For I am not come to call the righteous, but sinners to repentance.
(St. Matthew ix. 13)
Today we celebrate the Feast of St. Matthew the Apostle. Matthew and his brother St. James, who was another of the Twelve Apostles, were the sons of Alphaeus. They came from Galilee, which was home to Jesus during most of His adult ministry and was ruled under Rome by King Herod Antipas, who killed John the Baptist and played a role in the Passion and Crucifixion of Our Lord. St. Matthew was one of those Jews who would have been more hated and despised by his own people than by the foreign Roman occupiers since his livelihood was made by collecting taxes for Caesar. We have read about Matthew’s conversion in today’s Gospel, and following the Crucifixion, Resurrection, and Ascension, as he went out to evangelize the nations, he also wrote down his memory of it all in the first Synoptic Gospel, which bears his name. Some say that he died a martyr in Ethiopia, others say it was in Persia, and still others say he died a natural death. But for our purposes it doesn’t really matter whether his life ended naturally or by the enemy’s sword. He died having lived a life moved and defined by the life of Jesus Christ which leapt from his heart into the lives of others.
Tax Collectors in Roman-occupied Palestine were considered to be the worst of sinners. It was not only that they committed sinful acts against themselves and others as the normal way of sin ran its course. And it was not only that they made a false god out of money, becoming hoarders or spendthrifts as greedy men do. Rather, they collected Jewish monies for the purposes of Caesar’s pagan Roman domination of Israel. And more than this, the publicans were known to be thieves, since it was their custom to overtax their Jewish brethren in order to make a personal profit. We know that they were in the habit of doing this since St. Luke tells us that when the tax collectors went to John the Baptist to receive the Baptism of Repentance, he warned them to exact no more than that which was appointed them. (St. Luke iii. 13) So they were despised and abhorred, exiled and alienated from the Jewish community, and thus found friends only in the company of other sinners.
And so it is all the more remarkable that the Gospel tells us that, more often than not, it was into these communities of the despised, rejected, confused, and compromised that Jesus traveled to make new friends. The Jewish religious establishment of the day was, of course, scandalized. Why wouldn’t it be? Men who think that religion is all about personal sacrifice, good works, pious practices, and clean, moral living tend to look down upon those who don’t live up to their standard. If true religion is the prized possession of those who think that they have made themselves righteous and proved themselves holy, then, by all means, they do well to avoid notorious livers whose association might blemish their good reputations. And so, in today’s Gospel Jesus, having called St. Matthew, and proceeding to break bread with him and his friends, is accosted by the Pharisees. His Apostles are asked, Why eateth your Master with publicans and sinners? (St. Matthew ix. 11)
Before we find the answer, we must examine the nature of those lives that Jesus’ love dared to invade. St. Matthew, his publican friends, and the other sinners had found no hope for conversion and transformation in looking at the religious men of their day. What they saw was a judgment that offered no mercy. What they sensed was a law that offered no love. What they perceived was a condemnation that smothered all hope. Their present state elicited neither compassion, nor pity, nor kindness. Not one man cared enough to ask about their past, how painful it was, and how it might have formed and molded the lives they lived. The external and visible world of Jewish piety condemned them to a ghetto of despair and dejection. And so they lived in a community of misery.
Now, to be sure, publicans, in particular, benefited financially from their complicity with the Roman Government and their robbery of the Jewish people. They had all the money in the world. But their earthly riches could never have compensated for the loss of identification and unity with their people. The publicans were useful tools for the Roman political and financial machine, but neither citizens nor kin to their foreign overlords. They were by birth Jewish and so destined to inherit the promises of God, and yet their occupation ostracized and prohibited them from the worship and fellowship of the Temple. So what they had was the love of money, which, as we all know, is the root of all evil. (1 Tim. vi. 10) The more one has of it, the less happy he is likely to become. The problem with it is that its value or worth comes and goes like the southwest wind, and all that it can promise is a return or profit that arrives and departs with equal probability. Its promise of happiness is so uncertain that the maddening anxiety that its possession engenders should really encourage its immediate release. And yet more often than not the man in this state falls rapidly into its total possession and control. We do well to remember that the words miser and misery go hand in hand. And yet as Bertrand Russell once remarked, Extreme hopes are born from extreme misery.
And so it is into this world of extreme misery that Christ’s love comes, for Christ Jesus did not come to call the righteous, but sinners into repentance. (St. Luke v. 32) St. Matthew doesn’t tell us about the life he used to lead, or that he was purified, washed, cleansed, and made good like the Pharisees. Matthew wasn’t good at all, and he wants us to know that it is because Jesus finds him in it that he is then called out of it. And as Jesus passed forth from thence, he saw a man, named Matthew, sitting at the receipt of custom: and he saith unto him, Follow me. And he arose, and followed him. (Ibid, 9) St. John Chrysostom tells us that St. Matthew disguises not his former life, but adds even his name. (Hom. xxx) St. Matthew is not presenting a type of sin that Jesus comes to eradicate. Jesus comes to catch out a true-to-life sinner in the act of his sinning! And if Jesus can catch out a self-acknowledged, money-grubbing sinner named Matthew in the evil of sinning itself, he wants us to know that there is hope for us too!
Chrysostom reminds us that Jesus calls him while he was sitting at the receipt of custom…to show the power that can, in the midst of evil living, lift a man out of it. (Idem) Jesus doesn’t come to bless and consecrate righteous living into His service. Men are not meant to make themselves presentable or tastefully tarted-up for the visitation of the Lord. He wishes rather to come into our misery, pain, sadness, sickness, ugliness, and sin in order that we might feel more powerfully His love that desires to conquer it all. For it is only in knowing, acknowledging, claiming, confessing, and revealing our true sinful state in the face of Christ’s longing gaze and merciful eye that we can then be startled and stunned into such need and desire for Him that when He says, Follow me, we cannot help but arise, forsake all, and follow. (Ibid, 9)
The Pharisees ask, Why eateth your Master with publicans and sinners? (Ibid, 11) And Jesus answers, They that be whole need not a physician, but they that are sick. But go ye and learn what that meaneth, I will have mercy, and not sacrifice: for I am not come to call the righteous, but sinners to repentance.(Ibid, 12, 13) Jesus desires mercy and not sacrifice, and what He means is that He desires to give God’s merciful and all-powerful healing to those who most need it. Those who most need it are those who know themselves to be most spiritually maimed, alienated, exiled, confused, frightened, hurt, wounded, sick, and lost. This self-knowledge alone forsakes all and follows Jesus, because such misery longs most deeply for the all-powerful mercy that can love it out of its sinning.
My friends, today we are called to be arrested and called by the desire of Jesus out of our sinning and into His loving. George Herbert describes the call of love to one sinning like this:
Love bade me welcome; yet my soul drew back,
Guilty of dust and sin.
But quick-eyed Love, observing me grow slack
From my first entrance in,
Drew nearer to me, sweetly questioning
If I lack’d anything.
‘A guest,’ I answer’d, ‘worthy to be here:’
Love said, ‘You shall be he.’
‘I, the unkind, ungrateful? Ah, my dear,
I cannot look on Thee.’
Love took my hand and smiling did reply,
‘Who made the eyes but I?’
‘Truth, Lord; but I have marr’d them: let my shame
Go where it doth deserve.’
‘And know you not,’ says Love, ‘Who bore the blame?’
‘My dear, then I will serve.’
‘You must sit down,’ says Love, ‘and taste my meat.’
So I did sit and eat.
St. Matthew was arrested by that love that shined into his sin and longingly called him from the receipt of custom and into the new life that leads back to God. In Jesus Christ, St. Matthew perceived a love that seized and embraced his soul. St. Augustine describes such love like this: What does [this] love look like? It has the hands to help others. It has the feet to hasten to the poor and needy. It has eyes to see misery and want. It has the ears to hear the sighs and sorrows of men. That is what love looks like. This is the love that captured the heart of St. Matthew the publican and sinner. This is the love whose worth and value made the coinage of his custom house but dust and dung. This love is made for men who are so sick of their sin that they jump to the call of love’s offer of new life. This is the love that calls forth its own potential capacity and nature from the hearts of those who once knew only hate. And this is the love with which St. Matthew then responds when he opens his house to Jesus and all others. And it came to pass, as Jesus sat at meat in [his] house, behold, many publicans and sinners came and sat down with him and his disciples. (Ibid, 10) …So [they] did sit and eat. Amen.