IN NOMINE JESU
It seemed more than ironic to me that I would be celebrating St. Matthew's Day today. You see, as we heard in our text, Matthew was a tax collector. I was reminded of this a week ago tomorrow when I mailed off checks to the North Dakota State Tax Commissioner and to the Internal Revenue Service. According to the IRS, I am self-employed, and as such I am required to pay my income and Social Security taxes once each quarter, and last Monday was the due date for my taxes. So, in my vocation as citizen, I paid my taxes. Was I glad to do it? When is anyone ever glad to pay taxes? Our federal and state governments will continue to receive checks from me, but I will not be sending them any Christmas cards this year or anytime soon.
As Christians who live in this world, we are obligated to pay taxes to our government. The Lord Himself commands it, saying to the Pharisees in Matthew's Gospel, "Therefore render to Caesar the things that are Caesar's, and to God the things that are God's" (22:21b), and the apostle St. Paul writes, "Pay to all what is owed to them: taxes to whom taxes are owed, revenue to whom revenue is owed, respect to whom respect is owed, honor to whom honor is owed" (Rom. 13:7). While we may not be smiling while we write and mail these checks, we are in fact living our God-given vocation as citizen; this is our responsibility in what is called the kingdom of the left, that is, the matters of this world in which we live—secular matters. God has also given us to live in the kingdom of the right, those things that pertain to the Church. Having said all of this, however, this is not a sermon on paying taxes. We are here to hear of the grace of God, and God's grace flows abundantly in our text—three times, in fact. First we hear our Lord's seeing Matthew the tax collector at his booth, calling Matthew to follow Him. We then behold our Lord's dining with tax collectors and sinners, the lowest of the low in Jewish thought. We then hear the very words of Jesus, "I came not to call the righteous, but sinners" (v. 13b).
Let us first focus our attention on Matthew. He was a tax collector, gathering money to put into the coffers of the Roman Empire. The Jews despised the Roman government, their conquerors. They loathed paying tribute, even monetarily, to Caesar Augustus. What is even worse is that Matthew was Jewish; Saint Mark and Saint Luke refer to him initially by his Jewish name of Levi. He was considered a traitor by his fellow countrymen. Matthew was working for the same people who conquered his native land. He was treated with contempt, ridicule, and scorn. He was viewed then about as poorly as we view politicians and used car salesmen today. Yet the Lord came to this scum of the earth and offered him a new and higher vocation, that of disciple and later those of apostle and evangelist. The Lord spoke two simple words to Matthew: "Follow Me." Luke notes that Matthew (or Levi, in his account) left everything and followed Jesus. There was no stalling by Matthew; he did not say, "OK, Lord, but I need to scoop up all this money so I don't lose it." There was none of that. The money remained at the booth, and the booth was now unmanned. The Lord know how despised this soon-to-be disciple was. But the Lord takes the lowest of the low and lifts them high, as He did in calling Matthew to discipleship. Matthew would no longer be collecting taxes but would be sent to preach the Gospel and would tell the good news about Jesus in his writing of the Gospel that bears his name. It is believed that Matthew preached in Ethiopia and Persia (which is present-day Iran) and was martyred in one of those places. Whether Matthew lost his life, we do not know for sure. But if he was indeed martyred, he was for a much higher cause than if he were to incur the wrath of an angry taxpayer.
Luke records in his account of this event that Matthew prepared a feast at his house and fed Jesus as well as Matthew's fellow tax collectors and sinners. This was indeed the feast of St. Matthew. He had a full house, not only filled with his colleagues, but his house was filled with the very presence of the Lord Himself. The Lord came to his house and ate with him. There is no greater blessing than to have the Lord present in one's house. No doubt this disciple was overjoyed, for the Lord took him out of the miserable life he was living, calling him to higher things, from serving Rome to serving his Redeemer. What a privilege it was for Matthew and all these bottom-dwellers to eat in the very presence of the Lord. That the Lord would deign to eat with sinners was astounding. Their cups undoubtedly overflowed with joy. Yet the Pharisees could not accept that this Teacher would associate with such sinful and unclean people. To the Pharisees, Judaism was an exclusive religion. They were concerned with their own people and no one else.
Their lack of concern for others can be equated to a prayer cited in a workbook I used when catechizing our young people a couple of years ago: "God bless me and my wife, our son John and his wife, us four and no more." You see, even though the Pharisees had a narrow view of what it means to be people of God, our view is even narrower. We are so short-sighted that our concept of the Church does not extend much past what we see in our own mirrors. We concern ourselves with what we can get out of the Church to the exclusion of serving others. If that person is not I nor someone I am related to, I don't care about him or her! We yawn when we hear what is happening within the Church at large or even within our own Synod. We shrug our shoulders when we hear of Christians persecuted and even executed in other countries on account of their faith. We do not express interest in the mission work the Church has undertaken in all parts of the world, including this country. Whether more souls are added to the kingdom of God is of no concern to us because we are stuck on ourselves, just as the Pharisees were stuck on themselves. The Lord responded to their hypocrisy and quoted from the prophet Hosea, exhorting them to learn the meaning of Hosea 6:6, "Go and learn what this means, 'I desire mercy, and not sacrifice'" (v. 13a). The Lord gives us this same exhortation today, to learn the meaning of this verse from Hosea. The Lord wants us to actually live the Christian life, not to merely act like we do. The Pharisees were concerned with their exact fulfilling of the ceremonial law and showed no regard for the moral law. That is, they made a show of their false piety by being "perfect" in their offering of sacrifices, in their temple worship, and in their keeping of their code. But they paid no mind to the poor and needy in their community. They fulfilled the letter of the law, but not the spirit of it. The moral law is what is to take precedence: to love the Lord with all of one's heart, soul, mind, and strength, and to love one's neighbor as one loves himself. This is the summary of the Ten Commandments. This the Pharisees did not do. This we do not do, either. We have come here today to do our duty and nothing more. We care not about what we speak and sing in the liturgy; we recite these words effortlessly, not knowing or caring what these words actually say. We ignore the Word of God that comes from the lectern and the pulpit because we do not like what we hear. Let us pray to the Lord, and we mutter under our breath, "Lord, have mercy," all the while thinking, Why are we wasting our time praying for all these people I don't know and don't care about one bit? God desires mercy, not sacrifice, but we desire the ritual aspect of sacrifice and show no mercy, no compassion toward those in need of our assistance and our prayers. While we pretend to be righteous as the Pharisees did, we have shown ourselves to be no better than the sinners they ridiculed and we scorn.
This brings us in our text to the third example of God's grace. We hear the very words of the Lord in our text: "Those who are well have no need of a physician, but those who are sick. ... For I came not to call the righteous, but sinners" (vv. 12, 13b). This was great news for Matthew and all who ate in his house that day. The Lord came to them! The Lord came for them! He called Matthew, a sinner and a tax collector, to follow Him. This is also great news for us! The Lord comes to us this very day, at this very moment! He has come for us. He calls us sinners to follow Him. This is the call He first extended to us at our Baptism, the call to become children of God. This is the call He continues to extend to us in the public reading and proclamation of the Word. This is the call that we cannot answer by and of ourselves; this is the call the Holy Spirit leads us to answer, just as He did with Matthew. The Lord invited Matthew to follow Him, and Matthew did, leaving behind his former way of life as the tax booth and the money were left unattended. Our Lord calls us to follow Him, leaving our former way of life behind. This, dear brothers and sisters in Christ, is what repentance is all about. We confess our sins, as the Lord invites us to do, and vow to turn our backs on our sinful lives. We are sorry for our sins, and we want to do better. Because our Lord dearly loves us and desires to dine with us in heaven into all eternity, He sends His Holy Spirit into our hearts to create, sustain, and strengthen our faith, that we may also be overjoyed at the Lord's desire to be with us, to be with us here in His house and with us in our homes. The Lord wants to be intimately involved with your life, that you may believe and have eternal life with Him. This is why He comes to heal you. This is why He comes to call you. This is why He comes to feed you. This is why He came to die for you. The Lord has shown His mercy by sacrificing Himself on the cross for you, for the forgiveness of all your sins. Jesus, our great Physician, healed us by giving His life for ours. Our bodies should have been on the cross and in the tomb. But the Lord, in His mercy, sacrificed Himself to heal us of the disease of sin, that sin may no longer have power over us. The Lord, in His might, rose from the dead on the third day, that He may call us to the glory He has won for us, that we may dine with Him in our heavenly home when He calls us to Himself. He dines with sinners today, whenever His Word is preached in all its truth and purity and when His Sacraments are administered according to His Gospel. There is nothing ironic about this day, nothing taxing about it, for the Lord has come to us sinners, making us righteous in the sight of His heavenly Father and ours. There is nothing ironic here, for this message of God's grace is the same message, the same grace He continues to give to us. Thanks be to God! In the Name of the Father and of the + Son and of the Holy Spirit. Amen.
SOLI DEO GLORIA
Pr. Mark Schlamann Our Savior & Redeemer Lutheran Churches, Pettibone & Woodworth, ND
"When you are baptized, partake of Holy Communion, receive the absolution, or listen to a sermon, heaven is open, and we hear the voice of the Heavenly Father; all these works descend upon us from the open heaven above us. God converses with us, provides for us; and Christ hovers over us--but invisibly. And even though there were clouds above us as impervious as iron or steel, obstructing our view of heaven, this would not matter. Still we hear God speaking to us from heaven; we call and cry to Him, and He answers us. Heaven is open, as St. Stephen saw it open (Acts 7:55); and we hear God when He addresses us in Baptism, in Holy Communion, in confession, and in His Word as it proceeds from the mouth of the men who proclaim His message to the people." --Martin Luther (1/19/1538 [LW 22:202])--
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