Monday, June 12, 2023


Matthew 9:9-13

Proper 5 / Year A

Plato was famous for posing questions to his students.  Once he asked them to ponder this: Which is better, to be an unethical person with a good reputation, or an ethical person with a bad reputation?  Perhaps framing the first part of today’s Gospel reading using Plato’s question will help us to understand the radical nature of what Jesus’ encounter with Matthew and his friends might tell us.

For sure, in the Pharisees, you have an unethical group with the good reputation.  They fool themselves and others into believing God is on their side.  Such a mindset always leads to self-righteousness, corrupted theology, and being critical of others.  Abraham Lincoln might have said of them what he said about the role of religion in national life.  “Our task,” he said, “should not be to invoke religion and the name of God by claiming God’s blessing and endorsement for all our national policies and practices, rather we should worry earnestly whether we are on God’s side.” 

The Pharisees, to their detriment, never entertain Lincoln’s concern.  When we are capable of introspection, either as an individual, a community, or a nation, it opens the possibility for penitence, repentance, humility, reflection, accountability, and moral growth.  This process is absolutely essential if you strive to be an ethical person or group with a good reputation. 

Now, in Mathew and his tax-collecting cohorts do we have ethical people with a bad reputation?  It is possible to romanticize this group as being a bunch of good guys who have a bad job to do; to find in them or in their social network some quality meriting Jesus’ endorsement; to find in them some trait or characteristic the Pharisees lack.  But, in truth, no such virtue exists in them.  They are traitors and cowards and greedy little crooks who are thoroughly disliked by all, and for good reason. 

The moral of this story is not about judging a book by its cover.  First and foremost, it teaches us about the nature of God’s love as it is expressly displayed in Jesus.  God extends love to all people regardless of how loveable they may or may not be.  It is not earned.  It is not elicited.  God loves because… God loves.  Plain and simple, God loves because this is who God is.

It offends our sensibilities to think God can and does love the sinner as much as the saint.  It goes against the grain to think God’s love is not in some way activated by our behavior… that the Pharisees don’t lose it through their narrow-minded self-righteousness and the tax collectors don’t warrant it by their willingness to celebrate at a meal with Jesus.  The meal reveals their desire to embrace God’s love in spite of who they are.

We are a society where, if you work hard, you can earn a degree, earn a bonus, and earn the respect of those who know you.  It just seems like there should be something we should do to earn God’s love, but there isn’t.  It is our Heavenly Father’s free gift to us, and to all of creation, emanating from God’s very nature.  The question, plain and simple, is whether or not we will receive the gift of God’s love, allow it to permeate our lives, transform our existence, and then extend it to others.

This question is the heart of true religion and devotion.  But how easy it is to believe one’s sins and shortcomings must be atoned; that somehow we must hide from God (and ourselves) those dark aspects of our life of which we are ashamed, over which we have so little control.  Surely God cannot love us if these things are front and center.  Back in the Old Testament, one could offer a sacrifice and cover sins with innocent blood or could pin them on the scapegoat and drive it out into the wilderness.  Such actions may have made a person feel better… knowing you had done ritually what needed to be done to merit God’s love… but it still created the false impression your actions have the ability to alter the very nature of God’s unconditional love.

Today’s Gospel reading introduces us to two groups of characters.  One group is unethical, but enjoys a good reputation.  The other is unethical and has a bad reputation to match.  God’s love engages both groups in the person of Jesus Christ.  No demands are made on either group; save they receive God’s love for what it is.  One group, the Pharisees, cannot entertain this because they figure they already have earned God’s love and they can’t imagine why God would love anyone who hasn’t earned it.  The other group, overcome by the generous nature of God’s love (which they have done nothing to deserve), embraces it with open arms.

And now, not knowing how hot or cold the current cultural waters may be in our parish family, let me say a word about Pride Month.  Like Black History Month, Native American Month, and Hispanic American Month – called ‘Awareness’ months – what I am aware of this June is how much resistance there is in our country toward a particular group of people.  Not everyone feels this way, certainly not the majority (I hope).  But the opposition to Pride Month by some is deep and zealous.  Our national mythos used to hold we are for the underdog; the person who overcomes all odds, perseveres, and succeeds in the end.  We used to cheer for the ‘little guy.’  The LGTB community certainly fits into this narrative.  But now, for some, there is a decided effort to undermine the cultural status of this group.  This week I read about a person who, upon learning Chick-fil-a had hired a diversity officer, said she was no longer going to be a customer because its not “the Lord’s chicken anymore.” 

I am not going to stand in St. Paul’s pulpit and tell you what your stance on these issues, as a Christian, is supposed to be.  I am going to ask you today – and pretty much every Sunday – to consider the example of Jesus and then ponder whether or not your practices and principles mirror his love for all people.

How do you look at religion?  Is God’s love something you earn or embrace?  Is it freely offered to you or given only when deserved?  How you answer these questions is terribly important… as is how they play out in your daily life.  If they weren’t, today’s encounter between Jesus and Matthew (and others like it) would not be included Bible and we would be left to work our way into God’s favor.