by Raymond Pickett
Professor of New Testament
Today we commemorate “St. Matthew,” Apostle and Evangelist, and so we read the story of Jesus calling a tax collector named Matthew in the Gospel of Matthew. Somehow the tax collector named Matthew here, but Levi in Mark and Luke, came to be associated with the author of the Gospel of Matthew. Of course, we don’t really know who wrote Matthew, and neither do we know anything about the tax collector in today’s Gospel other than his name, his occupation, and the fact that he is later listed as a member of the 12. Hence, the bearers of the tradition did what most of us usually do when we don’t know much about someone; we improvise, we invent, we make stuff up! How much do we really know one another, even those we live with on a daily basis? And yet no matter how little we know about a person, we make preliminary judgments, often assigning them a category or a label for easy reference.
This is all quite automatic and on the face of it seems rather harmless unless a person gets tagged in ways that constrain or damage them. One of the features of Jesus’ ministry that seems to be beyond dispute is that he fraternized with those who were branded “sinners and tax collectors”, that is, people in Judean society who were pigeonholed as deviant and hence to be avoided. This is old news and indeed good news for most of us because we loosely identify with the “sinners” (though not tax collectors) Jesus ate with. We like to imagine ourselves at one of these dinner parties. But it is easier to romanticize what it was like to be on the outside looking in than to actually be on the outside looking in, though I am certain many know what that feels like.
I genuinely doubt that any of us made it through our youth without being labeled, mistreated and damaged in one way or another. But the flip side of this coin, one that we could conveniently ignore, is that people who have been damaged or ostracized also are prone to mistreat and wound others. The Pharisees may have a point in today’s Gospel. It’s easy enough for me to get all mushy when I imagine Jesus hanging out with the misfits if I don’t also imagine the adverse effects the behavior of those “sinners and tax collectors” had on others. It may well be that “sinner” here is simply a “label” the Pharisees use to keep out the “riff-raff”. On the other hand, there is no denying that we are prone to misbehave, and the consequences of our actions reverberate throughout communities and creation. There is no mention in this text of those on the receiving end of the misdeeds of these “sinners and tax collectors”, but that doesn’t mean they weren’t the cause of real suffering. Is what is on offer here what Bonhoeffer called “cheap grace”?
Today we are commemorating St. Matthew, apostle, evangelist and tax collector. As if apostle and tax collector are not incongruous enough, perhaps what is most striking of all is the juxtaposition of “sinners and tax collectors”. Presumably “sinners” are those who won’t or can’t keep the Torah, whether because of willful disobedience or lack of time and resources we don’t really know. But there is no ambiguity about tax collectors. These were Judeans who collected taxes for the Roman Empire’s ruling elite. They were despised because they earned their living by making an already unbearable burden of taxes more unbearable. So the meal Jesus is having in Capernaum includes both the oppressor and the oppressed, Judeans who benefited from exploiting the working poor in the name of the Roman Empire and the people they exploited. This would be tantamount to Jesus hosting a dinner party that included the power brokers of this country’s leading financial institutions today and those who have lost their jobs, their homes, and their retirement. Rather than polite dinner conversation I imagine a rather lively debate!
There was an article in the NY Times last week about high-level employees at Lehman Brothers who lost their jobs a year ago when Lehman went belly up. Some are still angry and bitter because they have not yet found new jobs or have taken jobs with less pay and prestige. Some lost their savings and their dream of kicking back early. Others have moved on and are doing quite well. What was most interesting and not a little disturbing was than none of these “Lehman veterans, or their counterparts at other banks, blame themselves for the havoc their activities wrought. Instead, they pointed to the failures of regulators”. From their perspective they were simply offering a product that investors were demanding to buy from the firm.
I must confess that I read these “Tales from Lehman’s Crypt” with little or no sympathy for people who appear to me to have been irresponsible and self-indulgent. If anything, I felt a little angry at their unwillingness to acknowledge their own culpability for behavior that had adverse affect on countless families. These executives had duties and obligations to clients and should not be excused, and yet the truth of the matter is that they were operating in a corporate culture where this behavior was prized and rewarded – a culture they internalized. People do have to be held accountable for their decisions and actions, but a reading of the downfall of the Lehman brother employees guided by the sort of mercy and compassion exemplified by Jesus might also be able to notice that these employees were themselves deformed and damaged by the financial system that made them wealthy. It has become abundantly clear that financial system and the culture that perpetuated it is itself broken.
Matthew and other Judean tax collectors worked in the service of a system that encouraged greed and exploited poor peasants. We are not told what Jesus talked about with these sinners and tax collectors over dinner. One thing that “sinners and tax collectors” had in common is that those relegated to both “categories” found themselves disconnected and disdained. Perhaps Jesus is talking with both ends of the spectrum about how the social order kept them and others on the fringe of Judean society. Matthew the tax collector belongs with a whole cast of marginal characters in these middle chapters of Matthew: a leper, a demon possessed man, a paralytic, a hemorrhaging woman, a dying girl, two blind men and crowds full of folks who were physically and spiritually ill.
I don’t think we would be remiss if we were to see all these people as disenfranchised in some sense. Jesus is doing communal pastoral care here, and perhaps even some reconciliation work. More than that, he is organizing on and from the margins. In eating with “sinners and tax collectors” Jesus is declaring to them and to the world that they too belong to the people of God, to the covenant community God is always ever creating and renewing. Huston Smith says, “God is the center, and there is no circumference.” But make no mistake about it, when Matthew gets up to follow Jesus, he is pledging body and soul to be kind and just in his dealings with the people of God to whom he is now accountable. Jesus calls anyone and everyone who has lost their connection to the Source of Life and communion with others to belong to and participate in a new way of living and relating that is characterized by justice, meekness, mercy, purity of heart and peacemaking.
Matthew tells the story of Jesus as the story of a leader who came to “save the people from their sins”. But do we really believe that Jesus can save us from our sins without our trust and cooperation, apart from participation and enactment of the way of life he wants to teach us? Indeed, can Jesus save us from our sin without our acknowledging that we have been deformed and damaged by a diseased social system that doesn’t care about life because systems don’t care, only people care. But if Jesus can’t save us from our sins apart from our trust and cooperation, then neither can we save ourselves. If we have any hope of real salvation, and I assume that is why we are here, it is only with and for one another, with and for the whole creation that cries out in eager longing and anticipation.
William Blake said that sin is a consequence of not exercising the imagination. In eating with “sinners and tax collectors” Jesus helps us to imagine a world without labels where sinners and tax collectors, the poor and the rich, are human beings who have been damaged and have damaged others. And then, as is fitting for a community of learning, he gives us homework: “Go and learn what this means, ‘I desire mercy more than sacrifice’”. What God yearns for, Jesus tells us in the words of Hosea, is a people who are kind and caring and rightly related to God, to one another, and indeed to the whole of creation. That is what “righteousness” means. That’s how sinners become “righteous.”