In Matthew’s Gospel (9:9–13) two tables confront us: the oppressive tax-office table and the welcoming dinner table with Jesus as host.
Tax gatherers were dubious characters in the Palestine of Jesus’ day. It is a much more respectable profession these days, even if not exactly liked. But who were the sinners? Daniel Harrington suggests they are harder to identify. [i] Were they the ritually impure? Or were they peasant farmers and fishermen who had no time to be religious because they were flat out eking out a living in order to pay their taxes? Or are they the local robbers, male and female prostitutes, and professional brawlers — the low life of any first century Palestinian town? I recall a similar description of early 19th century inhabitants of Auckland as “traders, whalers and pirates” — some Kiwis, living beyond the bounds of Auckland City might even be tempted to claim that things haven’t changed too much in the intervening years.
Jesus, in contrast to the Pharisees, felt comfortable with eating and socialising with such people. God was for them also! This is a visible statement about the inclusiveness of God’s mercy and love. However, as in Jesus’ day, in the days of Matthew’s community, and in our own, the question of belonging to religious community is never an easy matter. Conflict erupts over such issues of belonging because of people’s fears of difference and diversity and this always plays out over the question of who can come to dinner in our place. Our Anglican Communion is caught in the midst of this conflict right now and no doubt we shall hear and see more of it at the end of October when our Church and its three Tikanga will host the gathering of the worldwide Anglican Consultative Council.
But let’s return to the tax booth where Matthew is sitting. The Roman occupying power farmed out the collection of taxes to the Jewish rulers of the region and they in turn to others who did the actual oppressive work of taxing the labour and goods of the largely peasant population who were farmers or fishermen.
What did Jesus see when he looked at Matthew? A young man just starting out in a difficult and despised profession or was he a well-known identity, a mature man “on the make”, hand in glove with the Romans?
Jesus looks at Matthew and says: “Follow me”. The name is related to the Greek word ‘disciple’ and comes from the Hebrew and means ‘gift of God’. We, as contemporary readers of the Gospel have many questions we would like answered. Was Jesus’ invitation looked for by Matthew? Did he already know Jesus? Or was this encounter a total surprise? What did he expect when he consented to ‘follow’ Jesus? — an easy life, a comfortable bed every night, great meals, higher status? No! Matthew looks, listens, gets up and follows! Nothing more is said.
The story continues with the observations about the diverse company people who gathered to ‘recline’ and dine with Jesus. He welcomes all and sundry; not just the religiously pure. [ii] Such practice was highly offensive to the devout religious of first century Palestine. If you could eat with a person then perhaps you could even marry them; certainly do business with them!
Christians discovered in this practice of Jesus the ability for themselves and their families to collapse the social, political, racial and religious barriers that worked to continue long term alienations and human distance. [iii] In itself, this is an announcement of the arrival of the Reign of God, a fresh enactment of the challenging words of the prophet Hosea that what God wants is mercy not sacrifice?
Contemporary theologians René Girard and James Alison argue, Jesus is not just criticising the Temple sacrifices. He criticises everything in society that sacrifices human beings in the name of culture and religion. But breaking religious taboos and boundaries is always risky for human beings in any culture and religious system.
What is the meaning of the ‘mercy’ of God? Can ‘mercy’ have meaning in our culture today? The kyrie eleison, “Lord have mercy” sung so wonderfully by the musicians earlier is about this mercy of God.
Mercy is linked to love and generosity — the amazing generosity of God embodied in Jesus. Mercy is something to be touched and felt, sensed, smelt and enjoyed. It is a gift — a grace given — unconditional welcome, acceptance, forgiveness, love, friendship and recognition.
Jesus embodied this mercy of God in his willingness to get alongside the outsiders, the collaborators, the public and private sinners and eat and converse with them — befriend them!
From the time of my arrival in Aotearoa New Zealand at the end of 1981, and especially during my five years as a priest attached to St Matthew’s from 1992 to 1996, I found St Matthew’s engaging in breaking down the walls that human beings in their fear erect to keep others at a distance. This is an embodied Christian practice for which the whole church should be giving thanks to God and seeking to emulate in their particular circumstances.
Even in Australia, some Christian folk smiled at St Matt’s wedding cake billboard; no doubt others frowned. In my mind, being a follower of Jesus requires the ability to be broadminded, to be able to smile when others condemn through fear or self-righteousness.
Thankfully, St Matthew’s continues this practice of the Christian community enacting the unexpected, challenging the established foundations and practices of what is understood to be Christian, Anglican and human.
The implication of Jesus’ actions and words is that all are welcome in the presence of God. The utter diversity of his disciples affirms this. Jesus’ choices work to reveal that the love and mercy of God are available for all. This does not mean that every aspect of their personal lives goes unchallenged by Jesus. The call to follow gives the gift of space and time to choose a different life style, a different occupation, to let go of the past — most of all, time to think differently, to take on new inclusive attitudes toward all humanity.
The Gospel shows us two tables — the table of oppression and exclusion and the table inclusion and mercy. Saint Matthew-in-the-City offers to all the table of inclusive mercy in the midst of a commercial and political environment that may often be experienced as oppressive and exclusive, especially to our brothers and sisters at the bottom of the social and economic ladder.
May God in Christ through the Spirit bring us to enact table of inclusion. Amen.
[i] Daniel J. Harrington SJ, The Gospel of Matthew, ed. Daniel J. Harrington SJ, vol. 1, Sacra Pagina (Collegeville, Minnesota: Liturgical Press, 1991 / 2007), 128.
[ii] Majella Franzmann PBVM, "Of food, bodies, and the boundless reign of God in the synoptic gospels," Pacifica 5 (1992).
[iii] Michael Vasey, Strangers and friends: A new exploration of homosexuality and the Bible (London: Hodder and Stoughton, 1995).