Tax collectors in Jesus’ day were not nice. They weren’t generous, forgiving, or kind. They snarled when they talked and were built like front-row forwards, or had a couple of lads standing behind them who fitted that description.
Tax collectors were extortionists. If the Romans and local Jewish rulers wanted say 30% of your produce to get it they employed the collectors. But they didn’t pay the collectors. So collectors – the ‘successful’ ones – asked for say another 20% of your produce. And if they didn’t get that total of 50% they beat it out of you.
Tax collectors were not popular. Funny that! You would never invite one for dinner. And you would never accept an invitation to their place if you wanted to keep your fingernails intact.
In short, they were low-life, scumbags, ungodly, those who cuddled up to the oppressive occupation forces. You would not want your daughter to go out with one. And you would never invite one for dinner.
Which was the problem. Jesus, the coolest rabbi in town, the one everyone was talking about and wanted to invite to dinner, accepted your invitation to dine and… [this is a big ‘and’] brought along Matthew and his collector mates. Oh-uh. Are you really sure you want Jesus in your house?
Matthew 9: 10, 11: “And as [Jesus] sat at dinner in the house [that’s your house], many tax-collectors and other undesirables were sitting with him and his disciples. When the Pharisees [the morality police] saw this, they said to his disciples, [“You guys are nuts.”].
Then there is a silence in the text before Jesus pipes up. But note the disciples have no answer. I suspect they too thought this was nuts. And I suspect too they were scared to open their mouths.
How do you really accommodate an undesirable guest like a tax collector? No one trusts him. No one wants him. But he comes as part of the Jesus package. What boundaries do you impose? Will he keep to them? What happens if he doesn’t? This is risky. There are no easy answers.
Matthew, I’m guessing, also is thinking this is nuts. This is a party for nice religious people, and he isn’t one of them. He gets the vibe. The ‘we-are-scared-of-you’ vibe. He’s tuned to pick up such vibes. He knows you don’t want him in your house. He can see through that welcoming beatific smile.
Matthew knows how to make people scared. But he doesn’t know how to make people like him. He can do fear. He can’t do love. But he wants to do love. He wants to believe he can do love. Jesus makes him believe he can do love. Jesus makes him believe that he’s really a diamond, despite his roughness. He just needs to have faith. But it’s risky.
The story of Matthew, in Hebrew his name means ‘gift of God’, is the foundational story of this church. It is a story of provocative hospitality beyond the boundaries of what is acceptable or manageable. It is a story of provocative hospitality that is uncomfortable and costly.
Many people hate this church. Many people wish this church did not call itself Christian or Anglican. Many people wish this church didn’t exist. And those who despise this place, what it stands for, and its leadership are much more publically vocal than those who love it, defend it, or shelter within it.
Yet such provocative hospitality is not an option. It’s a given. It’s not a choice. For it is part of our spiritual DNA. We can do no other. If we shut the doors on our equivalent of tax collectors and sinners; if we shut the doors on all whom the morality police are suspicious of; if we shut the doors on those who want spiritual sustenance but can’t believe in Christianity’s religion…. then we are shutting the door on the Sophia [the wisdom] of God, and our soul will eventually shrivel, harden, and die.
We are part of a tradition, reaching back to Abraham, which not only welcomes the stranger, but experiences the in-breaking of divine grace in that welcome. At the oaks of Mamre Abraham welcomed three strangers into his tent, and in doing so welcomed angels unaware. In Jesus’ ministry, time and again, it was the cultural/ political outsider or foreigner, like the Syro-Phoenician woman, like the Roman Centurion; and in the early Jesus movement similarly with the Ethiopian Eunuch  and the Gentile Cornelius, who showed with their faith the way to God. In the tradition of the saints, St Christopher discovered the Christ in a child he carried [children are nearly always political outsiders], and St Damien met divine grace in the lepers he ministered among.
Outsiders, foreigners, and strangers mediate the grace and challenge of God to us. To erect a fence to keep them at bay is to fence out the Spirit who wants to lead and broaden us into the kin-dom of God.
This last week I’ve been in Australia where the discussion continues regarding asylum seekers arriving by boats. Both main federal political parties have a ‘repeal boarders’ mentally. They are playing to the insecurities of those Australians who are fearful of the outsider and foreigner.
And most Australian churches, to their credit, are challenging the politicians. For they understand that we Christians bear the name of the baby whose parents were told “there is no room”. We are the spiritual descendants of asylum seekers. We know that national borders that allegedly protect us also hinder the Spirit of God who knows no borders.
So when any fence is erected – around a country, a church, or a communion table – for the reason for protecting or preserving, our Christian DNA cries out in protest. We are likely to be fencing out angels, grace, and even the Spirit of God herself.
However not all outsiders are angels in disguise. Our first reading today, gives another perspective on engaging with the stranger and foreigner. Some outsiders want to stop us, prevent us, or divert us from following where we believe the Sophia of God is leading. They are blocking the road - deliberately and destructively.
Grasshopper is on a journey when he is confronted by a dogmatic mosquito. The mosquito’s world is bounded by the lake – a lake that he must control. The only way for Grasshopper to continue on his journey is, according to Mosquito, to fit into Mosquito’s boat. It is patently absurd. But the Mosquito’s vision is bounded by the lake. The Mosquito’s religion is ‘lake religion’ and the only way to be saved is by his boat.
This scenario is very common for us here at St Matthew’s. Daily I receive emails from ‘mosquitoes’ who say there is only one way to God and it is their way. To be ‘Christian’ or ‘inclusive’ they say is to stop what I’m doing, and follow their rules. This is, they say, the path of ‘unity’ – a very important value for mosquitoes. [It’s almost as important as obedience.] If I depart from their understanding of Christian religion and values then I am departing from the way of Christ.
So, here is an outsider, a foreigner, who is not a ‘diamond-in-the-rough’ like Matthew the tax collector. Instead he has a small boat, a small lake, a small God, and a large and insistent voice. How do we keep true to our provocative hospitality DNA without succumbing to the mosquitoes’ agenda which is to stop us in our tracks?
While it’s tempting to try to swat him, squash him, or spray him, Arnold Lobel’s Grasshopper finds a way to honour the inner dignity of Mosquito while continuing to be true to his own calling to journey on. Grasshopper lifts the mosquito out of his paradigm, and then gently lowers him again. But Mosquito is blind to it. He thinks he’s won. His religion he believes has saved Grasshopper. Mosquito stays in his boat and his lake, trapped in his world view, as Grasshopper walks on down the road. For some characters, like Mosquito, will not change – rather they have to be gently moved to the side, or lifted out of the way, in order that others can move on.
I like the grace that Grasshopper displays. Grace permeates both the story of Matthew and the story of Mosquito. As does discernment. Discernment is important in ascertaining whether the demand in front of you is a mosquito to be gently put aside or a compass suggesting a correction to your course. A ministry of risky and provocative hospitality, vital as it is to our spiritual wellbeing, requires leadership that is both graceful and discerning. A sprinkling of courage and tenacity helps too.
Grace and discernment are what I’ve tried to offer for the last nine years, and it’s my hope that you will continue with such leadership. In bidding farewell, I have a very thankful heart – full of memories of people, events, good and great times… And I leave to go on loving, sharing, learning, debating, forgiving, laughing, helping, dancing, wondering, singing, healing, and even more loving… as I hope you will too. Haere ra. He hono tangata e kore e motu; ka pa he taura waka e motu [Unlike a canoe rope, a human bond cannot be severed.]