Friday, February 27, 2009

Sermon on Matthew 9:9-13, for Ash Wednesday "Why Does Your Teacher Eat With Tax Collectors and Sinners?"

Note: This is Part 1 of a Six-Part Lenten Sermon Series on the Subject: "Questions about Jesus that they don't want answered." Keep posted for the remainder of the series.

In the Name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit, Amen. Today with Ash Wednesday we begin the solemn season of Lent, a time for putting to death our sinful passions, a time for heightened awareness of our sin, and most importantly a time for focusing on the sufferings of Jesus Christ for our sins. The ashes on your forehead remind you that ever since the Fall into sin, the curse of death is that “Dust you are, and to dust you shall return” (Gen. 3:19b). In keeping with the focus of Lent on Jesus’ death for sinners, our Lenten sermon series that will lead us forward to Holy Week and Easter is going to be titled: “Questions about Jesus they don’t want answered.” These sermons will center around six questions about Jesus to test who He was, that come from the Gospel of Matthew. As we look at each of these questions, we’ll see that when they find out the real answers to these questions, they aren’t going to want to hear them or believe them, because the answers reveal Jesus to be the Christ, the promised Messiah. And that revelation of Jesus as the Messiah may have uncomfortable implications for both His hearers and us as well. Grace, mercy, and peace to you from God our Father and from our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ. Amen.

Perhaps it comes as no surprise to us that in the time of Jesus, tax collectors weren’t the most popular citizens around. As we are entering tax season, I’m sure you can all appreciate your own fondness for the IRS. But compared to back then, the tax system was very corrupt, and tax collectors regularly skimmed off the top and taxed people at higher rates than what was owed to the government. Tax collectors were looked down on as crooked and greedy. They were at the bottom of the social pecking order, regularly grouped together with prostitutes, swindlers, the unjust, gluttons, drunks, and all-around sinners. In other words, being a tax collector didn’t put you in the best company when it came to reputations. But Matthew, one of the 12 disciples and the author of this Gospel, humbly records his own calling from his occupation as a tax collector to become a follower of Jesus. “Follow Me” Jesus said, and as simple as that, he left his work behind. Then Matthew invited his newfound Rabbi home for dinner.

Many other tax collectors and sinners came to join Jesus and the disciples for dinner. A real ragamuffin crowd. This drew the attention of the Pharisees, who asked the first question of our series: “Why does your teacher eat with tax collectors and sinners?” The jab in their question is: “Doesn’t He know who He’s hanging around?” At this point, they probably still have a fairly high, if somewhat skeptical opinion of Jesus Himself—recognizing Him as a wise rabbi or teacher. But they’re surprised that He would surround Himself with such a sinful crowd—and eat with them no less! He ought to know better! We’re the ones He should be eating with, not these cheats and scoundrels.

Jesus hears their question and gives them an answer they don’t want to hear: “Those who are well have no need of a physician, but those who are sick. Go and learn what this means, ‘I desire mercy, and not sacrifice.’ For I came not to call the righteous, but sinners.” Jesus told them He came not for the righteous, but the sinners. This answer of Jesus put them in a pickle. Either they had to claim they were righteous, and that Jesus was not for them, or admit they were sinners on a level with the tax collectors and sinners Jesus ate with. It exposed the Pharisees’ arrogance and pride in claiming that they were righteous and not sinners. But for them to do so, put them squarely against the Scriptures they knew so well. Psalm 14:3 says of mankind, “They have all turned aside; together they have become corrupt; there is none who does good, not even one.” Ecclesiastes 7:20 observes: “Surely there is not a righteous man on earth who does good and never sins.” As upright as they were as citizens, and as meticulous as they were in trying to outwardly keep the law, they didn’t have a leg to stand on when it came to claiming they were righteous, against the testimony of Scripture. But they certainly didn’t want to admit to being sinners, and being classed with those tax collectors
and other undesirables that Jesus was eating with. They didn’t like this answer.

But as always, Jesus’ answer is the necessary answer. Even if we’d rather not hear it. It’s an answer that calls both them and us to repentance. Not identifying someone else as a “tax collector or sinner,” but you yourself. We can’t apply the law to others unless we’ve first applied it to ourselves. Jesus’ answer identifies Himself as the true physician of both body and soul, who came not for the healthy, but for the sick. Those who won’t acknowledge their sickness won’t be healed. This is the hard part of His answer—that they had to acknowledge their own sin. This is the difficult part of repentance, to take a long, hard look at your own life, and realize that it falls woefully short of God’s standards. And further, to know the consequences of sin…that it isn’t some surface blemish that is corrected merely by coming up with a more rigorous set of rules and guidelines and working harder to follow them. But that sin is a deep and pervasive corruption of our human nature—inherited from Adam’s sin, and multiplied by our own participation and sin. That sin, like a chronic and invasive cancer, has but one final outcome: death. So we need to recognize that we are sick with sin. We need a doctor—we need the true physician of body and soul, Jesus Christ.

To be a Christian is to daily repent of our sins and look to Christ for forgiveness. But how do we repent? Too often repentance is taken lightly; just a casual or automatic “I’m sorry.” Or we point out the sins of others, but not ourselves. But true repentance would be to hear these words: “You are all of no account, whether you are obvious sinners or saints in your own opinions. You have to become different from what you are now. You have to act differently than you are now acting, whether you are as great, wise, powerful, and holy as you can be. Here no one is godly…” but this stern word of the law that shows our sin and inability is followed by the sweet promise of grace through the Gospel, which causes us to “become different, act differently, and believe [Christ’s] promise” (SA III). The hard thing is to apply the law to yourself and see that you’re a sinner. And more than just “I’m not perfect.” Even the self-righteous Pharisee would admit that much. No, repentance goes much deeper than that. In the reading from the Prophet Joel, God calls us to repentance by returning to the Lord “with all your heart, with fasting, with weeping, and with mourning; and rend your hearts and not your garments. Return to the Lord your God, for he is gracious and merciful, slow to anger, and abounding in steadfast love; and he relents over disaster.”

True repentance ought to cut deep—to the heart. “Rend your hearts, not your garments.” This deep recognition of our need comes from examining our life in the light of God’s 10 Commandments. Even with the illumination of God’s Law, we still as sinners can’t see “how deep the rabbit hole goes.” No one can remember and know every sin that they’ve committed. There are even unknown sins that we’ve committed. So it’s not a question of ‘if,’ but ‘how’ or ‘when’ we have broken the commandments. Read them tonight in Exodus 20 or in the Small Catechism, and examine your own life in their light. What wrong have you done against the commandments? What good have you neglected to do, which the commandments instruct? Remember that keeping the commandments isn’t just about the “Not’s and Don’ts,” but that Jesus summarized the commandments with the word “Love.” So there is a positive duty for us to keep also—not just avoiding the wrong. And when we have fully taken stock of our lives in this light, there can only be one conclusion: that we have utterly failed to keep God’s Law, and that we’re poor, miserable sinners who’ve justly deserved God’s present and eternal punishment. Every fiber of our old sinful nature resists and strives against this conclusion. We want in every way to excuse or explain away our sin. But this necessary conclusion of our total guilt and corruption before God is just what the doctor ordered.

Because Jesus diagnoses the sin-sickness of all people, even if they do not see it themselves. He diagnosed the guilt of the Pharisees who thought they were righteous on their own, or were better than other ‘sinners.’ Jesus diagnoses our sin-sickness by showing that the Law isn’t merely an outward matter, but is an inward matter of the heart also. So how’s this conclusion of our own guilt just what the doctor ordered? Remember? Jesus came not for the healthy, but the sick. He came to call not the righteous, but sinners. In that deep conclusion of our guilt, in the rending of our hearts from our sorrow over sin, Jesus administers the cure. He takes our broken heart and He’s “gracious and compassionate, slow to anger and abounding in steadfast love, and He relents over disaster.” God doesn’t bring disaster upon us, but is compassionate and abounding in steadfast love. “He heals the broken-hearted and binds up their wounds” (Ps. 147:3). Jesus is the true physician because it’s in His crucifixion and His wounds that we’re healed (Is. 53:5).

Jesus took the deadly sin-sickness upon Himself, that through His death He’d destroy death. “Why does our teacher eat with tax collectors and sinners?” Because He’s the True Physician, who came for us sinners, to heal us. And behold, today He eats with us sinners. Today He spreads a table before us in the presence of our enemies, and our cup overflows. In the Lord’s Supper, Jesus abounds in steadfast love for us by pouring out the overflowing cup of His blood for the forgiveness of our sins. Jesus gives us the Bread of Life in His body broken and given for you. Truly Christ eats with sinners! Christ eats with us. And for those who hunger and thirst for righteousness it’s satisfying indeed to eat with our Savior. Now the peace of God which passes all understanding, guard your hearts and minds in Christ Jesus, unto life everlasting. Amen.

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