As Jesus was walking along, he saw a man called Matthew sitting at the tax booth; and he said to him, “Follow me.”
A man who was in physical disarray and who smelled like a brewery got on a bus one day. And wouldn’t you know it, he sat right down next to a Catholic priest. The man’s shirt was stained, his face was full of bright red lipstick, and he had a half-empty bottle of wine sticking out of his coat pocket.
He opened his newspaper and started reading. After a couple of minutes, he turned and asked the priest a question: Father….. what causes arthritis?
The priest, who by now was becoming a bit impatient with having to even sit next to this smelly, dirty man, came back quickly with his answer: Mister, he said, arthritis is caused by loose living with prostitutes, too much alcohol and contempt for your fellow human beings.
Well I’ll be darned, the disheveled man muttered, and he returned to his newspaper.
After a while, as you might imagine, the priest began to think about what he said, and he began to feel that he hadn’t been very Christian to the man, and so he decided to apologize. He said, I’m sorry, I didn’t mean to come on so strong. How long have you had arthritis?
And the man answered, Oh… I don’t have it, Father….. I was just reading in the paper that the Pope has it.
Most of us have been in the embarrassing place in which this priest has found himself. There’s a part of human nature that wants to judge people by outward appearances and certain behavior patterns. I think it happens to a lot to fathers when their daughters say, Guess what Dad, I have a new boyfriend.
In today’s Gospel, the Pharisees are proving just how human their nature is. They watched Jesus go into Matthew’s house, and they watched some of those OTHERpeople go in as well, and they could not help themselves.
They turned to his disciples and asked, Why does your teacher eat with THOSE kind of people? Why does he hang around all those low-lifers? It makes it hard for us to, you know, appreciate him.
Here’s an interesting thing about Jesus. As supremely human as he was, he always seemed to resist certain parts of human nature, and he did it with such consistency. I think what impresses me most about Jesus. . . even more than the feeding of the five-thousand, or the raising of Lazarus, or the turning of water into wine, or even walking on water. . . what impresses me the most is our Lord’s ability to ALWAYS, and I mean ALWAYS, see the whole person. Not here and there, not when it seemed right or convenient, but ALWAYS!
That is the reason that we join millions of people all over the world and throughout history who claim Jesus embodies the very Word of God.
That is why it is not a stretch for us to claim that he is the Christ of God, because we trust that this unconditional love is a perfect reflection of God’s willingness to be present in that very same non-discriminatory way all throughout the Universe all at the same time.
Jesus came out of Matthew’s house and addressed his detractors by saying,Those who are well have no need of a physician, but only those who are sick. Go and learn what this means, ‘I desire mercy, not sacrifice’.
What he is saying here is, I know you think these gathered here around this table have thwarted proper religious customs. I know that by your standards this makes them unclean and unworthy. I know that’s your traditional stance, but I’m here to break with that tradition.
And then he goes on to say, For I have come to call not the righteous, but sinners.
I believe that begs the question: Who are the righteous anyway?
Well, the Pharisees think they are righteous, but what does that mean?
Personally, I think when Jesus refers to the righteous, he is engaging in hyperbole. I don’t think for a minute that he believes such a group of people actually exist. Who are the righteous then? Who do they represent? It seems to me that people who believe themselves to be righteous have one thing in common. They are all, to some degree, offended by the fact that God’s grace is offered to everyone equally. Self-righteousness is perhaps among the most original of sins, and Jesus offers the cure. He says, People in good health don’t need a physician. Sick people do. As one wise priest put it, Jesus was saying, If you are willing to recognize the disease of the false self, I am at your service.
The self-righteous, you see, simply don’t like God’s redefinition of acceptable social boundaries as lived out and embodied and thoroughly demonstrated by Jesus of Nazareth.
Now our Gospel story continues and concludes with two miracle stories. The healing of the daughter of the leader of the local synagogue when Jesus takes her by the hand, and the woman who had been sick for twelve years with chronic bleeding who just needed to touch Jesus’ cloak.
But I submit to you that there are a total of four miracles in this story. The two I have just summarized and two more that preceded them.
The first is the healing of Matthew. Was Matthew sick and suffering? You bet he was. He was a social and religious outcast of the first order. As disgraceful as it was to the self-proclaimed righteous ones, Jesus nonetheless makes Matthew whole.
He heals him by taking his hand and bidding him to follow. There is power in the human touch. That’s the reason many churches now offer a healing station at the time of Communion each week in Church with anointing and the laying on of hands. We are reminded there of the verse in a beloved Easter hymn: Your touch can call us back to life again.
Jesus raises Matthew from the stench of the death of rejection and isolation by calling him back into community. Nobody can do that like Jesus can! Nobody!
Now what happens is when people read or hear this message? They think that in order to be good, they have to save the world like Jesus does. Wrong!
Christianity teaches that there is only one Savior of the world with a capital S, and it’s none of us. We will never, in our humanness, be able to love with the same kind of inclusivity and universality as Jesus, but we should be trying to approximate that love.
We are not called to become God; we are, however, called to be Godly. So throw away those ashes of guilt for not traveling the roads that were too difficult, or the roads that were not meant for us.
The second miracle in our Gospel was the healing of all those people who were sitting at Matthew’s table. The ones that the righteous called sinners. When Jesus stepped over the threshold of Matthew’s home, he made it easy for them to extend their hands and touch his cloak. . . the cloak of total acceptance and irrepressible love.
Jesus managed to stop their bleeding caused by the arrows of disgrace, dishonor and disrespect hurled at them by the self-righteous. And nobody can do that like Jesus. Nobody!
You see, Jesus did not just make sinners the object of love. He actually saw something in them that he liked. That is why their human dignity was restored. That is what made them whole.(2)
My dear friends in Christ, Jesus didn’t just defend a cause or two; he didn’t just defend a social group or two. Jesus defied the normal course of human nature and defended everybody, even the self-righteous who opposed him in this mission of universal salvation. Jesus manifests a God that is bigger than all of us put together could imagine!
The theologian Robert Mesle, says it so well:
The power of Jesus lay precisely in his ability to sustain loving relationships with those who were supposed to be his enemies.
Sinners and Roman Tax collectors, Roman soldiers and the others who rejected him were not rejected by him.
He continued to create himself in response to them in ways that they could not defeat. They could not make him stop loving them. (3)
And I would add the parallel: Jesus is the absolute incarnation of the absolute truth. . . that you cannot make God stop loving you. . . No matter what! God bless you on the journey.
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