Sunday, September 21, 2003

St. Matthew or Fifteen Pentecost
Ezekiel 2:8-3:11 or Jeremiah 11:18-20
Psalm 119:33-40 or Psalm 54
Ephesians 2:4-10 or James 3:13-4:3, 7-8a
Matthew 9:9-13 or Mark 9:30-37

I desire mercy, and not sacrifice, for I came not to call the righteous, but sinners.

The Gospel lesson for the Fifteenth Sunday of Pentecost has a wonderful message about what it means to be 'great' in the kingdom of God. Jesus Christ, our Lord and King, did not rule over us as is expected in the world. He was a humble servant to His disciples, even doing the most mundane tasks for them such as washing their feet. On this particular journey, the disciples were arguing about who was the greatest among them. When Jesus asked what they were discussing, the disciples were embarrassed to tell Him. He sat down and explained that greatness in the kingdom of heaven was not as it is in the world where the rulers seek fame, power and possessions. In the kingdom of heaven, the least are the greatest. Welcoming a little child is like welcoming God Himself, and if they want to be first they must be the last and servant of all.

I was struck by the reading of the Old Testament passage for the Festival of St. Matthew. Ezekiel was called by God to go speak to a rebellious people - his own people. God said, "Whether they listen or not, you must go speak." I think all of us who have teenagers must know exactly how Ezekiel felt that day. We know what it is like to talk to someone who is deaf to our every word. We all wonder why we bother; they are bound to do their own thing anyway. Much of our society has decided that is true, so has recommended we just do whatever we can to protect them while they do the things we hope they won't do. This is particularly true with sex, but there are those who think it is best to have chaperoned booze parties and give clean needles to drug addicts. "If they aren't going to listen, lets help them stay safe."

But God was not willing to let Ezekiel whitewash His message to the people. "Don't talk around the subject, this is a time of mourning and woe." He gave Ezekiel a scroll on which His word was written. "Eat the scroll, then go speak to Israel." The words on the scroll were not pleasant; they were bitter and unwanted by the people. But to Ezekiel, it was sweet as honey, for God's word is always true. Ezekiel was not being sent to strangers or foreigners, but to his own family and friends. They had lost their way, had rebelled against the One True God. They were not willing to listen to God anymore, and would reject Ezekiel also. But God filled Ezekiel with the truth on that scroll and made him strong to stand against the obstinacy of the people. Even if they did not hear, they would know that Ezekiel came from God.

So, how do we talk to those who are not willing to listen? The passage from Ezekiel tells us that we are to be filled with God's word because there is where we will find strength and courage to do as He has called us to do. Though God does not call us to eat a scroll, He does fill us with Himself as we partake of His word in worship, sacraments and study of the scriptures.

The Psalmist knows the desire to be filled and calls to God for instruction in His word and will. "Teach me, O Jehovah, the way of thy statutes; And I shall keep it unto the end. Give me understanding, and I shall keep thy law; Yea, I shall observe it with my whole heart. Make me to go in the path of thy commandments; For therein do I delight. Incline my heart unto thy testimonies, And not to covetousness. Turn away mine eyes from beholding vanity, And quicken me in thy ways. Confirm unto thy servant thy word, Which is in order unto the fear of thee. Turn away my reproach whereof I am afraid; For thine ordinances are good. Behold, I have longed after thy precepts: Quicken me in thy righteousness." (Psalm 119:33-40, ASV)

We do not know much about Matthew before he was called to follow Jesus, but the likelihood is that he wasn't a good and righteous guy. At the very least his fellow Jews considered him a traitor because he worked for Rome. Most tax collectors demanded more than the required amount, thus getting rich off the poor. Matthew must have had some wealth, in today's passage he held a rather large party with Jesus, the disciples and many tax collectors.

Matthew is perhaps one of the most unusual choices by Jesus for disciple. Tax collectors were outcasts from the Jewish people, sinners in their eyes because of the work they did. The Pharisees were offended that Jesus would eat with such a group of men. At least Peter, James, John and Andrew were hardworking men, earning their living. Matthew just sat around at a desk and took people's money. Who would even listen to him? Even if he was an observant Jew, he was not credible because of his work for Rome.

Yet, just like Ezekiel, God called Matthew to speak to the very people who would not listen - his own. The Gospel credited to Matthew is written to Israel and we see in the stories and lessons Matthew's deep desire to show his people that Jesus fulfilled all their hopes for the Messiah. Of those called by Jesus, Matthew probably gave up the most to follow Him. He gave up wealth and position to become a servant.

Though he wrote to his own people, he's the only Gospel writer to tell the story of the first Gentiles to seek the Lord Jesus. He tells the story of the Magi from the East and shows that Christ came for the whole world, not just the Jews. Matthew's Gospel most clearly demonstrates that God's love reaches well beyond the walls we build and establishes the rules by which the church deals with retaining those relationships we have with one another in Christ. He is the only Gospel writer who uses the word "church."

The one parable that is unique to Matthew fits in well with our passages from the fifteenth Sunday in Pentecost. In Matthew's Gospel, Jesus tells us about the sheep and goats at the Last Judgment. Jesus tells us that the Son of Man will say to the sheep, "Come, ye blessed of my Father, inherit the kingdom prepared for you from the foundation of the world: for I was hungry, and ye gave me to eat; I was thirsty, and ye gave me drink; I was a stranger, and ye took me in; naked, and ye clothed me; I was sick, and ye visited me; I was in prison, and ye came unto me." To the goats He will say, "Depart from me, ye cursed, into the eternal fire which is prepared for the devil and his angels: for I was hungry, and ye did not give me to eat; I was thirsty, and ye gave me no drink; I was a stranger, and ye took me not in; naked, and ye clothed me not; sick, and in prison, and ye visited me not." Neither group understood what the Son of Man meant, for they had never seen Him hungry, thirsty, alien, naked, sick or imprisoned. He answered, "Verily I say unto you, Inasmuch as ye did it unto one of these my brethren, even these least, ye did it unto me." (Matthew 25:31-46, ASV)

Matthew understood the lesson that Jesus taught them that day after they fought about which of them was the greatest. We are called to humble ourselves for the sake of those who need to hear the Gospel of Christ. As Jesus told the Pharisees, "But go ye and learn what this meaneth, I desire mercy, and not sacrifice, for I came not to call the righteous, but sinners."

Matthew also understood what it meant to be saved by God's grace. He was the least likely disciple and the one who gave up the most. He wouldn't have done it on his own accord. He was changed by the One who loved him, had mercy on him and called him into this new life of faith. "For by grace have ye been saved through faith; and that not of yourselves, it is the gift of God." I can almost imagine Matthew sitting on the floor next to Mary soaking in the words of Christ and praying, "Teach me, O Jehovah, the way of thy statutes." He wanted to know what it meant to be a disciple and he wanted to share it with his people.

Paul wrote to the Ephesians, "For we are his workmanship, created in Christ Jesus for good works, which God afore prepared that we should walk in them." This is what Matthew desired for the Jews, that they would follow in faith the Lord Jesus Christ who was the fulfillment of all that God had promised them over the ages. He longed for them to live the life of servanthood, to see that in the law they are the last, but in Christ they are those who inherit the kingdom of God. He longed for them to be the sheep at the Last Judgment, that they might be the ones for whom the Son of Man has such wonderful words. "You served me when you served the least of my children."

The passage from James set for the fifteenth Sunday of Pentecost also fits in the life of Matthew. James tells us that the wise in this world are those who serve others in the humility that comes from the wisdom of God. Matthew was a tax collector, probably among those who harbored selfish ambitions, desires for wealth and position. When Jesus Christ called him into a new life, he set it all aside in humble submission. Before Jesus came into his life, he was motivated by all the wrong things. He sought to fulfill his lust and greed. Jesus changed his life and he no longer sought the things that destroy. James writes, "Be subject therefore unto God; but resist the devil, and he will flee from you. Draw nigh to God, and he will draw nigh to you."

We remember Matthew because he was one of the disciples and the writer of the first Gospel. He was a man who humbled himself before God and lived his new life for the sake of his people. He risked much, lost everything and yet gained the kingdom of heaven by faith. In his story we see the grace of God so clearly, that salvation is given to all who hear His word and believe. Through his Gospel, we see how much he loved his people and how he longed for them to believe that Jesus truly was the One for whom they had waited so long. In his story we see that it is worthwhile to speak when God tells us to speak, even when we do not think anyone is listening, for God can touch even the most untouchable people.

Thanks be to God.

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