Embrace Your Inner Matthew

Matthew 21:23-32

Guess what?  It’s only 182 days until…?  Can you guess? Easter, of course! Most people count the days till Christmas, but as a church professional Holy Week is the big deal, so I am counting the days to Easter.

I am thinking about Holy Week because our Gospel lessons for the remainder of the church year come chronologically from Holy Week, Jesus’ last week of life. Today’s conflict between the chief priests and elders of the temple follows on the heels of Jesus’ triumphal entry into Jerusalem and cleansing the temple—stories we usually hear about in Holy Week.

They were pivotal events: Jesus was proclaimed Messiah by the common people, the one anointed by God to lead Jews to a glorious future like King David had. Jesus then went to the seat of religious power, the temple itself, threw out the money changers, and instead set himself up to heal the blind and lame within the temple precinct.

It was a direct challenge to the establishment. The chief priests and elders were the religious elite, the folks in charge of cultic center of the faith, the temple. They were in fact among the people who had the most to lose. The faith as they practiced it worked for them—the sacrifices and rituals gave them peace; the law provided a way for them to feel close to God and those close to them. Furthermore, as people whose livelihoods depended on the temple, they had an economic stake in keeping things the way they were. Any change in the temple would bring into question their whole way of life.

That’s in fact what Jesus did—he made everyone look carefully at the intent of their religious practice and the content of their heart. It was not enough to perform the prescribed ritual or follow the letter of the law; Jesus saw that even the most holy practices can work against life and love when applied without compassion for people’s true circumstances. He saw that while faith brought comfort and strength to some there were whole groups of people for whom it meant shame, exclusion, and judgment. Matthew calls them “tax collectors and sinners.”

Tax collectors were generally thought of as traitors; they were Jews who collected the tax submitted to the occupying military power of Rome. While some tax collectors were unscrupulous and lined their own pockets, there were others who were simply doing their jobs.

“Sinners” was a broad category of anyone who did not follow the law. It often included people too poor to purchase the proper sacrifices at the temple and people who were considered ritually unclean due to illness or their profession. Both tax collectors and sinners were considered outsiders—they weren’t thought of as “good” Jews. Since they were usually excluded, when Jesus offered them a welcome, they accepted with enthusiasm and changed their lives. It’s quite a contrast to the elders and chief priests who in today’s reading seem only to want to ensnare Jesus with hard questions—a trap Jesus is too clever to fall into.

If I am honest with myself, I can see quite of bit of the high priests and elders in myself and the churches of which I have been a part. It’s so easy to take for granted our inclusion and forget what it is like to be an outsider. When was the last time you were an obvious outsider somewhere? The new kid on the block, the person who sticks out, the only one with your background or language? On top of that, we are insiders to the content of our faith. Worship and scripture are often so familiar that we don’t take their life-changing aspects seriously.

I don’t know about you, but sometimes it takes an outsider to help me to see where the priorities of God’s kingdom make a claim on my life to see where Jesus is asking me to change.

I met Fatima one Sunday evening after visiting my mom in her memory care unit. She asked me for help when I came out to my car—her car wouldn’t start. Now, I am hardly proficient with cars, but I knew enough to look for jumper cables and, when there were none, to call AAA.

While we waited for help to arrive, I learned more about Fatima. She is an immigrant from Gabon, living here in the US with her two children. She has a sister who lives in the area, but the rest of her family is back home in Gabon. Fatima came to the US because of the economic opportunities. She went to the best high school and got good grades but couldn’t find appropriate work. Being here in the US means she can send money home to family every month and provide better opportunities for her children than she had back in Gabon. 

I learned that working in my mom’s unit as a one-to-one aide is a second job for her—she works Monday through Friday for another agency and Saturday and Sunday at Bethany. I’d thought I’d had a long day, but when I realized that Fatima had worked an 11-hour shift, I reconsidered my lot. At least I’d had a nap and visited my mom. “I just work and pay my bills,” she said.

Fatima seemed a bit amazed that I would help her; she did not want to impose. But I also read underneath her protestations the likelihood that not everyone has treated her well. To be honest, Fatima’s priorities and actions impressed me: her dedication to family, her generosity, her motivation to better life for others was humbling. It’s not easy to be an immigrant; the prejudice against outsiders is always the same even though who is considered an outsider changes. 

Which brings me to Jesus’ parable of the two sons. Both sons are asked by their father to go work in the vineyard. One says yes and doesn’t go; the other says no but nonetheless goes to work. Jesus finishes the parable by saying: “Truly I tell you, the tax collectors and the prostitutes are going into the kingdom of God ahead of you.”

Jesus tells this parable against the insiders, chief priests, and elders. They are the ones who outwardly say yes to God, and then by their hard-heartedness, do not follow through on God’s desires for mercy and justice. And of course, the tax collectors and prostitutes, who were considered the most scandalous of sinners, are the ones who actually change their ways and practice what God desires.

Meeting Fatima helped me to reflect on my insider status as a person who has generations of people who helped me become established in this country. Many of you are like me—in society we are relatively well-connected and educated and in many cases are more economically well off than our parents’ generation. Not only that, but many of us are insiders in the church as well. We are among those who say “yes.” We attend worship, serve on committees, or teach Sunday School; we bring the meal for Family Promise. We know this community and feel comfortable in the walls of this church. But we are missing something if we only identify with our insider status—the things that keep us comfortable. It makes our faith flabby and complacent.

The truth is that each of us has an aspect of being an outsider, too. Fatima reminded me of the sacrifices my immigrant ancestors made when they came 4-5 generations ago, and that they were treated as outsiders, too. Anti-German sentiment was high during the first World War, and my people stopped speaking German and changed the pronunciation of our last name. It was part of a larger trend to mainstream, to be less like an outsider, but it meant that German was no longer taught in schools. German newspapers closed, and Lutheran churches stopped holding services in their people’s native tongue. The price of becoming an insider was the loss of culture and identity.

To be clear, I am not trying to put forward any agenda about national policy; Christians can hold any number of views on politics and issues like immigration. But I am here to point out that Jesus was clearly about welcoming all people, including the outsider, and that the people who he had the strongest words of criticism for were people who placed themselves outside his broad embrace: people who liked the narrow community, the selected ones who upheld the traditions and the expectations.

It is hard work to practice welcome for the outsider. It is challenging to follow our “yes” to God with all the growing that goes along with it. Loving our neighbors and our enemies requires us to stretch our bounds of compassion and test our ability to accept change. Yet it is the spiritual exercise required to build a more muscular and flexible faith. It is what it will take to grow this church.

But it is possible. The person who gave us this Gospel, Matthew, was himself an outsider—a tax collector. He was a sinner who found a place near to Jesus who followed him to his death and became one of the most compelling voices of Jesus’ message.

I think it is crucial for us to identify with the “Matthew” part of ourselves because it creates in us compassion for others who are outsiders. It puts us into another person’s shoes. And it helps us with something fundamental: it makes us willing to follow Jesus’ lead and make changes to welcome those who feel on the outside, even when it’s a little uncomfortable.

Today I invite you to embrace your inner Matthew; to rejoice that you have been welcomed, just as you are; and to live out Jesus’ priorities of justice, forgiveness, and mercy in welcoming others.

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