Monday, February 22, 2010

The King: Pushing the Boundaries

Preached on February 21, 2010

Scripture readings: Psalm 33: Matthew 9:9-17

In the Gospel of John (John 2:1-11) we are told that the first miraculous sign that Jesus did was to turn water into wine.

When I was on the Oregon coast, one of the industries in the area was commercial fishing. Now those fishing people were solid people, but it was rough work, and a rough life-style grew around it. They tended to live and play rough.

My friend and mentor Dick Cochran (who pastured a church in the neighboring town) would joke that the first miracle of Jesus was not to turn water into wine, but to turn commercial fishermen into disciples (like Peter, and James, and John. You need to know that they would not be offended by that joke.

Commercial fishermen weren’t the only rough people Jesus turned into disciples. Jesus turned a traitor into a disciple. I mean tax collector! I mean Matthew!
Matthew was a traitor, not because he was a tax collector, but because tax collectors either worked for the Romans, or for the puppet kings, like the Herod family, who ruled as a cover for the Roman rule.

The Romans considered Judea and Galilee to be legitimate Roman territories. The residents of Judea and Galilee considered themselves to be conquered territories, and those who worked for the Roman occupation, or their flunkies, were traitors. Matthew either worked for the Romans, or for their flunkies. Therefore he was clearly a traitor.

Why would Matthew have decided to be a traitor? Why would he do something to make himself hated by almost everyone? Why would he bring such shame upon his family? Probably he did it for the money!

Under the Roman system tax collectors collected legal and assessed taxes, and tariffs, and duties; and they turned the money in to the jurisdiction of the government that employed them. But they could legally collect more money than they turned in. That was legal payment for their services to the government.
They didn’t receive a salary for their work. They worked for tips; and they tipped themselves to as much as they could get away with taking.

Tax collectors were notoriously rich. This served Rome purposes because the more they made, and the more they made themselves hated, the more they depended on their masters for protection. And that dependence made their loyalty to their masters unquestioning and absolute. Rome liked that quality in her servants.

If everyone hates you or looks down on you like dirt, then (as happy as the benefits make you) you will have no friends; unless there are other people around (beside yourself) who are hated or looked down on like dirt, just as you are, but for other reasons. That is where you will find your friends.

The chances are that any group of people who are hated or looked down on like dirt by everyone else will not try to live up to the standards of those who hate them. They will live down to the low expectations of others. And so Matthew and his friends were labeled “sinners”. And I am sure that that was exactly what they were.

It wasn’t only the Pharisees or the super religious people who did the labeling, and looked down on Matthew and his friends like dirt. Jesus’ own disciples would have agreed with the Pharisees.

Jesus’ own disciples would feel sick in the pit of their stomachs when they saw Jesus reclining next to Matthew, at a party with Matthew’s friends. Jesus’ own disciples would hate Matthew’s guts. They just would.

There was a pretty clear line, they thought, that shut Matthew out of fellowship with them. Matthew had made his choices. He had chosen the wrong side of the boundary.

It is true that Matthew had left the tax office and thrown this party for Jesus. But his sin was not an isolated sin, and Matthew’s way of life was a pattern of long standing. There was no record of change yet. Let them watch Matthew, over the next weeks and months, to see where his loyalties really were. Let them watch and see if he measured up: see if he would give up all that old life; all that low-life and rough life. They expected the kingdom of God to be marked with clear no trespassing signs, and with clear requirements for admission, before people like Matthew could come in.

Even God seemed to set clear boundaries in the scriptures. The First Psalm says, “Blessed is the man who does not walk in the counsel of the wicked, or stand in the way of sinners, or sit in the seat of mockers.” (Psalm 1:1) God says, in Leviticus (11:44), “Be holy, for I am holy.”

Yet God seems to have a different idea of what it means to be holy. Psalm 33 makes it clear that God has a different basis for judging than we do. The things we think of as strength do not impress God. “No king is saved by the size of his army; no warrior escapes by his great strength.” (33:16)

God’s purposes are different than ours. “He thwarts the purposes of the peoples.” (33:10)

The key to the different kind of holiness of God is in a Hebrew word for a certain kind of love. There is a Hebrew word (“hesed”) that is hard to translate. In Psalm 33 (in the New International Version) it is translated as “unfailing love”. “Hesed” is what we would call a “covenant love”. It is fundamentally gracious. It is fundamentally undeserved. It has sometimes been translated as “mercy”. “The eyes of the Lord are on those who fear him, on those whose hope is in his unfailing love (or his mercy).” (33:18) “The eyes of the Lord are on those who reverence him, on those whose hope is in his mercy.”

In other words, the eyes of the Lord are not on those who have won the right to it; but on those who need his eyes upon them to help them. The eyes of the Lord are upon the weak, and the small, and the needy: even when it is the patterns of sin that make them weak, and small, and needy.

Even though Matthew was rich and powerful; spiritually he was bankrupt, and he knew it. He was haunted by this, though he barely let himself think about it. He knew he was the poorest and weakest man in the room.

Jesus knew that Matthew knew this. He knew it when he looked in Matthew’s eyes in the tax office, on the road by the lake at Capernaum. Jesus knew what would happen if he said to Matthew, “Follow me.”

Jesus quoted from the prophet Hosea in order to push back the boundaries that people tried to draw to keep certain people out. Jesus said, “I desire mercy, not sacrifice.” (Matthew 9:13; Hosea 6:6)

Sacrifices were all about the right rituals, and following all the right rules. Mercy was about mercy; even mercy for those whose lives are horrible, even mercy for those on whom everyone looks down.

The Pharisees thought that the Messiah would come for the sake of the righteous, not for the sake of Matthew and his friends. Jesus told them that just the opposite was true; and he used a scary word to do this. “I have not come to call the righteous, but sinners.” And the word “call”, here, is a special word for an invitation to a feast. And “feast” is a word for the kingdom of God (Isaiah 25:6ff). It was not the righteous but sinners whom Jesus came to call to the feast of the kingdom of God. And just who are we?

The secret of the kingdom of God is mercy. Mercy is the way into the kingdom for those who know they need it. Mercy is the way out of the kingdom for those who think they are so good that they can draw a line to keep others out. Jesus taught us that mercy is one of the fundamental truths of the kingdom when he taught us to pray: “forgive us our debts as we forgive our debtors” or “forgive us our trespasses as we forgive those who trespass against us.”

For those who think they are inside the kingdom of God; they need to know that belonging has nothing to do with what we deserve; it only has to do with our need, and with God’s mercy, and with God’s unfailing love. His disciples needed to learn this. Matthew already knew.

The Pharisees teach us some mistakes to avoid. Don’t use your faith as a reason to look down on others. Don’t think your faith is there to help you, and not to help others. Don’t think your faith entitles you to escape from others.

Remember the lesson of the power of Jesus to look at a single person, or a whole crowd of people, and call them and welcome them in. The people who were labeled, the people who were looked down on, liked Jesus, not because he tried to be like them, but because he respected them enough to not be afraid of them.

He accepted them as they were; he loved them even as they were, because they were made through him. He was their king even when they didn’t know him, and he was not afraid to be himself when he was around them.

Surely the secret of this power was the fact that Jesus knew he was going to offer himself on the cross to take away the sins of the world. Jesus knew that he had taken human life upon himself in order to do the greatest thing in the universe.

God came in Christ to die and rise for the sins of the world; so that a whole world that had drawn a line and raised a boundary against him could also die and rise to a new life through him. The message of the gospel is that we are invited to die and rise with Christ into a life of fellowship with God. This is the sort of king Jesus is.

We are called to share Jesus with others. The key is to be, not ourselves as we would like to appear to others, but to be like Jesus and accept others as they are, and love them as they are, and not be afraid, because we know the power and mercy of Jesus for ourselves and for them.

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