Supping With Tax Collectors and Sinners

By something resembling popular request. I preached this not last Sunday, but the previous Sunday. The Gospel reading is Matthew 9:9-13, 18-26.

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Tax collectors and sinners. These are the kinds of people Jesus surrounded himself with, preached to and healed. He even went into their homes, sat at their tables and broke bread with them.

It was something of a scandal, what this Jesus did with tax collectors and sinners. It got one party of Jewish religious authorities — the Pharisees — angry, and earned their condemnation. Because a righteous teacher does not consort with tax collectors and sinners. A righteous teacher does not sit at their table, eat their bread and drink their wine. Or forgive them their sins.

What is it about the tax collectors, anyway? Nobody much likes tax collectors — I know I’m not fond of them or of the power to tax — but I wouldn’t single them out like this. Why do that? Why are they lumped with “sinners,” and what might that mean, both in this gospel and for us, living so many years later?

Well, to begin with, a little on how taxes were collected long ago. Today, governments have large agencies and bureaucracies employing many thousands of people to collect taxes. The federal government has the much-disliked Internal Revenue Service, the IRS, which seems to know all as it watches just about everyone who receives a paycheck, every employer who hires people, and hundreds of other business and financial transactions to make sure that income is reported and taxes paid. And inflict swift punishment if things aren’t in order. Every state, county and city has a similar agency to collect revenue, from state tax boards to county clerks who make sure that property taxes and vehicle taxes and who knows what else are all paid. Government has no way of making its own money except through taxes, and so the collection of taxes is just one more bureaucratic function of government.

Now, while it’s almost always been true, this fact that governments must collect taxes from people in order to get the money to operate, 2,000 years, the Roman state didn’t have an Internal Revenue Service. The Greek city states did not have a franchise tax board. The empires of Babylon and Persia and the short-lived and far-flung conquests of Alexander the Great did not have county assessors. Collecting taxes was generally not something governments did 2,000 years ago. The ideal, especially in Greece and Rome, was that citizens from the ruling classes would hold short-term — a year, at most two years — elected or appointed posts and would not be allowed to hold the same post two terms in a row. The advantage, as the Greeks and Romans saw it, is that such a system prevented one individual from staying in an office too long and gaining too much power. The disadvantage was that no one could stay in office long enough to learn the ins and outs of how the state really worked.

On top of that, Greek and Roman government was nowhere near as bureaucratic as the government we have today. Greek city states did not collect taxes on their own. Even the power and reach of the most absolute monarch of the era — Pharaoh or the king of Persia — was limited. They didn’t have treasuries that could simply print money or issues bonds. There are only so many taxes you can squeeze out of farmers and artisans before they have nothing left. There are only so many times you can tax a jar of olive oil or a stack of cedar wood before it becomes so expensive no one will buy it.

So, if governments in the ancient world did not have revenue agencies, how did they collect taxes? Because we know, just from reading the Bible, that taxes were collected. Here’s how it worked — a wealthy individual either pays the taxes for a particular region outright, or promises to pay those taxes, in exchange for the legal right to collect the tax in that particular region. It’s called tax farming, and it’s how just about every government in the ancient world collected taxes at the time Matthew is writing about Jesus.

These tax farmers were private individuals at first, and then later associations similar to companies and corporations in our day, with lots of employees, many of them slaves. They didn’t go into this business of collecting taxes out of the kindness of their hearts or out of some sense of civic duty. They went into this business to make a profit — why else does anyone go into business? So they had to collect more than they were due, demand more payment than was required. Often times they used violence. I have no idea what the “margin of return,” to use a business phrase from my time as a financial journalist, was on tax collecting in the ancient world, but it had the potential to be hugely profitable. Who wouldn’t want to go into a business where you could compel someone to do business with you or else?

In fact, in the eyes of many Pharisees (and others, I’m guessing), these tax collectors were no better than thieves and robbers. They also consorted regularly with non-Jews — they had to, they collected taxes for non-Jewish governments, first for the successors to Alexander the Great’s empire and then for Rome — and because of that they were unclean. The whole family of a tax collector was considered unclean and could not participate in Jewish communal or social life. They were excluded from the religious life of the community.

These were the tax collectors Jesus supped with.

Hearing this, it sounds harsh, but consider the world of the Pharisee for a minute. The Torah, the law as given to Moses, ordered the world, and adherence to that law was righteousness. A righteous life was lived in accordance with God’s demands. Sinners — that other word in our gospel reading — were people whose lives were publicly and completely and utterly disordered and lived almost in complete opposition to God’s demands for God’s people as understood in the Torah. Not the kind of folks decent people associate with. Now, it wasn’t that people couldn’t repent, because they could. There were ritual ways of publicly demonstrating one’s repentance, of repairing the broken, and one of those ways — for a thief — was to make restitution, to pay back what was stolen and then some more as damages. That’s restitution, and it would have to be made by any tax collector who wanted to be part of Jewish ritual life and the greater Jewish community.

Anyone here think many tax collectors could do that, could easily pay back everything they’d ever taken from someone — twice or three times over if the law required it — over a career spent collecting taxes? What about those people who only worked for tax collectors, or were their slaves, and thus had no resources of their own to make restitution? So the door was closed for most tax collectors to effectively and publicly repent, to be openly reconciled to the life of the community. They, and the sinners they kept company with, were permanently and publicly excluded because there was no way they could ever get their lives together in the way the understanding of the law demanded.

And this is why what Jesus is doing is so scandalous. “Why does your teacher eat with tax collectors and sinners?” the Pharisees ask Jesus’ disciples. In Matthew’s Gospel, the first words Jesus speaks as part of his public ministry — his preaching and teaching and healing and forgiving of sins — are “Repent, for the kingdom of heaven is at hand.” It is this forgiveness of sins, this utterly unmerited and unearned proclamation of forgiveness from God, that the Pharisees (and the Pharisee in each one of us) are most critical of, because it means that the requirements of the law — that we do something to make the relationship right as part of our earning forgiveness, that we redeem and reconcile ourselves to the community or prove we are worthy of redemption and reconciliation — do not apply. As Hosea says, God desires from God’s people goodness, mercy and kindness, and not sacrifices and burnt offerings wafting into heaven with the intention of covering or redeeming us from our sin. Sacrifice and restitution are not essential conditions of God’s forgiveness.

This is not to say that restitution isn’t good or even necessary. Those of you familiar with AA know that there’s a reason that steps eight and nine from the Big Book focus on restitution, demanding that we make “a list of all people we had harmed” and commit to making “amends to them as well,” and then carrying through on that promise by making those amends “wherever possible, except when to do so would injure them or others.” (These are good words for alcoholic and non-alcoholic alike, and that’s why I quote them.) But God’s forgiveness, our redemption and reconciliation with God and with those around us does not depend on our making restitution. Many of us simply cannot. Rather, our making amends is how we live together as redeemed, reconciled and forgiven people. Restitution springs forth from our redemption.

And that is because Jesus, by the mere fact he comes into our lives and sits at our table, breaking our bread and drinking our wine — by being our bread and wine, by going to the cross, bearing our sins and rising again on the third day — is our reconciliation. In him, through him, with him, we are reconciled to God and with each other. We, who cannot save or redeem ourselves, who are sick unto the point of death, are healed by the great physician who is the Messiah, Son of God come into the world. “Those who are well have no need of a physician, but those who are sick,” Jesus tells the Pharisees who are afraid to ask him directly why he is having dinner with sinners. “For I came not to call the righteous but sinners.”

And call us sinners he does. Jesus doesn’t really mess around with the righteous. He calls us — the homeless, the poor, the addict, the thief, the old, the infirmed, the marginalized, the malcontent and the rebel, all of us who have been told by “righteous decent folks” that it’s entirely our fault that we are excluded, and that we must do all the work of reconciling ourselves to the world in which we live. Jesus reclines at our table. The very author of this Gospel was himself a tax collector who Jesus himself called, a tax collector who got up from his place of work and “followed him.” Consider what Matthew likely gave up the day Jesus met him: a reasonably good-paying job with a fair amount of security (because government will never go away, even as governments come and go). Consider the risks he may have taken: he may have been contractually obligated to collect a certain amount of tax which he may still have been liable for, or he may have been bound to an employer who could come and get him and enforce the terms of his contract, most likely with clubs and chains. And all Jesus said to him were two little words: “follow me.”

We are the sinners, the tax collectors, the fishermen working on our nets, the sick woman in need of healing, the hungry crowds, we are the people Jesus has healed and preached to and called to follow, and we are called to preach and heal and live this Gospel of redemption and reconciliation, to show the world around us what the kingdom of heaven looks like, what it means to be redeemed and reconciled to each other. And to God.

Sunday Sermon

This summer, I’m filling is as the pastor at Uptown Lutheran Church. This will give me a couple months of experience preaching, presiding and providing pastoral care to a small congregation (I will be working at the church three days a week doing pastoral care).

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God Builds Our Lives on the Rock of Christ

It was a warm and beautiful autumn day in mid-October of 1989. I was studying and working San Francisco State University, running the journalism department’s computer lab in the evenings, helping other students with problems and making sure things worked the way they were supposed to.

It was a little after five in the afternoon, and I’d just gotten to work when the building started shaking. Now, I’d grown up in California and had been through my share of small earthquakes – they are a usual feature of life there. You never quite get used to it, the earth shaking, the bed lurching across the floor, the house creaking, even though you know such a thing is always possible. There had been a number of smaller quakes that summer, quakes that were strong enough to shake the building and wake you up from a sound sleep, but not strong enough or long enough to do any serious damage. The earthquake that October started out that way, just another “typical little” earthquake that would last a few seconds and then it would be done. So I braced myself as best I could and waited.

But that day was going to be different. After a few seconds of “mild” shaking, it felt – I don’t know how else to describe it – as if something deep in the earth just snapped. And then the ground really started moving, back and forth, from side to side. The building creaked, things fell of shelves, the lights swayed, chairs and tables slid, big tree branches outside shook violently. I stood in my office doorway – it’s what you’re told to do so often that it’s a kind-of instinctive reaction – and waited for the shaking to stop. After 15 seconds – 15 seconds which felt a lot longer than that – it finally did.

Some of you might remember this earthquake. It happened just as the Oakland A’s and the San Francisco Giants were warming up to play the third game of the World Series that year. The damage to Candelstick Park, at the time the Giants’ home field, was bad enough that the third game was delayed for ten days, a delay due mostly to the ABC television network’s difficulties in getting its broadcast facilities up and running. (For the record: Oakland swept the series in four games.)

But there was other more signficant damage: a long stretch of elevated freeway through a poor neighborhood in Oakland collaped, a chunk fell out of the San Francisco/Oakland Bay Bridge, 31 historic buildings in downtown Santa Cruz were so badly damaged they had to be demolished, and a large portion of the Marina District along the north shore of San Francisco was reducded to ruins. Nearly 4,000 people were injured, and 67 died, in that 15 seconds of shaking.

At San Francisco State, the building I worked in cracked and buckled. Working for the university newspaper the following day, when no one else was on campus, I got a chance to look at some of the damage – science labs filled with the shattered glass of fallen test tubes and pyrex dishes, cracks in buildings, ruined equipment. The city lost power for about 24 hours. But there was no serious damage on the western side of San Francisco where the university was and where Jennifer and I lived.

Many of those places where the damage was the worst – the Marina District, central Oakland – were built not on rock but on sand. The Marina District was a very posh neighborhood built atop what had once been a lagoon filled up with rubble and debris, a kind-of manmade sand, most of it dumped there after the 1906 earthquake. When you build in places where earthquakes are likely, it’s important that a foundation be anchored in the ground; a building has to be able to move and sway, but the foundation must stay put. Rocky soil is very stable, and anchors foundations well, but sand does not. When the earth shakes, the particles of sand shake more than normal dirt would, sand itself begins to act like a liquid, and the foundation begins to slide around too. This is why you can’t really build anything lasting on sand.

Jesus doesn’t speak of earthquakes in our gospel reading – he talks, instead, about rain, flood and wind, because there was no building for earthquakes in Jesus’ time – but he does talk about building on rock and the stability it represents, the protection from the elements and the unpredictability of nature. “Everyone who hears these words of mine and does them will be like a wise man who builds his house on the rock . … And everyone who hears these of mine but does not do them will be like a foolish man who built his house on the sand.” These words of mine? What words is he talking about?

Today’s Gospel reading comes at the very end of the Sermon on the Mount, in which Jesus gives us a glimpse of what it means to live in the Kingdom of Heaven. Blessed are the poor in spirit, he says, those who mourn, those who hunger and thirst for righteousness, the merciful, those who make peace, who are the pure of heart, and those who are persecuted for the sake of righteousness. Jesus then goes on to effectively give a new law, a much harder law than God ever gave to Moses. He tells us that it is not enough to not murder, for even the anger of our hearts makes us liable to judgment. The lust of our hearts is the same as actual adultery! And when we are insulted, robbed, compelled to go a mile, we are to give the other cheek, hand over our coat, walk a second mile. We are asked to love our enemies, pray for those who hate us, give to whoever asks, and share with the poor but in a way so that our left hand has no idea what our right hand is doing. Finally, we are not to judge, not criticize the flaws in our sisters and brothers without also seeing and correcting our own.

It’s hard stuff. Hard to hear. Who can do this? Which of us hasn’t been angry, or lusted, or wanted revenge for some wrong we’ve suffered at the hands of another? Who of us haven’t judged those around us, without holding ourselves to the same standards, without seeing the huge logs in our own eyes? Which of us hasn’t said to ourselves, “I’m better than my neighbor, who drinks and fools around and cheats on his taxes. I don’t do those things. My house is built on rock, while his is built on sand”?

Paul says in today’s epistle reading that “all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God” and that none of us can boast in any of the things we do ourselves. Our salvation, he adds, is a gift, the grace of our Lord Jesus Christ, in whom we are reconciled to God. And I think that helps us understand a little the first part of today’s Gospel reading.

See, I found it a little puzzling when I first read this passage. Jesus is talking about building on rock so that the storms won’t knock your house down. That seem to me to be something anyone can surely boast of. “I have built my house on rock, and that’s why it survived the earthquake. All those who built on sand, well, shame on them. They weren’t listening.” But at the beginning of this passage, Jesus clearly says that merely because we say “Lord, Lord” or have done the very things Jesus did – cast out demons, prophesying and other mighty works – doesn’t mean we’re actually disciples of Jesus. It’s not about our works, not about our deeds or action, not about our claims and profession, not even about us doing what Jesus has done. Building on rock is not something we do. We certainly cannot lord that over others, and say “look at us, we built on rock! We cast out demons! We have done mighty works in the name of God! Our left hand knows exactly what our right hand is doing!”

No, it doesn’t work that way. Because it’s about what Jesus does and who Jesus is – the son of God who makes the Kingdom of Heaven a reality. He fulfills the law, and in so doing, makes it possible for us to live in God’s remarkable kingdom, a kingdom we make apparent in this world when we “hear and do,” when we love our enemies and accept that Christ will change our hearts and make us the kind of people who don’t walk away from our sisters and brothers in anger, who settle with our accusers and who don’t lust after others, seeing them only as objects for our pleasure or use. It’s a Kingdom where we are forgiven when we fall short of these things. And we become the kind of people who realize we are forgiven, who forgive each other, and who live with each other — and with the world — in peace.

This is not a matter of will, of trying to become better individual human beings. None of us can do this, and we certainly cannot do it by ourselves. We can only become a forgiven and forgiving people as a community, as the church, as a people called by Jesus to be his followers. An important thing to note in today’s Gospel passage is that Jesus doesn’t merely say “build his house on rock” as if all we are doing is scraping away the dirt to find the bedrock so we can pound steel piles and pour concrete. Jesus speaks about building on “the rock.” He uses a similar phrase one other place in Matthew, in the 16th chapter, when he asks his disciples who people say he is. When Peter proclaims that Jesus is the Christ, the Messiah, the “Son of God,” Jesus tells Peter that he is blessed because the spirit has revealed this to him, and adds that upon “this rock I will build my church and the gates of hell shall not prevail against it.” The rock, πετρα in Greek, sounds a lot like Peter’s name (indeed, it’s where Peter’s name comes from), but the rock, I think, is also this very encounter, this open declaration that Jesus is the Christ, the Son of God. Upon that realization, that declaration, Christ has built his church — us. It is we who are built upon this rock. Jesus builds us on this rock, the rock of his church, the rock of the faith he gives us as his gift, and through his grace gives us the power to be and live the Kingdom of Heaven, to be God’s people. Because of that, flood and earthquake and even hell itself are no match for us.

A few weeks ago, there apparently was an earthquake in the southern part of Illinois that was felt all the way up here in Chicago. I say apparently because while it was big news that day, Jennifer and I slept right through it — it simply wasn’t big enough to wake us up. It came as shock to many, as few associate “Illinois” and earthquakes. But they have happened here and will happen again. As disciples of Jesus, we are ready to face an uncertain world with joy and hope because we are built on the rock, on Jesus Christ our Lord and savior. He is our builder, he is our foundation, and he is the kingdom in which we live and hope.