So, are you on the outside looking in, or the inside looking out?
There was an outside and an inside in today’s Gospel. Inside was Jesus with a few of His disciples and His newly-called apostle, Matthew the tax collector and all his friends, fellow tax collectors; sinners, you know, “those people” that no self-respecting member of the community would acknowledge much less hang around with. Outside were some others of Jesus’ disciples. (I don’t know what they were doing out there, but anyway…). A contingent of Pharisees approached, peeping in the windows. “Why,” they asked the disciples, “Why does your teacher eat with tax collectors and sinners?” They were offended, you see. And the outside disciples knew it. They knew the rules. To sit at table and share a meal is an expression of fellowship, of friendship, of acceptance and even identification with your fellow diners. But here! Tax collectors? Sinners? The disciples didn’t know what to say. Apparently the windows were open because Jesus heard them and came outside.
“Those who are well,” He said to them, “have no need of a physician, but those who are sick.” Well, that’s obvious…isn’t it? Allowing, for the moment, that the Pharisees were right in calling tax collectors and sinners “sickos,” Jesus was asking who, after all, needed mercy, healing and help more than these? “Go and learn what this means.” And He quoted the prophet Hosea, “I desire mercy, and not sacrifice.” Time after time God’s mercy appears to break through the rules because the goal of the rules, in God’s sight, is love and deliverance. In fact, time after time you can already see the shadow of the cross as it is only as the Messiah, the Christ and Savior, dirties Himself, identifies with sinners to take their sin and separation and death upon Himself that anyone can be saved. “I came,” He said, “not to call the righteous, but sinners.” And with that—did the Pharisees perceive the little “dig”? All are sinners. “None is righteous, no, not one” (Rom. 3:10). What the Pharisees couldn’t see is that they were just as much in need of mercy and forgiveness as any sinner.
The world, of course, has everything backwards. I’ve often made the observation that when the world sees you entering the door to the church on Sunday morning, they look at you and think, “My, what good people they are!” But if you’re like me you know that we are not here because we are so good but precisely because we are so bad and in need of forgiveness, mercy, life and salvation. This is the simple reason church membership has been dropping in recent years, people just don’t see their need of it.
The call of Matthew the tax collector is a short incident, but an important one. For it says when Christ calls, sinners come. Christ calls sinners, and only them, into communion with himself. Where Christ is, where his church is, where his Gospel is given, there you can expect to find sinners; sinners who are being healed of their diseases, sinners who are shown mercy, forgiven sinners who feast with their Lord, both now in his holy supper and in eternity in the feast of victory.
This text asks us to identify. Who are you? The righteous Pharisee or the tax collector and sinner? Or maybe some of both.
All people are sinners; all have sinned and fallen short of the glory of God. It’s just that we do such a good job at covering it up. Not all people believe or acknowledge they are desperate, poor sinners in need of the mercy of God. The Pharisees were sinners, too. Jesus was not so much telling them to get lost as he was reaching out also to them in hopes they would discover how lost they really were; lost in self-righteousness, bigotry, prejudice—sins just as devastating as those of the tax collectors and other sinners.
So which are we? Pharisee or sinner or both? “Consider your place in life according to the Ten Commandments: Are you a father, mother, son, daughter, husband, wife, [employer] or worker? Have you been disobedient, unfaithful, or lazy? Have you been hot-tempered, rude, or quarrelsome? Have you hurt someone by your words or deeds? Have you stolen, been negligent, wasted anything, or done any harm?” [Small Catechism, Confession]
The one thing that makes all the difference, ultimately, is love of neighbor. In a sense the “tax collectors and sinners” and the Pharisees were all guilty of the same thing: selfishness and lack of love toward their neighbor. There is only one cure. For there cannot be any true love of neighbor until a person receives the Source of that love for him or herself which is the forgiving, graceful and merciful love of God.
We are the tax collectors, the sinners, the Pharisee: sick people all who need a doctor, for sin enslaves and infects and kills us and we cannot free or cure ourselves.
Here alone is the cure. Here alone is mercy for sinners. For, Jesus Christ calls us, shows mercy to us, heals us, forgive us through the means of grace, his powerful, authoritative Word and blessed sacraments.
Like Matthew, in the middle of everything else going on, in the middle of your sin, Jesus approaches and says, “Follow me.” And it is not so much that we have figured out what that following means, not that we have calculated how worthy we are to be one of his disciples. It is just something in the power of his Word and Call that makes us drop everything and follow. For we perceive in his call not judgment but mercy, not condemnation but salvation, not criticism but love.
So we follow. And where does he lead us? To other sinners in need of the same healing we ourselves have received. We follow. And he leads us to the Cross. There is the standard of mercy! There, on the cross, God himself became The Sinner, enduring the shame and the judgment of God against all sin – our sin – the sin of Pharisee and tax collector – for us. We follow. And, after the horror of discovering the death that sin is, standing by his cross, he rises from the dead and ascends to the place of power. But he does not leave us powerless. He gives us his holy supper, our connection with the great price of our salvation, namely, his body and blood. Then he gives us his Spirit, our connection with the very love that motivated him to save us. We follow him. So now here we stand, outside the house, inviting sinners to drop their pretenses and prejudice and, in mercy, to come inside to the feast—the feast of mercy, the feast of love.
It’s very much like the party Matthew threw. It’s not so much that we come to Jesus’ place, but he comes to our place for a dinner. He still attends the gathering of sinners, for he still calls sinners to his healing, cleansing and forgiving presence. So don’t be amazed at all the sinners that come to kneel at his table here. They’re the only ones who have responded to his invitation! But the line-up of sinners ought not be the focus of attention. Fix your eyes on Jesus who calls to you and heals and forgives you. Then, maybe, you will learn how to show mercy to others yourself.