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  • The Rev. Dr. Brian Rajcok

Why is Jesus Eating with Them!?

Matthew 9: 9-13, 18-26

There’s a lot going on in the Gospel reading this morning. There are four different incidents described all in one short passage. First, we have the calling of Matthew, the tax collector who made his living working for the Roman Empire and exploiting his neighbors. Then there’s the story of a party, which presumably Matthew throws, in honor of Jesus, and invites all his tax collector friends. Next there’s the story of a synagogue leader whose daughter has died. And on the way to that healing the scene is interrupted by a woman who touches Jesus’ cloak and is healed after 12 years of suffering. So there’s a lot going on here. But perhaps a good place to begin is with the occupation of our congregation’s namesake, St. Matthew. That first century tax collector.

Reading the Bible it’s hard to get the right impression of how badly tax collectors were perceived in first century Judea. These were people who made a living by taking money from their neighbors. They were exploiters, they took advantage of an oppressive system, they were backed by Rome and were traitors to their people. And so far in the Gospel story Jesus has been portrayed as an advocate of the poor and oppressed. He seems like the type of person who would bring down some righteous indignation on tax collectors. A teacher who might put them in their place and tell them how wrong they are.

But then Jesus calls a tax collector to be his disciple. Someone who goes against everything Jesus apparently stands for. Someone who is part of the problem. Someone who’s not a good person in the eyes of decent people.

And then this tax collector Matthew throws a dinner party and invites all his tax collector friends. Perhaps his motive was to introduce other tax collectors to this rabbi who inspired him so much. To meet this teacher who made him decide to leave that oppressive role. Maybe Matthew wanted them to check out this rabbi Jesus too.

Nothing is said about what happens at that particular dinner. But when the Pharisees find out about it, they criticize Jesus. Maybe it seemed like Jesus was siding with the bad guys. Maybe it seemed like Jesus was dishonoring God. Maybe it seemed like Jesus wasn’t an advocate of the poor after all.

We may want to criticize the Pharisees for being so offended by Jesus eating with tax collectors. But these weren’t your typical down-and-out sinners. These were the economic exploiters of their day. This Jesus, who came to preach good news to the poor, to care for the outcast and the orphan and the widow, this advocate of those on the margins, was eating with people who took advantage of their neighbors for financial gain.

So imagine if today Jesus was out preaching good news to the poor, feeding the hungry, and helping the homeless—and the next thing you know he’s having dinner with a group of billionaire corporate executives. We might raise our eyebrows a bit. Maybe you’re like me and are appalled by the sinful level of wealth inequality in the world. There’s about 2600 billionaires in the world who benefit immensely from an economic system that leaves a third of the world in poverty. In fact, the richest 81 individuals have more wealth than the bottom half of the world![1] If that doesn’t upset you there’s something wrong. The richest of the rich take way more from the world than they contribute, and benefit from an extremely unjust system.

How would we feel if Jesus had dinner with them? I think we followers of Christ—who are supposed to be on the side of the poor—might be pretty upset! I would hope Jesus would tell those worshippers of mammon to get their acts together if they ever wanted to have dinner with the Son of God. I would hope Jesus would put them in their place and tell them how sinful they are and call them out for not doing enough to help the poor and taking advantage of a system that perpetuates poverty.

And that’s exactly how the Pharisees must have felt. Because Jesus didn’t put the tax collectors in their place and tell them how sinful they were. Jesus didn’t yell at them and bring down the fire and brimstone preaching. He simply sat with them and showed them kindness. He got to know them on a human level, and loved and accepted them. He showed them mercy and love, not judgement and chastisement.

For us to comprehend how offensive this is, we need to understand the tradition of the Hebrew prophets and the standard Jesus himself set. The Bible repeatedly calls out the rich for exploiting the poor, and Jesus describes himself as coming to preach good news to the poor. We need to understand how sinful wealth inequality is and the strong condemnation of it in the Judeo-Christian tradition in order for what Jesus is doing here to make any sense.

It would have seemed like Jesus was siding with the bad guys. It would have seemed like Jesus was ok with the tax collectors exploiting the poor. It would have seemed like Jesus wasn’t all that concerned about the poor and the outcast after all.

But when Jesus is criticized for this, he quotes the prophet Hosea saying “I desire mercy not sacrifice.” Like many of the Hebrew prophets, Hosea was expressing God’s anger toward the people for disobeying the covenant. And like most prophets Hosea condemned the religious leaders of his day for caring more about religious rituals than caring for the poor. For making sacrifices to God while ignoring those in need.

In verse 6 of our first reading God says, “I desire steadfast love and not sacrifice.” The Hebrew word there is “he-sed”. Which can be translated as steadfast love, or kindness, or mercy, or lovingkindness. And in this NRSV translation of the Bible the word is translated “steadfast love” in Hosea and “mercy” in Matthew’s Gospel which was written in Greek rather than Hebrew. But it’s the same word. And it’s clear that Jesus is saying God wants this he-sed more than religious obedience and right sacrifices. God wants us to love our neighbors and not focus so much on being religiously pure and ritually correct.

So Jesus is telling the Pharisees that if they’re so focused on making the right religious sacrifices, they’ll miss the point of loving their neighbor. Of showing he-sed, that mercy or lovingkindness which God truly desires. That’s how Jesus treated those tax collectors. And that’s how Jesus treated all people, from tax collectors to prostitutes to lepers to sinners and outcasts of any kind. Loving and accepting them. Inviting them into a relationship. Showing them unconditional love. Knowing that it is only through that acceptance and love that real transformation might eventually come.

In the same way Jesus shows this he-sed to the woman who touches him and is healed. He doesn’t condemn her for reaching out without permission, even though it was against religious purity codes. He admires her faith and praises her. And to the daughter of the synagogue leader he brings healing as well. A little girl and an unclean woman—the opposite end of the spectrum from the wealthy tax collectors. These stories, read together, show the inclusiveness of Jesus on full display.

And so, let us live the lessons Jesus demonstrates here. By whom he eats with. By whom he heals. Let us embrace the inclusiveness of the Gospel. Understanding our calling as Christians to show he-sed to all people. To embody the lovingkindness of Christ in all our interactions. To share the love of God with all people. To manifest the Kingdom in our lives.

In the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit. Amen.

- Pastor Brian, 6/11/2023

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