john davies
notes from a small curate

    Eating with sinners

    St Margaret of Antioch, Toxteth 21/9/03

    Matthew 9.9-13

    If a man approached you saying, 'Follow me' - what would it take to make you follow?

    If you felt he accepted you while others rejected you - would you follow?
    If you didn't feel good enough to be religious, but you could see that this man was a spiritual leader - would you follow?
    If something about this this man made you feel he could turn your life around - would you follow?

    Matthew faces these questions, as Jesus called him from his workplace, wanting a quick response. And as he probably suspected, when Jesus said 'Follow me' Matthew's world changed.

    When Jesus says 'Follow me' the natural order of things is upset.

    Matthew was a victim of 'the natural order of things'. He was a Jew - but a customs officer. And his trade put him outside polite society - ostracised by those in authority, the religious and political hierarchy.

    Customs officers collected tolls at the boundaries of the regions ruled by Rome. Their taxes went to the Roman regional governors. Matthew collected taxes at Capernaum, on Galilee's frontier, for the hated Herod Antipas.

    Customs officers weren't civil servants, but local people who made their living by leasing the customs of their area for a fixed annual sum. They stood to gain if the taxes they took exceeded their lease; they had to pay the difference if the revenue fell short of the rental.

    Sat at his toll booth on the edge of Galilee, Matthew's daily concerns were the concerns of all his customs officer colleagues - will I take enough to pay my way this week? And the people and the authorities hated him because his living took money from his people and passed it on to Herod, took it outside Judaism, outside holiness.

    So the authorities, naturally, ostracised him and his colleagues. However holy he wanted to be - and he was a Jew, after all - the temple would not have him because the authorities called him unclean. Unclean by association with those outside Judaism, unholy people.

    But when Jesus says 'Follow me' the world changes. The natural order of things is upset.
    And so we find the holy man inside the tax-collectors house. The would-be king of the Jews at table with those rejected by the Jewish leaders. The messiah making a claim for the kingdom of God not in the temple, not at the altar, but in the shoddy home of someone outside holiness. The one who would be Lord, offering forgiveness and the kingdom's freedom not to society's squeaky-clean citizens but to those immersed in shoddy commerce on the fringes of polite society.

    This is something like the Archbishop of Canterbury visiting Liverpool and declining a posh meal at the Cathedral, choosing instead to have a burger and a beer in a loan shark's rented flat.

    Outside, the religious people were left asking, "Why does he eat with taxmen and 'sinners'?"

    For them as well, the world changed that day as they saw Jesus enjoying the company of Matthew and his friends. It wasn't any good any more to judge people by the old laws of polite society.

    Looking through Matthew's steamed-up windows at the happy crowd sharing food with Jesus, the religious folk realised they were looking at a picture of God's new world order. All they could do was watch and wonder as the happy eaters raised their wine glasses to celebrate the coming of a new kingdom.

    "Why does he eat with 'sinners'?"

    "I have not come to call the righteous, but sinners."
    were the words Jesus used to explain himself. No good a saviour coming and only revealing himself to those who are already saved.

    But maybe Jesus also ate with sinners because he liked their company. Maybe he also ate with them because he liked their food.

    The story should mean something to us because today, once again, we're here to share some food with Jesus. Jesus has invited us to follow him, and we have.

    Perhaps we come here feeling like Matthew and his friends - rejected by others, but accepted by God, not good enough to be religious, but seeing something in Jesus which makes us feel he might just turn our life around.

    Jesus invites us to eat with him because he likes our company, he likes to share our food.

    So, as we take bread and wine together this morning we remember we are part of the new community which Jesus has brought to the world - a community of people who may not feel holy but who are but close to God, a community which affirms those society rejects, a community marked by mercy, touched by the steadfast love of God the Father, in the power of the Holy Spirit and by the activity of Jesus Christ, who values and strengthens all those who put their trust in him.