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Edward F. Markquart

Series A
Matthew, The Tax Collector

Pentecost 3A    Matthew 9:9-13

In today’s world in America, what do you think is the most despicable occupation? According to a recent Harris poll, accountants were at the very bottom of the list with only 14% of Americans thinking that accountants had an honorable occupation. Others at the bottom of the list were bankers, business people, lawyers and journalists and union leaders.

At the top of the list of most admirable occupations? Doctors, scientists, teachers and ministers were at the top. These were all occupations that serve the welfare of humanity.

But at the bottom of that were those people who worked with money: bankers, businessmen and accounts. Yes, money related jobs were at the bottom of the list.

I wonder where tax collectors would have been on that list if their occupation had been rated. I would guess at the lowest rung of the polls. Tax collectors? That word still rings of prejudice in many people’s minds. 

 The IRS? Do you have feelings about the initials IRS? Internal Revenue Service? Do you ever hear anyone say that they work for the IRS and collect taxes? If so, it is like they work for an enemy bureaucracy, that unfathomable agency called the IRS. Have you ever had ever to sit across the desk from an IRS agent who collects taxes for the federal government? If you have, are there any feelings in your heart towards IRS agents and tax collectors?

I telephone Sue Stockman who works for the IRS and used to be a collections agent. She said that “prejudice against IRS agents is alive and well in our society. When people first find out that I work for the IRS, it is a great conversation stopper. These people hear horror stories about the IRS and afraid that all IRS agents are out to get them.” Yes, prejudice and fear of IRS agents is alive and well in our society.

Today is a tax collector story. It is the story of Jesus’ call of his first disciples and one of Jesus’ first twelve disciples was a tax collector by the name of Matthew. The first thing we know about Matthew is that he was a tax collector.

 The following is a famous painting of the call of Matthew, the tax collector. The setting is sixteenth century Germany but a viewer can get the feeling of Jesus calling young Matthew while Matthew was doing commerce at the village tax office.

 Melchior Broederlam. Annunciation and Visitation.

A second thing we know about Matthew he was a tax collector at the small town of Capernaum which was located on the banks of the Sea of Galilee.  We can easily find Capernaum on the map.

We see two powerpoints, first of the land of Israel, then the Sea of Galilee, and at the actual village of Capernaum which was the hometown of Jesus in his adulthood and the central location of so much of Jesus’ adult ministry.

Chorazin and Bethsaida








Shore of the northern end of the Sea of Galilee. Photo copyrighted, BiblePlaces.

A third thing we know about Matthew is that many scholars think that Matthew, the tax collector, was the final editor of the Gospel of Matthew. Many scholars also think that he may have been a composer of the final version of our Gospel of Matthew.

When you see paintings of St. Matthew by artists from the past, he often is carrying a large book with him, symbolic that Matthew may have been the final editor of the Gospel of Matthew. An early Church Father by the name of Irenaeus (200 CE) concluded that Matthew, the tax collector, was the “author” of the “Hebrew book,” the Jewish Gospel of Mathew.

The painting below is by Rembrandt. Notice the book, symbolic of Matthew being the final collector (author) of the Gospel of Matthew. Notice the young angel looking over Matthew’s back. The young angel was the source of inspiration to Matthew, inspiring him to write the Gospel of Matthew.  See the young angel whispering into Matthew’s ear the message that he is to write. Matthew is rubbing his chin, contemplating what the angel is saying to him.


The painting below is by Caravaggio. Notice the book, symbolic of Matthew’s authorship. Notice the angel giving the Lord’s divine message to Matthew. Notice the fingers of the angel. The angel’s fingers are on Matthew’s right hand, guiding Matthew as he writes.

A fourth thing that we know about Matthew was that tax collectors were thought of as scum in their society. Jesus knew that tax collectors had the worst possible reputation of all people in Jewish society. The tax collectors were scum if anyone was scum. The tax collectors were the dregs of society. Why? For three reasons. First, they collected taxes. Second, they collected taxes for the Roman government. Third, they made big money off of collecting taxes. Common folks often resent people with big bucks and those tax collectors made big money.  If anyone was considered a thief and a betrayer in Jewish society, it was the tax collectors. The tax collectors were the richest people in town. They had the finest donkeys, the finest houses, the finest clothes. And they worked for the hated Roman government. You add all this up and you realize that the tax collectors were THE despised people of that first century Jewish society.

Jesus invited one of these shysters, a tax collector, of all people, to be his disciple. This was  not “politically correct.” This was a “no-no,” especially to the religiously impeccable Pharisees.

The gospels also lump tax collectors along with other social rejects like robbers and prostitutes. The word, tax collector, was synonymous with a thief. With a robber. With a crook. Tax collectors were to be treated as pagans. “That is, don’t have anything to do with them. Stay clear of them. Don’t hang out with them. Don’t count them as your friends. Stay away from tax collectors. Tax collectors are as crooked as the letter Z.”

One Biblical commentator says that “tax collectors were universally hated and notoriously dishonest.” The tax collectors were disbarred from attending the synagogue and they were considered unclean by the Jewish law.

The fifth thing that we know about Matthew was that he was part of the inner core of Jesus’ twelve disciples. Jesus called one of the tax collectors to be part of his inner core of disciples, part of the inner twelve disciples. Talk about sending a signal. Talking about sending a message.  Jesus asked the worst scum of society (in the Pharisees eyes) to be one of the inner twelve, one of the selected few, one of the inner core of disciples. Jesus was sending a message to these Pharisees. Jesus was sending a big and clear message to these Pharisees: my disciples are from a class of people that you would call the worst of sinners.

And Jesus is sending us the same message today. Today, Jesus does not get hung up on religious niceties and call people who think they are religiously clean and more impeccable than other folks. Today Jesus still calls people who know they are sinners bigtime to be his disciples, to be part of the inner core, to be his loyal followers.

The sixth thing we know about Matthew is that he owned a home. It must have been a large home to accommodate such a party as described in the gospel lesson for today. At that party, he had several of his friends who were tax collectors over for dinner, plus other people who were thought of as sinful or despicable people, plus some Pharisees. Matthew’s home must have been large enough to accommodate a good size party.

With that introduction, let us momentarily focus on the gospel story for today. Let me tell you the story about Matthew, this tax collector, and what happened at his home one particular day.

One day, immediately after Jesus had called Matthew the tax collector to be one of his inner twelve disciples, Matthew invited his new master to his house for a dinner. Matthew had also invited all of his friends. Matthew’s friends were what the Pharisees would have regarded as “big time sinners.”

Who was there for dinner that day at Matthew’s home? Notice the words, “many tax collectors.” Not simply one but many tax collectors. Tax collectors were thought of as scum, as bad as robbers, adulterers, prostitutes and other pagans. And here were a whole bunch of them. Many tax collectors. It was as if Matthew had been an evangelist and asked many of his “own kind” to come and have dinner with this Jesus. And they were all eating together at Matthew’s home.

Also, notice the word “sinners.” There were people whom the Pharisees would consider other “big sinners.” The poor, the crippled, the lame, the blind, the lepers. The riff raff. The scum of Jewish society. Jesus was eating with these people, having a meal with them, chatting, laughing, drinking wine, telling stories with these “scuzz balls.”

The Pharisees were watching the action around the table. The Pharisees didn’t approach Jesus directly. In my mind, the Pharisees weren’t part of the action at the table; they were standing off to the side, leaning against a wall, standing apart from the other obvious sinners, not wanting to touch or smell them. The Pharisees approached Jesus’ disciples and asked them, “Why does Jesus eat a meal with such contemptible folks as these?” Overhearing the Pharisees and knowing their hearts, Jesus replied, “Those who are well have no need of a physician, but those who are sick; I have come to call not the righteous but sinners." You Pharisees need to go and learn the meaning of this teaching from the Book of Hosea, “The Lord God desires mercy and not sacrifice.” I have not come to call the righteous but sinners to my banquet.”

Ouch. Talk about calling a spade a spade.

 From the “get go,” from the very beginning of his ministry, from the first minute, from the very first scenes in Galilee, Jesus said that his disciples would be sinners and not self-righteous folk like the Pharisees. Yes, his closest disciples would be sinners, sinner big time, and not self-righteous folk.

This was Jesus’ first run in with the Pharisees. And it was only the beginning. This was Jesus’ first battle with the Pharisees. His first confrontation with them. His first war of words with them. And it occurred at Matthew’s house in Capernaum.

The story of the conflict with the Pharisees continues. That is, two stories later, Jesus healed a man with a withered hand on the Sabbath. The text says, “Then Jesus said to the Pharisees, "Is it lawful to do good or to do harm on the Sabbath, to save life or to kill?" But Pharisees were silent.  He looked around at them with anger; (Yes, with anger. Yes, Jesus had anger.) He was grieved at their hardness of heart (Yes, Jesus was grieved at their hardness of heart) and said to the sick man, "Stretch out your hand." He stretched it out, and his hand was restored. The Pharisees went out and immediately conspired with the Herodians against him, how to destroy him. … They (the Pharisees) were filled with fury and discussed with one another what they might do to Jesus.” (Mark 3) The Pharisees were furious at Jesus and made up their mind right away that they wanted to have this Jesus of Nazareth killed.

The dye was set.  The mold was cast. The plot was beginning and would end only when these same Pharisees plotted, planted and killed him on the cross on Good Friday three years later.

Throughout his whole life, Jesus was crystal clear about the Pharisees: The Pharisees were hypocrites, phonies, pretending to be religious but they were not. The Pharisees felt superior to others around them who did not attend synagogue, felt superior to those who did not tithe and felt superior to those who did not pray in public. The Pharisees wanted praise and attention more than any thing else. They would pray in the synagogues so people could see them praying. They would give money to the beggars so other people could see them giving. They covered their clothing with ashes so people could see them being pious. It was all for show. They wanted praise, respect, honor. They wanted to be treated as “top dog.”

 You then get to the end of the Jesus story. You get to Matthew 23 where Jesus was in Jerusalem for his last chapter of life here on earth. You listen to Jesus’ sharpest, most cutting, most lethal teachings about anyone in the New Testament. Listen to Jesus’ woes against the Pharisees. Talk about “in your face.” Talk about “eyeball to eyeball.” Talk about nose to nose.

 "Woe to you, scribes and Pharisees, you hypocrites! for you tithe mint and dill and cummin, and have neglected the weightier matters of the law, justice and mercy and faith; these you ought to have done, without neglecting the others. Mt 23:23

 "Woe to you, scribes and Pharisees, you hypocrites! for you cleanse the outside of the cup and of the plate, but inside they are full of extortion and rapacity.

Mt 23:25

"Woe to you, scribes and Pharisees, you hypocrites! for you are like whitewashed tombs, which outwardly appear beautiful, but within they are full of dead men's bones and all uncleanness. Mt 23:27

Wow. Talk about strong medicine. Talk about strong language. Talk about laying down the gauntlet. Talking about calling a spade a spade. Nose to nose. Face to face. Eyeball to eyeball.

And what was the reaction of the Pharisees? The same reaction they had at the beginning of Jesus’ ministry. The Pharisees plotted and planned to kill him. And they did.

What does this story for today about “Jesus at Matthew the tax collector’s house” mean for our lives today? That is the big question. What does this story mean for you and me?

First, Jesus wants us to have hearts like Mathew the tax collector who was keenly aware of his own imperfections and sins. Jesus wants us to have hearts that know of our infinite and ever present sinfulness deep in our own soul, a sinfulness that contributes to all conflicts in our lives. Rather than looking at other people as the source of the conflict and problem, Jesus wants us to have hearts that deeply and wisely know of our own personal imperfections…and contribution to the problem at hand.

Jesus wants us to remember at all times that we are sinners, the worst of sinners, so society thought of Matthew. Matthew knew that he was the worst of sinners. So did the young Timothy who said that he was the worst of sinners. (I Timothy 1:16)

Jesus wants us to know that the core of inner disciples was composed of sinful, imperfect, flawed people, like Matthew. Tax collectors were considered the worst of the lot in Jewish society, and Jesus was attracted to such people.

Most of us do not think of ourselves as robbers, prostitutes, murderers and terrorists, but Jesus wants us to be aware of our flawed and sinful personalities.  We are like Matthew. We are ordinary people who have a deep reservoir of sin within us. We are sinful folk and we need the doctor to heal and forgive us. In the story for today, we Christians are invited to “own up” to our moral and spiritual sickness. In the story for today, we Christians are invited to “own up” to our part of the conflicts that are going on in our lives. We are invited to be honest with ourselves and our own sinfulness that lies deep within our souls.

Only people who were big sinners and knew they were in need of God’s mercy and forgiveness would be his disciples. Matthew’s eyes were open to his own sinfulness; the Pharisees’ eyes were blind to their own imperfections, sins, flaws, and character defects. In his deepest heart, as Matthew examined his own life, he knew he was a big time sinner; the Pharisees did not. When trouble happened in Matthew’s house, Matthew looked first into his own soul and actions to identify the problem. When trouble happened at the Pharisees house, the Pharisees looked at the other people in the house as the source of the problem.

We may recall another parable of Jesus about the Pharisees. “Jesus told this parable to some who trusted in themselves that they were righteous and regarded others with contempt: "Two men went up to the temple to pray, one a Pharisee and the other a tax collector. The Pharisee, standing by himself, was praying thus, "God, I thank you that I am not like other people: thieves, rogues, adulterers, or even like this tax collector.  I fast twice a week; I give a tenth of all my income.'  But the tax collector, standing far off, would not even look up to heaven, but was beating his breast and saying, "God, be merciful to me, a sinner!'  I tell you, this man went down to his home justified rather than the other; for all who exalt themselves will be humbled, but all who humble themselves will be exalted."

Jesus wants us to be humble and call out to God, “Lord please have mercy on me, a sinner!” Please Jesus, you know how selfish I am at the core. How self centered I am. How self serving I am. Please Jesus. Forgive me. Change me. And forgive me again.”

That is the way Matthew was. That is the way Jesus wants us to be in our inner hearts.  Jesus said that those who know they are sick want a physician. Matthew knew that he was morally and spiritually sick; the Pharisees didn’t.

I want to be clear with you: God knows your heart. God knows the sinfulness of your heart and mine. The Lord God knows that we need a savior to forgive our sinful hearts and sinful actions. We are not to pretend otherwise.

Secondly, from this story about Jesus at the home of Matthew the tax collector, Jesus does not want us to be like the Pharisees, to have hearts that are hard towards God, to have hearts that are hard towards other people whom the world considers “obvious sinners,” “outsiders,” “back sliders.” Jesus was angry at the Pharisees because their hearts were hard. Their hearts were not soft. Their hearts were not full of the compassion of God. Jesus’ heart was full of compassion for the lepers, the poor, the maimed, the blind, the lame and other despicable people in Jesus’ society. The hearts of the Pharisees were not. This was the problem. This is the problem if our hearts are hard and not compassionate to the “so-called” sinners of society.

The Pharisees thought that they were better than the other more obviously sinful folk like the lepers, the poor, maimed, blind and lame. The Pharisees were proud of their uprightness and moral rectitude and did not perceive that they were lost. The Pharisees were like the older brother in the parable of the Prodigal Son who stayed home with the father and did not realize that he was lost.

None of us are attracted to people who are conceited and full of themselves like the Pharisees were.  In your imagination, would you think of a person or persons who are religiously conceited and think that they are religiously better than other folks? None of us are attracted to them.

The Pharisees had hard-hearts to other people in need. In the stories in the gospels, they never lifted a finger to help sick and diseased people around them. Their hearts were calloused to human suffering.

Instead  of mercy, the Pharisees were good at going to church, giving their tithe, spouting their Bible verses, quoting religious platitudes, looking pious, giving the distinct impression that they were religious folk.

In both Old Testament prophets, such as Hoses and Amos, many folks were guilty of ritualism. That is, these religious folks loved their religious rituals more than having hearts filled with compassion and mercy for the needy around them.

It is an age old trick: go to church and do religious things as a substitute for mercy. That is what the Pharisees of old did. That is what the Pharisees today still do. They go to church and do religious things as a substitute for being merciful and kind, the way Jesus was.

A fundamental problem for the Old Testament prophets was that people “did religion” as a substitute for doing justice and righteousness for the needy. The same problem exists today when people “do the church thing” as a substitute for doing mercy in our world around us.  

We end where we began: with Matthew. The call of Matthew. We can see that scene so clearly in our eyes. Not simply Matthew but a whole bunch of tax collectors over at Matthew’s house, along with other sinners. What a mess of humanity: lepers, lame, blind, all social outcasts. Jesus had just called Matthew to be one of his core disciples and the Pharisees knew it. We can visualize the Pharisees standing stiffly off to the side of the room, not wanting to get too close to those other despicable people. But Jesus knew their hearts. Jesus always does know our hearts. Jesus said to them, “Only those who know they are sick go to a doctor.” The Pharisees didn’t get it and so Jesus said, “You Pharisees need to learn to practice mercy, like God is merciful and full of steadfast compassion. You Pharisees go to the synagogue as a substitute for knowing the compassionate mercy of God.”

And thus the conflict began between Jesus and the Pharisees.


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