March 4, 2007
Sinners May Come
Matthew 9:10-13

Various studies over the last few decades have arrived at a rather ironic conclusion. People who visit mental, physical and dental health clinics are generally healthier—before they go—than people who don’t. Typically, those who visit such facilities are either adequately insured or possess greater financial resources than those who stay away, and they often come for preventative care or treatment for less-threatening ailments. In short, the people who need mental, physical and dental health care the most are, by and large, the very ones who never enter the doors of related health care facilities. Medical clinics serve the healthy, and the doctors there treat those who are generally well. Can the same thing be said, I wonder, about the Church and the Christians who gather there?

Here in Matthew 9:10-13, we find Jesus once again embroiled in controversy with the primary religious leaders of his day—the Pharisees. Writing to a predominantly Jewish audience at a time when multiple Jewish sub-groups in Palestine were vying for prominence, Matthew frequently tells stories of Jesus sparring with his apparent religious opponents. Jesus and the Pharisees go round and round elsewhere in Matthew’s gospel over Sabbath observance (12:1-8), divorce (19:1-9), payment of taxes (22:15-22) and the meaning of the greatest commandment (22:34-40). So significant is this escalating conflict between Jesus and the Pharisees that Jesus later takes the time to outline what he considers to be the total inadequacies of the their beliefs and way of life (ch. 23). Arguing over theology and religious behavior is hardly new to these competing parties—Jesus and his followers and the Pharisees and theirs. They do it all of the time.

But debating abstract theology is one thing. Fussing over views of the end times—are you pre-mill, a-mill, or post-mill?!?—or whether or not the earth was created in six, actual 24-hour days, for example, probably does little damage beyond hurting our feelings and fracturing our egos. Erecting impassable barriers between God’s people and others in the world, however, is another matter altogether. Yet that is precisely the point of contention between Jesus and the Pharisees on this particular occasion.

Jesus, Matthew informs us, is eating dinner with various people as the story unfolds. In the time of Jesus, and even to some extent today, what people eat and who they eat with in part reflect the groups with which they identify. When I was a student, I often noticed how various groups congregated in the high school and college cafeterias. Football players and other jocks over here. Science Fair contestants, classical musicians and other geeks over there. Ethnic minorities or people from out of town in certain corners. Pure breeds who grew up in the community at the center tables. And you knew—at least I knew—where to sit. And where not to sit.

Do you remember the initial cafeteria scene in the movie, October Sky? Homer Hickam, a high school student from Coalwood, WV, wants desperately to discuss his new-found fascination with rockets with Quentin Wilson, the school science nerd. Homer, sitting at a table in the cafeteria with other popular kids, notices Quentin all alone at a table off in a distant corner. When Homer suggests to his friends that he is going over to talk with Quentin, they panic. “Homer,” they caution, “if you go over and sit with Quentin, you can kiss your social life goodbye!” Homer, to his credit, decides to go anyway, and as he slowly makes his way to Quentin’s table, a hush settles over the entire room. In a high school cafeteria, you know where and where not to sit.

The Pharisees during the time of Jesus knew where people should and should not sit, and they made no bones about it. Two tables in their cafeteria were particularly off-limits. The table where the tax collectors sat and the table where the sinners sat. In that day, tax collectors did more than serve a civic role. I may at times wish that our taxes in Upper Allen Township were lower, but I hold no personal grudge against Marlin Yohn, our local tax collector. He is an elected official who is simply doing his job, and taxes are a part of life. But in Jesus’ day, tax collectors in the Roman system were primarily local opportunists who leased from the Romans the right to collect taxes from the residents in their own communities. Such collectors could add to the tax in order to make a profit, and many did so to the extreme. As a result, the residents despised them, seeing them as self-serving profiteers in cahoots with the Romans. While I may not dislike Marlin Yohn, I would undoubtedly view Ken Martin or someone else in our community less favorably if he joined hands with an oppressive government and extracted—for his own gain—exorbitant, life-draining taxes from me. Wouldn’t you?

Sinners, by way of contrast, were not despised for political or economic reasons, as were the tax collectors. We tend to think today of sinners in an inclusive way—we are all sinners who fall short of the glory of God. But in Jesus’ day, these so-called “sinners” actually comprised a sub-group forced to the fringes of Jewish society. They were ostracized—left out of the stream of life—because they had certain diseases, observed foreign religious traditions, or lived morally unacceptable lives. They were, at best, ornery odd balls who violated Jewish rituals—they ate unclean foods or refused to observe the Sabbath—or at worst, depraved souls engaged in the likes of adultery, prostitution or drug-trafficking. People like these were “sinners”—unclean and untouchable—while the Pharisees, of course, were not.

You might imagine, then, the hysteria in the cafeteria pictured here in Matthew 9. The table for tax collectors is positioned far off in one corner and the table for sinners in another. The Pharisees and their followers—the respectable, God-fearing people—sit at tables on an elevated balcony—they don’t even want to be in the same room with such outcasts. Everyone knows where to sit. Everyone knows what to eat. And everyone—you can be sure of it— knows precisely who to eat with. Everyone, so it seems, but Jesus. As he walks through the door, the tax collectors, sinners and Pharisees alike fully expect him to move quickly to the balcony and take his seat among the religious folk. Surely he will sit with those who iron their clothes, wash their hands and follow the rules. Surely Jesus will dine with respectable people, people who discuss theology, drive fancy chariots, live exemplary lives and have full health coverage. Surely Jesus, of all people, knows where he is supposed to sit. He knows what is expected of him.

Or does he? While everyone watches—you could hear a pin drop in the room—Jesus moves away from the balcony, heading instead toward the tax collectors and sinners. Rather than choosing between these two marginalized groups, Jesus asks them to pull their tables together—political, economic, social, religious and ethical outcasts. These are people who have dirty hands and even dirtier habits. People lounging hopelessly at night clubs, standing alone on street corners, or languishing for years behind bars. People who affirm other creeds, serve other gods, and follow foreign practices. People with wrinkled clothing and uncombed hair. People without resources—they have little money and no health insurance. People that the strong and upright tend to tease and tell jokes about. People who tend to demand a lot of time and are unable to pay for services rendered. “Pull your tables together,” Jesus says, just before sitting down with them for dinner.

The Pharisees, dressed in fancy robes and eating fine food, scarcely know how to react. “How could such an upstanding, respectable man like Jesus eat with the likes of these people?” they ask the disciples. “Why would he choose to socialize with tax collectors and sinners when we had a seat saved for him at our table?” “Why dirty his own hands and risk being ostracized himself?” I don’t know about you, but I can think of at least two reasons. For one thing, Jesus understood that he was called by his Father, not so much to patronize the goody goodies of the world—the religious types who already have it all together and who continue to believe that God is somehow impressed with their sacred rules and regulations—but to get down in the trenches with those who are truly hurting and needy. Jesus understood, in other words, that he was called to offer hope and healing to those who are truly sick and are not afraid to admit it.

And further, Jesus had a way of looking at sick people—tax collectors and sinners—through different eyes than did the Pharisees. When the Pharisees saw dirty hands, worthless faces and limited potential, Jesus saw a living person created in the image of God. Jesus saw, not solely who and what a person was, but what that same person could become. Jesus, unlike the religious leaders, looked beyond what could be seen by the naked eye and gazed right into a person’s soul.

Some of you have no doubt heard of and perhaps even seen Michelangelo’s renowned sculpture, Pieta. It stands today where it always has—in St. Peter’s Basilica in Rome. Considered by many authorities to be the greatest sculpture ever fashioned by human hands, the Pieta depicts the Virgin Mary cradling her just crucified son in her arms. What you have perhaps not heard is a moving legend often associated with the Pieta. According to the legend, Michelangelo, only 24 years old at the time, was too poor to buy a choice piece of marble to complete the project. As a result, he was forced to rummage through seemingly inferior stones or materials discarded by other sculptors. When he finally stumbled upon one particular piece of marble, Michelangelo saw deep within it two figures longing to be freed. He quickly took the stone home and, with chisel in hand, released both Mary and Jesus. Michelangelo fashioned the greatest piece of sculpture ever created out of a rejected piece of marble.

“I have not come to tend to the healthy,” Jesus announced, “but the sick.” The dirty. The diseased. The corrupt. The broken. And can you just imagine the expressions on the faces of the tax collectors and sinners that day when Jesus pulled up a chair and sat with them, talked with them, and even ate with them. Tax collectors and sinners—the worst of the lot—came to him while the healthy—the religious—sat upright at their candle-lit tables and looked on in scorn. If Jesus is a physician who cares for the sick, what does that suggest about the Church—about you and me? Are we a clinic that attracts only the healthy and religious, or a hospital that opens its arms wide to the dying? Tax collectors and sinners felt comfortable coming to Jesus—they felt welcomed and loved. I can only hope and pray that they feel the same way about you and me.