Heard any good news lately? I mean, really. It seems that all we get anymore is bad news. At a local level, if we’re not trying to stomach the sordid details in the trial of our former governor and his wife, we’re bracing ourselves for more terrible and ominous news from Charlottesville and the disappearance of UVA student Hannah Graham. At a national or global level, things aren’t any better. Take your pick—the cost of health care, the spread of Ebola, the bloody wars and hostage-crises in the Middle East—no matter where you look it’s just more bad news. And that’s not even including some of the football scores from yesterday!
In all seriousness, the steady diet of bad news we receive from our papers and podcasts and TV programs is probably due to the fact that reports of horrific crimes and salacious scandals sell the best advertising. Nevertheless, with all the turmoil and tragedy around us, you think we’d know a piece of good news if we came across it. You’d think we’d be able to seize upon one of those instances of the noble and decent and be able to share it with others just as instantaneously.
|"The Calling of Matthew" Reymerswaile (1536)|
In the New Testament, the law-loving Pharisees come across good news several times and they don’t…or they can’t. It happens right under their nose, and they don’t see it. Instead, they question it and criticize it. Like a Palestinian TMZ, they seize upon it as another scandal, another sensational affair that needs to be lampooned: Jesus, the upstart rabbi from Nazareth, the one who announces the kingdom of heaven is at hand, is—get this!—reclining at table with people who are anything but acceptable! That’s actually good news in action, right there. Fresh-off-the-presses, ink-still-wet good news. In fact, Jesus’ strange table fellowship that morning in Capernaum after he calls Matthew from the tax booth is the beginning of the most amazing kind of news possible, but the Pharisees are too caught up in their conventions of religion and piety to see it and understand what’s happening. They’re too stuck on the letter of the law to see that God’s kingdom is breaking in right in front of them.
You see, tax collectors were about the last possible people one could imagine being called into God’s service. First of all, they handled money—the emperor’s money. Not only did that technically make Matthew an agent of the occupying power, but the handling of money was also unclean. Second of all, tax collectors were seen as making a living off of other people’s hard work. Some scholars think that Matthew was actually a toll collector, which is more like a deputy tax collector, or a franchisee. He was employed by someone who had purchased from Caesar the rights to exact commerce fees from tradesmen in a certain geographical district. Anytime someone came into his little zone to peddle something, they would have had to report to Matthew’s booth to pay some tribute. Like a TSA or customs agent today, he’d rifle through their wares to assess the value and bully people into paying up. It was really rough work, hassling these merchants for Caesar’s cut, and it was widely thought that riff-raff like Matthew were toll collectors because they couldn’t really get another job.
|"The Calling of St. Matthew" Terbrugghen (1616)|
That Jesus would call someone like a tax collector to come and follow was ludicrous—like the kingdom of heaven was scraping the bottom of the barrel. And then for Jesus to go and eat around a table with Matthew and a whole assortment of riff-raff was downright detestable. Bad news. What a scoop of dirt on Jesus.
On the other hand, one can see how Matthew would jump at the opportunity to follow Jesus and listen to what he is talking about. In other words, Matthew knows good news when it hits him, and Jesus’ call to leave that infernal tax booth was the best news he’d ever received. Up until now, the riches of God’s mercy were off-limits to people like him because he just didn’t make the cut. Up until now, the joy of living in God’s kingdom was something he’d never get to experience because he was an outcast. But Jesus had changed all that. He came to call not the righteous—not the people who thought they had it all figured out, but those who were ever aware of their detestable-ness.
This is good news. It is good news that God wants to scrape the bottom of the barrel. It means that in Jesus God is opening up a new future for those whom the religious elites have written off long ago. It means God’s kingdom is now bringing in all types people who have had to resort to living up to whatever awful label the world has given them, or they’ve given themselves. It means that God’s kingdom is open to sinners and that furthermore that sinners can be changed, not through the applied force of God’s law and following rules, but through Jesus’ granting of unbounded mercy.
|Naumberg Cathedral (c. 1250)|
Matthew would want us to take note of an important distinction here: the good news of Jesus Christ is not that God has declared that being a ruthless tax collector is now acceptable, as if in God’s kingdom people get to go on being tax collectors and prostitutes or other things that degrade and diminish humanity. Could you imagine that? That wouldn’t be good news to a tax collector like Matthew at all, or to any sinner, for that matter. The tax collector wants out of his social quagmire, out from behind his booth.
Rather, the good news that Jesus brings is that the kingdom of heaven is now open to all people, because mercy is available to all people, especially those who know they don’t deserve it. Because of Christ, sinners like Matthew—and like you and me!—may envision and grasp a future where our sin does not always define us, even though it still may cling to us so tightly. Because of the life and death of Jesus, we now have hope that the demoralizing power of sin will not always have its way. It will be nailed to the cross and left to die. God’s mercy shown in Jesus wipes sin away and any time Jesus strolls into our midst—whether in his Word or around his very presence in this table for sinners here—the news is good because he has the power to turn us to life in him.
It’s almost never a quick turning, and Martin Luther understood it was something that happened daily, over and over again, not once in life time, not once you say a special prayer. With that in mind, any congregation of Christians must learn to see itself as a place where space can be made for the new people who are being called by that mercy, the new Matthews (and the old ones!) who are hearing and wanting to engage the person who has opened up a new future for them. One key to doing that is for those who are already at the table to remember that they’re all sinners, too. It is to remember that the very presence of this community is always good news, something to seize upon, for here the kingdom of heaven is breaking in.
The congregation I served in Pittsburgh held a brief Holy Communion liturgy every Wednesday evening. It was attended by the same five to ten diehards every week, and in the summer months, we’d bring our folding chairs and small altar table outside on the lawn with the hopes that people would see us and join our ranks, but to my knowledge few ever did. One early fall evening—in fact, I remember it was September 21, the festival of St. Matthew—we decided it was a little too cool and dark to be outside, so we just stayed in the sanctuary. We left the big red front doors to the church open, however, thinking that even if the sound of our piano didn’t echo out onto the busy street, at least we had made ourselves look welcoming.
We had just heard this same gospel lesson about Matthew and Jesus table for all sinners. I had offered a brief meditation, and that simple little wooden table we used as an altar was ready to go for Holy Communion. When the proper time came, the worshippers got up from their pews and, being so small in number, stood shoulder to shoulder to form one tight semicircle around the altar at the head of the main aisle, their backs to the front door far behind them.
Right as I was breaking the bread, something caught my eye in the evening sunlight. Lo and behold, walking down the aisle straight toward our communion table was a woman from off the street. She was shuffling along unevenly, laden with several bags from the Dollar Store, but clearly making a bee-line for communion. Although I didn’t know her name, I recognized her. She was one of the residents of our eclectic little borough who might not have been technically homeless, but seemed to spend her days wandering around almost shadowlike along the sidewalks, not really talking to anyone or doing anything. Something had summoned her off the street and to our table at that very moment, as if she were one of St. Matthew’s old friends, testing us, testing to see if we thought this was still good news. I was in the middle of a prayer, my hands occupied with the chalice and loaf, so I couldn’t really respond, but the worshippers caught sight this strange newcomer, heard the plastic bags brushing her body down the aisle, and instinctively opened up a break in the semicircle and let her stand right there among them, no longer in the shadows. She took the bread and the wine, and we spoke briefly with her after worship. We only saw her a few other times, but she brought friends with her, a few fellow sidewalk pacers who saw the open door.
In that strange, microcosmic moment I believe we were all reminded again that this is good news. We were shown again that this is how this particular gospel works, and how a congregation that is properly gathered around it is transformed to share it, to open up the semicircle just a little bit more for everyone. The kingdom came crashing in, once more. That any of us were there at all is due to the fact that God scrapes the bottom of the barrel.
Oh, that we would be so moved to announce the grace and make room so instinctively in every instance! Oh, that we not be Pharisees that overlook it. Mercy is the name of this God’s game, not sacrifice. Tax collectors, sinners…all kinds of outsiders can now be in. Come to think of it, there really is no outside or “inside” anymore. The cross has opened the door to the street.
Come, now: in a steady stream of so much bad—I mean, really!—is this not the greatest news you’ve ever heard?
|Matthew is often depicted with the gospel that bears his name.|
Thanks be to God!
The Reverend Phillip W. Martin, Jr.