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This story we’ve heard from the Gospel is the calling of Matthew who, we are told in 10:3, went on to become a disciple of Jesus. It’s very unlikely that this is the Matthew who wrote the Gospel of Matthew. The Gospel itself was probably written, at the very earliest, AD 80 or 90 but it is thought that the disciple Matthew, who features in this story, was martyred about AD 70 in Ethiopia. And it is this weekend that we have St. Matthew’s day to remember his ministry that was so effective before he was killed whilst preaching in an Ethiopian church by being nailed to the ground with short spears and beheaded.
But this story of his call to follow Jesus is fascinating and has a lot to teach us. If you want to follow the story with me, it’s on page 9 in the New Testament section, which is the second half of the Bible, in the Bibles in your pew…
Verse 9: “As Jesus was walking along, he saw a man named Matthew sitting at the tax booth…” And then Jesus gives him a simple invitation: “Follow me”. And without thinking twice, Matthew gets up and follows Jesus. A simple call and a simple response. We don’t know what motivated Matthew to follow Jesus. Perhaps he had heard his preaching and witnessed some of his miracles and his heart had been prepared in advance. Or perhaps there was something so profoundly charismatic about Jesus in that moment that Matthew felt compelled to get up and follow him. We just don’t know. But Jesus called and Matthew followed…
And then the story unfolds, and there’s four brief points I want to draw out from it.
And the first is to mention the hospitality of Jesus.
1. The hospitality of Jesus
In verse 10, we read this: “And as he sat at dinner in the house, many tax collectors and sinners cam and were sitting with him and his disciples…”
Who’s house was Jesus in?
It’s quite an ambiguous statement – we can’t be absolutely sure – but there’s no hint that Jesus has been invited round Matthew’s house for dinner. The implication, I think, is that the dinner actually took place in Jesus’ house. That is completely plausible. In Matthew 9:1, the Gospel writer tells us that Jesus “came to his own town”, which was Capernaum, and we know that Jesus lived in Capernaum for most of his ministry, either in his own home or lodging with Peter. So it is likely that this dinner that Matthew describes is taking place in Jesus’ home.
And actually, I think this story only makes sense if Jesus was the host, because it seems that a central point of this story is that Jesus always welcomes sinners and outcasts and on every level, offers them hospitality.
Jesus is absolutely at home, quite literally, with sinners and outcasts and those on the margins.
And that is such an important spiritual message for us; that Jesus shares hospitality with us, regardless of who we are, regardless of what a mess we may have made in the past, or how confused and chaotic our present circumstances may seem Jesus does not judge us or condemn us: instead he invites into his home, as it were, and wants to be a host to us and share himself with us and invites us to share ourselves with him.
Hospitality is at the heart of God’s relationship with us – and that is why hospitality is a crucial spiritual gift for any church that wants to reflect God into the local community. God, in Christ, has invited those on the margins into his home without judgement and, in the same way, we are to invite people into the home of our church also without judgement, so that we can share hospitality with them and encourage them to share themselves with us.
Our God is a hospitable God – and we are called to be a hospitable church where everyone feels welcomed and no-one feels judged.
And what is at the heart of such a hospitable approach? It’s simply this: in this passage, Jesus accepted people just as they are.
2. Jesus accepted people just as they are
One of the most fascinating things for me about this story is not what is written but what isn’t written. And what isn’t written is that at no point did Jesus ask any of his guests to change: he just accepted them as they are. Think about the characters who are his guests…
First, there is Matthew himself. Matthew was a tax collector, working for the Roman authorities who didn’t pay him much and it was the custom of tax collectors to overcharge people and cream the profits off the top for themselves. So Matthew would have been seen as socially and morally corrupt and would have made his living through defrauding others of money.
But Jesus doesn’t ask him to change: he just says, “Follow me”. He doesn’t say, “You can only follow me if you give up your sinful lifestyle”: there are no conditions attached at all…Jesus just accepts Matthew exactly as he is and loves him as he is.
Second, we are told in verse 10 that there are sinners at the dinner table. But we are not told that Jesus is preaching at them, telling them to repent of their lifestyles. No – he is just hanging out with them, enjoying a dinner party with them; totally relaxed in the company of sinners. He doesn’t ask them to change. He doesn’t refuse to eat with them until they have repented. Jesus just accepts them as they are and loves them as they are.
Thirdly, we are told in verse 10 that Jesus’ disciples are at the dinner, and again, Jesus is perfectly comfortable with that. Too many churches, either consciously or subconsciously, encourage their members to only socialise with other Christians; to live in some sort of holy huddle as if mixing socially with non-Christians will somehow infect our spirituality. But Jesus’ approach is the complete opposite. He is quite happy to host a dinner party for tax collectors, sinners and disciples – and he is quite happy for his disciples to mix socially with tax collectors and sinners.
There is something intensely ‘human’ about this passage – and Jesus is endorsing our common humanity; saints and sinners all in one place, all welcome at the Lord’s table.
There is a profound lesson for us as individuals and as a church, I think, about the type of hospitality we show to others. It is easy for a church to welcome people in on the condition that they ‘become one of us’ or change their way of behaving, or try to change their childrens’ behaviour to fit in with our expectations. “You can come to the table – as long as you and your family change and play by our rules”. But the hospitality that Jesus shows here is a radically different model. Everyone is welcomed, everybody is loved, nobody is asked to change in order to fit in and receive a full place at the table…
Of course, that would have been very difficult for everyone and we must not underestimate what a strange atmosphere there would have been at this dinner party in Jesus’ house. The tax collector would have felt very much on the margins, knowing that no-one there really liked him. The sinners would have been looking at the disciples thinking, “Oh my goodness, they seem to have their lives and faith so sorted: I wish I could be holy and religious like them – but my life is such a mess and I’m so embarrassed and ashamed…” The disciples would have been looking at the tax collector and the sinners thinking, “Why does Jesus want to hang out with people like that? Can’t he see that we are the ones who are serious about the faith, not them? They are only here for one thing – to get some dinner – and when they’ve got what they want and eaten, they’ll just leave and not come back anyway”.
But none of those attitudes represents the mind of Christ. His table is open to everyone, without judgement, without preconditions, without any sense of frustration that his guests will come and go as they please and maybe not show any long-term commitment to him.
The hospitality of Christ is for everyone, no matter what…
3. Jesus cuts through the grumbling of religious people
This seems like a very small point in the story, but I think it is important all the same…
Verse 11: “When the Pharisees saw this, they said to his disciples, ‘Why does your teacher eat with tax collectors and sinners?’”
For the Pharisees, this was a very disturbing dinner party to watch through the window and, to be fair to them, you can’t blame them for feeling like they did. The Pharisees were what is known as a Purity Sect: they believed that we need to remain pure and untainted if we are to have access to a relationship with God. So they devoted their lives to keeping laws and observing rituals that would maintain their purity and keep them undefiled by sin. And of course, at the heart of these rules was who we can and can’t socialise with, who we should and shouldn’t share food and drink with. It went without saying for the Pharisees that, if you eat and drink with sinners, then the sinfulness and uncleanness of those people will rub off on to the holy people. So they needed to be avoided at all costs. Now, this was a deeply held belief, and we can’t blame them for believing that, because that was how they did religion, and fair play to them…
But what I think is more important here is what they did with their complaint. They didn’t go to Jesus and ask him why he ate with tax collectors and sinners. Instead, we read that they went to the disciples and started questioning them. The Pharisees were grumbling and sowing discontent throughout Jesus’ community.
Theirs was a kind of passive aggressive behaviour that we often see in churches, don’t we? If people don’t like what is happening, very often they won’t go to the Minister or the Leadership to air their views. Instead, they will grumble behind the Minister’s back and sow discontent in the community, which, ultimately, is extremely destructive. How much healthier it is, when we are unhappy with a policy or a direction of the church to go to the leadership and make known our views rather than doing what the Pharisees did here, which was to grumble and cause dissent throughout the community.
And, of course, Jesus knew exactly what was happening and tackled it head on, verse 12: “But when he heard this, he said…” Jesus heard about the grumbling and, rather than passing a message back through the disciples, tackled the issue head on and spoke directly to the Pharisees about their complaint.
There is something about transparency of communication during times of change that is so important here. Jesus was introducing a new way of doing religion, and he was determined to keep the conversation flowing and the channels of communication open so that there was the minimum of misunderstanding and discontent. Not everyone would be happy, of course, with the direction he was taking things. But at least the communication would be clear and transparent.
And for any church going through a time of change and transition – not least us here at St. Andrew’s at the current time – it is important to keep talking, keep listening to one another, and do all we can to keep the channels of communication open and clear.
So firstly, Jesus’ hospitality is for everyone.
Secondly, Jesus does not set preconditions on the behaviour of anyone before they are acceptable.
Thirdly, Jesus challenges grumbling and wants clear communication in his community.
Fourthly and finally…
4. Jesus cuts through false religiosity
The Pharisees practice the institutional form of religion and they were very faithful in their approach. It is too easy to criticise the Pharisees as if they were evil or wicked people – they weren’t. They were faithful and pious leaders, devoted to serving God. But they were so intent on pursuing purity through obedience to their laws that they had somehow forgotten the heart of their faith. They were so committed to the externals of religious practice that they had forgotten the reason they were following God in the first place. And that’s exactly what Jesus points out to them here, in verse 13: “Go and learn what this means: ‘I desire mercy and not sacrifice.’ For I have come to call not the righteous but sinners.”
Here, Jesus is quoting from the Book of Hosea, in the Old Testament – one of the Pharisees holy books – and he is reminding them that all the rituals and sacrifices and purity practices in the world will be utterly meaningless unless we practice mercy and love and kindness and compassion towards others. That is the heart of the faith – not the observance of religious rituals.
Now, I just want to ground this for us at St. Andrew’s by going a little further than our reading took us this morning. If you are following this in the pew Bibles, you can skip forward a few verses to verse 16, which is how Jesus concludes the conversation at the dinner party. And he finishes it by drawing on a metaphor that is very familiar to us: “No one sews a piece of unshrunk cloth on an old cloak, for the patch pulls away from the cloak, and a worse tear is made. Neither is new wine put into old wineskins; otherwise, the skins burst, and the wine is spilled, and the skins are destroyed; but new wine is put into fresh wineskins, and so both are preserved.”
Now, we need to hear what Jesus is saying in this: the problem is that we have heard this saying so often that we have lost the ability to hear what Jesus is really saying. Most of us are really familiar with this saying and we paraphrase it to suit our purposes, as if Jesus is just critiquing the old way of doing religion and saying that we need to find new ways of doing church if we are to somehow engage with the Holy Spirit in true faith.
And in the context of our current Listening Exercise and Mission Action Plan development, there may be some who are fearful that all the old, traditional ways of doing things are just going to be thrown away and replaced by radical, new ways of doing church.
But that is not really what Jesus is advocating here at all. In fact, in a sense, the reverse is true…
Look at the first sentence: “No-one sews a piece of unshrunk cloth on an old cloak.” The patch needs to be shrunk first. There is a sense in which it needs to be made old before it becomes useful.
Ironically, I think what Jesus is doing here is not calling people away from the old traditions towards the new so much as encouraging people to re-discover the true strength of the old traditions. Jesus is trying to draw the Pharisees back to the Torah, the ancient Jewish law, and saying that ‘the old’ has the power to become useful if only its inner depths can be rediscovered. And it is the rediscovery of ‘the old’ that constitutes ‘the new’ rather than any rejection of ‘the old’.
Certainly, we need new wineskins for new wine. But in the context of the first metaphor – the patch on the garment – we need to be sure that we read this correctly and not think that the new wineskin is a rejection of all that is old. No – the new wineskin is about rediscovering the heart of the old traditions, not throwing them away.
What Jesus is saying here, and what we hope to be critiquing about St. Andrew’s as we draw together our Mission Action Plan, is to try to assess the extent to which we just do things because that’s the way we have always done them. And rather than throw out all the old ways of doing things instead to revive them, to recapture their spirit, and breathe new life into the spirituality of St Andrew’s church.
Of course, some aspects of what we do will cease – because they have outlived their usefulness. But building a mission-shaped church is not a wholesale rejection of all that has come before. Instead, it is a rediscovery of the ancient tradition of St. Andrew’s; a rediscovery of why St. Andrew’s was built here in the first place, a rediscovery of the beauty of the spiritual tradition of this church so that it can be taken, and built upon, and reshaped for the 21st-century.
Jesus stands against religiosity when it is empty of meaning or when the meaning has been forgotten. But Jesus does not stand against tradition just because it is tradition. As Jesus says elsewhere, he came to fulfil the Law, not do away with it. And the process of us becoming a mission-shaped church is primarily a process of rediscovery, not abandonment.
Of course things will change. But they will change as a result of rediscovering the original calling of our community here in the centre of Enfield.
So this is a very short story in the Gospel of Matthew. But it is packed with good teaching for us.
First, we learn that Jesus shows hospitality to everyone – and everyone, without exception, is welcome at the Lord’s table; whether that is at a dinner party in Capernaum or at the altar rail during the Communion service at St. Andrew’s, Enfield. Everyone is welcome to receive the hospitality of God.
Second, we learn that we are all acceptable to Jesus, just as we are. He doesn’t lay down any preconditions, we don’t need to be ‘better people’ or more holy. You are OK just as you are, and so am I. And God loves us how we are, right now, in this moment…
Third, we learn that there is no place for grumbling in the Christian community, which is not the same thing as saying there is no place for disagreement. The issue is what we do with it when we are unhappy about things. Will we address issues with spiritual maturity or will we cause dissent through grumbling? And can we be committed to open and transparent processes of communication, especially when we are going through change?
Fourthly, we learn that embracing a mission-shaped future does not involve wholesale abandonment of the past but is actually a process of rediscovery of the heart of our traditions and a reshaping of our traditions so that the heart shines through. In the pursuit of a new spirituality, we cannot just reject everything that has gone before but we must work hard to rediscover the heart of the tradition and bring it alive again in our contemporary context.
This is a small passage in Matthew’s Gospel – but it is a radical passage. And goes to the very heart of where St. Andrew’s finds itself at this moment in time and where many of us, as individuals, find ourselves today. And in the midst of all the change and uncertainty of our current situation Jesus gives us a simple command: “Follow me”. If we follow Jesus, he leads us gently to his table where we find complete hospitality with God and one another, despite our great differences. And as we share God’s hospitality together, and celebrate our differences – rather than trying to change one another – so we will find healing for our souls and move together into the future that God has planned for us.