Who and what defines what is considered righteous? What happens when we put a new patch on an old garment by imposing one standard onto another? And what happens when we “see” each other–truly see each other–as complete beings, instead of a series of shifting singular dimensions? Faith in Real Life considered this and more as they discussed the story of Jesus calling Matthew, the tax collector.
“9 As Jesus went on from there, he saw a man named Matthew sitting at the tax collector’s booth. “Follow me,” he told him, and Matthew got up and followed him.10 While Jesus was having dinner at Matthew’s house, many tax collectors and sinners came and ate with him and his disciples. 11 When the Pharisees saw this, they asked his disciples, “Why does your teacher eat with tax collectors and sinners?”12 On hearing this, Jesus said, “It is not the healthy who need a doctor, but the sick. 13 But go and learn what this means: ‘I desire mercy, not sacrifice.’ For I have not come to call the righteous, but sinners.”14 Then John’s disciples came and asked him, “How is it that we and the Pharisees fast often, but your disciples do not fast?”15 Jesus answered, “How can the guests of the bridegroom mourn while he is with them?The time will come when the bridegroom will be taken from them; then they will fast.16 “No one sews a patch of unshrunk cloth on an old garment, for the patch will pull away from the garment, making the tear worse. 17 Neither do people pour new wine into old wineskins. If they do, the skins will burst; the wine will run out and the wineskins will be ruined. No, they pour new wine into new wineskins, and both are preserved.”
Perhaps one of the most important ways that Jesus saves is that he sees people who were traditionally invisible or worse, despised, as children of God. Matthew was such a man. Though a man of some wealth (he could afford to buy his position as tax collector), he was a man who routinely, as part of his job, took ‘a little extra’ each time he collected taxes. He was entitled to his commission on every transaction. The ‘extra’ a tax collector collected was pretty much whatever amount he could get away with. It was bad enough to pay taxes to the emperor, but paying additional taxes to a middle man was typically resented. The tax collector was an unpopular man. He was probably the social equivalent of a Mafia enforcer. Nobody would challenge such a person but nobody would go to their home to share a meal with him either. Though all that they did was legal, tax collectors were lumped with sinners as social pariahs.
When Jesus saw Matthew and treated him with respect, Jesus inverted the social order. What the religious man of the day would see as untouchable, Jesus embraced. What the religious man of the day saw as proper obedience and goodness, Jesus challenged.
All of us have been in Matthew’s shoes. The easier point of identification are those times we have been excluded and felt shame—sometimes ‘deservedly’ and sometimes not. I remember vividly my unwillingness to visit a church I had served after I had gotten a divorce. My marriage had failed and so had I. I felt like I needed to keep my failure a secret and I felt that I would always be ‘less than’ those who were more successful. I did not want to be seen for who I was. I wanted to believe the church would serve the broken and the broken hearted but it didn’t feel that way.
It hardly matters if feeling like the odd man out is self inflicted or factually true, the experience of social ostracism hurts and diminishes people. But such diminishing of people is the inevitable consequence of social systems that rank people’s differences. And we all do.
We use age, wealth, intelligence, gender, social standing etc. to comparatively value ourselves and each other. Jesus dismisses those evaluations. The religious expression of these rankings came in the questions from the Pharisees and the the disciples of John. The Pharisees looked down on ‘sinners’ as if their religious obedience made them better. Likewise the disciples of John credited their fasting and asceticism as the ‘proper’ means of worship. Their righteousness was self-defined and therefore self-righteous.
For Jesus, righteousness meant humility, an awareness of how short we fall from what God would want for us, and a life lived in gratitude for his grace. This kind of righteous person always needs God and seeks to depend upon him.
This is difficult enough, but there is another more embarrassing way we are like Matthew. As a tax collector, he was willing to legally exploit the vulnerability of others. That is something we rarely are willing to see in ourselves, much less claim. Yet we do it every day. We are all too willing to get a good deal because fair wages have not been paid. We like to watch stock portfolios rise because regulations protecting the environment or the disadvantaged are weakened to create greater profit. Most of us (myself included) don’t really want to know the cost to others for the benefits we receive. But Matthew knew what he was doing and when Jesus called him, he stopped. He followed Jesus.
We can not patch our faith on a set of values that contradict it. Jesus’ good news can not be grafted onto secular valuing. War can not enforce peace. Love and coercion can not exist in the same space. You can not claim to love someone you think is less than you.
This transformation, the very ability to follow started because Jesus loved Matthew. I have a shorthand definition of love—love is proactive cherishing. Imagine the joy this ostracized and disdained man felt when Jesus saw him and called him. One way I think of salvation is living safe in the embrace of God. That is what Jesus offered Matthew and what he offers each of us. It is wonderful. It is demanding. And it will transform you.
The gospel is not a finished product and neither are we. New clothes must washed multiple times before they assume a reliable shape. New wine continues to ferment as it reaches its best flavor. Neither can thrive tied to static or rigid surroundings.
The gospel adapts to people. It is fluid. One size, one rule, even one law does not fit all. The gospel finds ways to see and cherish each child of God—regardless of their particular circumstance. Because for Jesus, people matter more than rules. Our rules are for the guidance of the people. They are not tests of compliance to rank and judge.
One last diversion. It is Father’s Day. What kind of fathers will we be? How do we teach the value of each child of God when some of those people want to harm us? How do we teach Christian inclusion in a dichotomous world? How do we teach love when being first or the most powerful is the secular measure?
Parenting is never easy. Our faith lives in the midst of contradicting values. There will be tearing and wasted wine if we are not clear about the differences between what God asks of us and what the world asks.
Receive God’s love for you. Live in the new and abundant life God gives you. Follow him. Let it be so.