily. But we also die to it daily. We are crucified with Christ in baptism, so that we may walk in the newness of life. When we stumble, we confess; when we repent, we are forgiven. We confess our sins and mourn their wretched bands, knowing that a contrite heart is sure to find forgiveness at the hands of Jesus. For here is a physician who makes all His patients well.
Matthew can help to sober us up so that we do not fall on either side of the horse. Sin is real and must be dealt with. It does us no good to deny its existence in the world or in us. But imagine how Matthew must have felt when he wrote down Jesus’ words concerning the unrepentant brother, If he refuses to listen even to the church, let him be to you as a Gentile and a tax collector. These words do not offend Matthew, the tax collector. And Matthew’s life and writing remind us these words do not mean that we are to forsake those who do not repent but continue to hope and pray and strive to see that the Word of God brings them to repentance and faith. And it also reminds us that even when we stray Jesus does not stop seeking us. Sin is wretched, but the confession that leads to forgiveness from Christ is a beautiful thing.
The task of the Church today still revolves around the Word. Every evangelist, every preacher, is given the word of God to consume: to read, mark, learn and inwardly digest; and it is sweet as honey for it is the very Word of Life. Surely Matthew sang with the Psalmist the words from our gradual this morning, “How sweet are your words to my taste, sweeter than honey to my mouth! My Heart overflows with a pleasing theme; my tongue is like the pen of a ready scribe.” Every Christian can sing these words as they receive God’s Grace in His Word and bear witness to that mercy through word and deed in their vocations. And each may tell their fellow sinners, “Follow me” and let us recline together at table with Jesus. Still today, Jesus comes for sinners. His supper is ready and His mercy endures forever.
The peace of God which passes all understanding keep your hearts and minds in Christ Jesus.
Soli Deo Gloria