by The Rev. Paul L. Beisel
Tax collectors at Jesus’ time were not known for their honest business principles and spotless reputations. Like today’s car salesmen, tax collectors were renowned for taking a little more than was necessary, just to fill their own pockets. They were also a sign of Roman occupation. They were a constant reminder to the Jews that Caesar, and not their own king, was in charge.
Needless to say you would rarely find a devout Jew interacting with one of these tax collectors. By avoiding such public sinners, the Jews thought that they were fulfilling the law. However, by holding themselves on a level above others, they violated the principle of mercy, the characteristic which, above all else, identifies one as belonging to God.
It is God’s mercy, not His holiness that makes it possible for men to approach Him and even sit and eat and drink in His presence. And it is this characteristic of God that Jesus demonstrated by eating and drinking with tax collectors and other sinners, as we heard in the Gospel. It was His merciful attitude toward those who were lacking in personal merit that both attracted unholy sinners to Him and shocked the holier-than-thou Pharisees.
Among these unholy sinners with whom Jesus associated was Matthew. As we heard in the Gospel: “As Jesus passed on from there, He saw a man named Matthew sitting at the tax office.” Matthew’s self-description is less than flattering. If we were to leave our imprint upon a document that we knew would be viewed by many people, we would not hesitate to describe ourselves in the best possible light.
Not Matthew though. In telling the story of his own call by Jesus, Matthew is brutally honest about himself. He makes it known to every generation who reads the Gospel which bears his name what kind of person he was when Jesus found him—a tax collector, a sinner.
For whatever reason Matthew included this detail, it illustrates beautifully the point that Jesus makes in response to the Pharisees: “Those who are well have no need of a physician, but those who are sick […] For I did not come to call the righteous, but sinners to repentance.”
The call to repentance issued by Jesus is not a call to a higher morality, or a call to try harder to obey the Law. If anything, the call to repentance is above all a call to give up on self, and follow Jesus who is a friend to sinners. Followers of Jesus find in Him not another set of demands but a righteousness that is given to them from above, as a gift.
In Christ the same Law that condemns all men to death because of their sins is fulfilled. As Jesus himself said, he did not come to abolish the Law and the Prophets, but to fulfill them. For the believer, the Law’s condemning power has been removed since Christ was condemned in our place. Thus St. Paul says: “There is now no condemnation for those who are in Christ Jesus.”
The righteousness of Jesus, like medicine for the sick, is given to those who have no righteousness of their own. It is, in reality, a higher righteousness than that of the Pharisee, because it comes from God, not from men.
Matthew saw himself in this light, as a sinner who was not worthy to be in the presence of Jesus. But he also saw himself as part of the “many,” the community for whom the Son of Man had come to give His life as a ransom and atoning sacrifice. Through his written account of the words and deeds of Jesus, Matthew beckons other sinners to find their life in the One who says: “Come to me all who labor and are heavy-laden, and I will give you rest.”
His words, which are essentially the words of Jesus, invite you and I to give up on ourselves, to stop trying to justify ourselves by our own efforts, confess our lack of holiness and to follow Jesus, who has mercy on the poor in spirit, and sacrifices his life for the sake of his enemies.
Without the preservation of these words and acts of Jesus the message of the early Church, that Jesus is the Messiah who became incarnate for our sakes, suffered and died for our sins, and rose from the dead on the third day, would have been subject to error and change without the accurate accounts of it recorded for future generations.
Thus it is fitting for us today to honor the first of the holy Evangelists, St. Matthew, and to praise God for enlisting him in the service of His holy Church. We praise God for the Evangelist that gave us, among other things, the full revelation of God’s name as Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. It is Matthew to whom we are indebted for the institution of Holy Baptism, and the story of Jesus’ escape from Herod and the visit of the Magi.
From Matthew’s pen we learn that Jesus is not only the King of the Jews, but also Emmanuel, God with us. The other Gospels give detailed accounts of the suffering, death, and resurrection of Jesus, but Matthew’s Gospel is unique in explaining the Lord’s Supper and Jesus’ death in terms of the forgiveness of sins.
From Matthew we learn that Jesus is the promised Messiah, that though he is flesh and blood his true origins are in God. Matthew includes Jesus’ teaching on the Law, the Sacrament of Holy Baptism, Prayer, Confession, and the Sacrament of the Altar, which may explain why Matthew has occupied a place of honor in the church since the beginning.
Much like pastors’ sermons, the Gospels are to a certain extent windows into the minds and lives of those who wrote them. Matthew was not only a Christian who had been called by Jesus to a life of faith, he was among the Twelve, one of the Apostles, a herald and teacher of the Church, one of those to whom Jesus said, “I am sending you out as sheep among wolves.”
The same words that give comfort to many today no doubt served Matthew in the same way: “Blessed are the poor in spirit, blessed are those who are persecuted for the sake of righteousness; Blessed are the meek.” Matthew learned that there is a cost that comes with being such a public figure and disciple of Jesus. Tradition has it that Matthew, like most of the other disciples, was martyred for his faith.
We may never know what the threat of Martyrdom is like, but we can learn what it means to make daily sacrifices for the sake of this message. At the very least we know that to be a confessing Christian and a disciple of Jesus is not likely to win us any friends. Those who are the most vocal about their faith in Christ to their relatives and friends surely know what Jesus meant when he said that He came not to bring peace but a sword, putting father against son and mother against daughter.
We all must learn that Christianity is more than just a set of principles by which to live, but involves following Christ daily in his death and resurrection. This path begins in the saving waters of holy Baptism, where the Spirit comes to us and the Father declares us as His beloved children.
From there it leads to the altar where Christ nourishes our souls with His true Body and true Blood. And finally it will lead us to our eternal dwelling place where with angels, archangels, and the whole host of heaven we will glorify the name of the Lord forever.
It was for this reason that God became flesh for us and put sin to death in His flesh, so that we might find relief and comfort from the burdens of sin in Him. It is for that reason that Jesus gives us that same flesh and blood to eat and drink in the Sacrament, to renew our flesh and spirit, to unite our flesh with his.
He who once offended the Pharisees because He ate and drank with sinners continues to be just as offensive and surprising, for He eats and drinks with you. He continues to this day to turn heads, not because of his holiness, but because of his great mercy by which He lets undeserving sinners feast in his presence.
This, then, is the greatest miracle of all, not that Jesus makes us better people, but that in Him, in His crucified and risen flesh, our heavenly Father declares us unholy sinners to be righteous in His sight through faith. It was for this message that St. Matthew lived and died, and it is by that message that we are saved.
The Rev. Paul Beisel is Pastor of Concordia Lutheran Church in Warsaw, Illinois. He also served as an assistant chaplain for Pastor Rick Stuckwisch at Amen in Saint Louis. Pastor Beisel thanks Dr. David Scaer for insights and ideas incorporated into this sermon.
Created: September 22nd, 2008