Here is a little glimpse into the history of St. Matthew, the saint whose feast we keep today. In the liturgical calendar, the Feast of St. Matthew is celebrated every September 21st, to honor St. Matthew and his dual roles as an Evangelist and an Apostle. The title of evangelist comes from his assumed authorship of the Gospel of Matthew, the first book in the New Testament, although scholars have cast significant doubt that he was the actual writer himself. He is also among the lists of apostles found in each one of the four books of the Gospel. The story we heard today about his calling by Jesus to be an apostle is a story that is mirrored in Luke and Mark, although he is only called by the name Matthew in today’s reading from the Gospel of the same name. His vocation was as a tax collector, one of those jobs that is certainly not popular today, but was seen as downright scandalous in the days of Roman occupation, particularly if the tax collector happened to be Jewish. It was a position that Jews viewed as disloyal at best, and significantly corrupt and immoral at its worst. So it might not be clear why we have a feast day to honor one of the most famous tax collectors and not-necessarily-authors-of-a-gospel of all time! Now, I have never been a tax collector…I wouldn’t know how to even begin doing the math necessary for a job like that. But I did spend the majority of my vocational career as a school principal. When I would answer the “what do you do for a living” question with “I’m a school principal,” it would inevitably prompt a story in return. That story might be a negative one, about their experience with their principal if they were a student who was often in trouble; or they might have shared an story full of emotions about their own child’s experience with a principal at their school. More often than not, the story was not about how much everyone loves school principals, especially if they have ever answered the phone and heard the principal’s voice on the other end of the call! While nowhere near the vilification of the role of a tax collector, and to be fair, most of my interactions with parents, children, and teachers were overwhelmingly loving and positive, I do have some sympathy for Matthew and his role in society. But this reading is not really about Matthew and what he says. In fact, you may have noticed that Matthew never even speaks at all in today’s pericope. He simply gets up, and follows Jesus when Jesus says the words, “Follow me.” And the sinners in this story….I wonder who the sinners really are? The Pharisees are sure they know….those tax collectors and other ruffians are sinners for sure. But Jesus’ message of mercy, and calling of those who are sinners, rather than those who are righteous, paint another picture entirely. It is said that Matthew followed Jesus, leaving behind his vocation as a tax collector but bringing with him a pen, bringing with him the very best of himself and turning his back on the parts that are not needed in a relationship with Christ. Each of us has gifts and talents that were instilled in us and that we have either nurtured ourselves or been led to explore and practice. Now, what can we do with those gifts to serve God in God’s kingdom? Rather than spending time looking around in judgment as the Pharisees did, we are called to follow Christ. There is no room for parsing out who we deem deserves to be called and who does not. There is no need for classifying others as outsider Christians, or looking toward some who are following Jesus with disdain as if they don’t deserve such to have such an honor. Instead, there is space at the dinner table with Jesus for each and every one of us. We only need to step out in faith as Matthew did and join in the feast. I leave you with the words from the Motto of The Daughters of the King, a religious order of women who devote themselves to prayer, service, and evangelism. In hearing it today, may it honor the life of St. Matthew and all of us who yearn to follow Jesus: For His Sake… I am but one, but I am one. I cannot do everything, but I can do something. What I can do, I ought to do. What I ought to do, by the grace of God I will do. Lord, what will you have me do?
New Revised Standard Version (NRSV)
The Parable of the Pharisee and the Tax Collector
9 He also told this parable to some who trusted in themselves that they were righteous and regarded others with contempt: 10 “Two men went up to the temple to pray, one a Pharisee and the other a tax collector. 11 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. 12 I fast twice a week; I give a tenth of all my income.’ 13 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!’ 14 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.”
“At least I’m not like THOSE people.” I’ve said it. I’ve thought it. I’ve meant it.
I can be pretty proud of myself at times. I believe it when I read a news article about my most recent professional accomplishment. When people tell me I’m a great principal, I love that feeling. After meeting our family and chatting with our almost graduated from high school daughter, and compliments about her are given to us as parents, we can get pretty puffed up with pride. When I do something kind for someone else and hear how I have helped them, I can feel pretty darn good about myself. Let’s just go with this…I don’t suffer from a self-image problem or deal with debilitating insecurities.
But today’s lesson from Luke is all about the humility with which we are to approach our life in Christ. The Pharisee does one heck of a job of pumping up and list his accomplishments to an all-knowing and all-seeing God. It’s like he is looking for God to thank him with a big “Atta Boy!” for living a righteous life. And in comparison, the tax-collector, that lowest of the lows in society at the time comes before God with a humble heart and asks for mercy without even raising his eyes toward heaven. Jesus then shares that little nugget at the end about the humbled being exalted, essentially admonishing the bragger and do-gooder for forgetting that God’s gifts come without any strings attached.
To be exalted is to be elevated in status and that is exactly what Jesus tells us to will happen when we live our life in deference to the gifts of grace and mercy. The Pharisee approaches God as if to collect what he deserves…but let’s face the truth here. We can never do enough good and follow enough rules to ever deserve God’s mercy. That’s the coolest and most humbling part of all – all we have to do is ask. And it is done. That’s it.
But make sure you want the elevated status in God’s eyes, rather than search for it in the eyes of others. With a somewhat high profile job in my community which provides a service, people tend to tell me things about myself that I could easily believe if I allowed what others’ think about me to influence my status. I could believe that I have almost magical leadership powers if their interpretations of my leadership are correct. I could also believe the opposite on my worst day as a principal if I let the feelings of others determine my worth. So I try to find a balance – I am my worst critic for sure – but in God’s eyes, I am his creation and therefore must turn to him to be given the gift of grace and mercy.
Today’s parable is a cautionary tale to be wary of puffing up oneself to others and especially to God. He knows all that we are and all that we are not without our need to list off the accomplishments and/or failures. No matter how we are feeling about our worth to ourselves or our family/friends/community, approach God with an open heart to the gift of justification through our humility. And we will be exalted through him.
Lord, we are not worthy to accept your gift of your one and only Son. Yet we know that you intended that gift just for us. Help us to stay humble in our good works and remind ourselves we are deserving of your grace and mercy. For our exaltation is for you and for your alone. AMEN.
New Revised Standard Version (NRSV)
The Parable of the Widow and the Unjust Judge
18 Then Jesustold them a parable about their need to pray always and not to lose heart. 2 He said, “In a certain city there was a judge who neither feared God nor had respect for people. 3 In that city there was a widow who kept coming to him and saying, ‘Grant me justice against my opponent.’ 4 For a while he refused; but later he said to himself, ‘Though I have no fear of God and no respect for anyone, 5 yet because this widow keeps bothering me, I will grant her justice, so that she may not wear me out by continually coming.’”6 And the Lord said, “Listen to what the unjust judge says. 7 And will not God grant justice to his chosen ones who cry to him day and night? Will he delay long in helping them? 8 I tell you, he will quickly grant justice to them. And yet, when the Son of Man comes, will he find faith on earth?”
Big themes in our Gospel for this week! Here are the ones I teased out during my reflection:
- Jesus needs us to pray.
- Persistence works.
- Justice from humans = flawed/imperfect. Justice from God? Perfect.
- Keep working on faith.
The use of parables in Luke’s Gospel is a successful way to get me to think. I love to tell stories myself as well as hear others’ stories too – and parables make it easier for me to relate to God’s teachings. And this parable starts off strongly with, “Then Jesus told them a parable about their need to pray always and not lose heart.” It’s not written in the form of a question either – not we “should” pray, or “ought to” pray…but rather that we NEED to pray. And then the implication of patience is stated when Jesus tells them not to “lose heart.” That reminds me of the story of how long and how hard St. Augustine’s mother prayed for him to find a relationship with God. I bet she was frustrated with the seemingly lack of answer to that prayer, but she kept praying without ceasing. A great life lesson as she must have wrestled with faithfulness as she begged God to be able to reach in her son’s heart and see him turn to the Lord.
Persistence is easy to have when we want it. I have been known to shop for hours looking for the perfect shoes. THAT is persistence! When I want someone to change their minds about something, I can be pretty persistent in making the case for change. Toddlers have persistence down pat at quite an early age, don’t they? So why do we give up so easily when it comes to prayer and building our relationship with Christ? Why do we walk away from the chance to have the intimacy of a relationship with God through our conversation and quiet listening time? Why don’t we make the time for this important part of our walk with Christ?
The judge in this story is a self-proclaimed jerk and non-believer who basically rules in favor of the widow to get her off his back. Whether that justice was deserved or not seemed to be a non-issue in the story (although widows in this day had very little influence at all). We do that too – make decisions like this judge to mollify others whether they are right decisions or not. Maybe if the judge had been faithful to God the story could have been a different one because he would have relied upon discernment that comes from faith in God to help him with this and his many other cases. But he held out as long as he could while she kept coming back for her justice. Our God is much more generous and merciful than that. He sent his Son to die for our sins; that is the kind of justice we can never deserve. And though it may feel as if the world is unfair and God isn’t listening to us, when we think about his gracious gifts to us it explains how we can find the strength in our times of greatest challenge. In fact, without his grace, we wouldn’t be nearly as successful as we are now! And PS…his timing is perfect and way better than what we think it should be in the long run, right?
But the last line of this week’s passage is the real question, “…when the Son of Man comes, will he find faith on earth?” Gosh, I sure hope so. And that starts with me. Will he find faith in me if he comes tomorrow? Will he see evidence of our love in the world we live in, building communities of faithfulness that are pleasing to him? Are we doing enough to spread God’s love in all we do and say? Are we leaving the judging up to him and him alone? Is our praying persistent enough to keep our hearts and minds on his true love?
Lord, you are the great Judge. You are merciful and full of grace and compassion. Look generously on us as we strive for faith and justice and give us a heart that yearns for you. For you are the one who knows what we need before we know for ourselves and your timing and answers to prayers is perfect. Help us to be relentless in turning back to you each and every day. Your saving grace is ours. AMEN.
New Revised Standard Version (NRSV)
Jesus Raises the Widow’s Son at Nain
11 Soon afterwards he went to a town called Nain, and his disciples and a large crowd went with him. 12 As he approached the gate of the town, a man who had died was being carried out. He was his mother’s only son, and she was a widow; and with her was a large crowd from the town. 13 When the Lord saw her, he had compassion for her and said to her, “Do not weep.” 14 Then he came forward and touched the bier, and the bearers stood still. And he said, “Young man, I say to you, rise!” 15 The dead man sat up and began to speak, and Jesus gave him to his mother. 16 Fear seized all of them; and they glorified God, saying, “A great prophet has risen among us!” and “God has looked favorably on his people!” 17 This word about him spread throughout Judea and all the surrounding country.
Talk about being at the right place at the right time! Jesus has just left Capernaum where he healed the Centurion’s servant (https://paigehanks.wordpress.com/2013/06/02/not-worthy-just-faithful/) and he walks in the gates of the town of Nain. He runs smack dab into a funeral procession, led by a grieving mother who has lost her husband and now her only son. I can only imagine her grief spilling out of her as she begins to accept this unwanted reality. I love verse 13 in particular; “When the Lord saw her, he had compassion for her and said to her, ‘Do not weep.'” I love it because it is just so simple. God then brings her son back from the dead with a simple touch.
In the presence of God, why should we weep? I cannot begin to imagine this mother’s sadness and loss. As a mother, I feel like my heart is constantly walking around outside my body every day, even more so as our daughter is approaching the time to set off on her grown up life of college and long distance from my “controlling” ways as a mom. I know several friends who have lost a child and the pain is simply inexplicable and can cover up every other emotion; paralyzing grief I am sure.
But God’s promise for the world is that there is life eternal. I simply don’t understand what that means in any tangible sense and I spend very little time and energy trying to figure it out. I just know that it brings great comfort in times of challenge and overwhelming sadness. But come on; who wouldn’t want to have our loved one come back from the dead? That is one of the great pitfalls in this story of a great miracle.
God has a plan and we are given the greatest gift of love possible – to live life eternal with our Father in heaven. Grief is for the living and as humans, is part of our human condition. I lost my Mom last year after a swift and ferocious diagnosis of multiple primary cancers. Mom was young, professional and worldly and it didn’t make sense for this to happen to a person at the top of her game of life. We all reacted differently to the shock and pain, but for me, it gave me a challenge that was like a river of faith. I don’t know why and it certainly didn’t match other family members’ responses to the situation. And boy do I wish she was still here to talk to and guide me as a mom and our daughter as her beloved Kiki.
She wasn’t raised from the dead to come back to be with us, nor did I expect that to happen. I even got my feathers ruffled a few times when folks said to me, trying to be helpful I am sure, that they were praying for a miracle and that she could beat this disease. We knew better…the situation was grave right from the start. So instead of spending time hoping for Jesus to walk right up to us and heal her, I thought a better way to approach this was to embrace life eternal and that precious gift of perfect healing. loving mom and providing peace and compassion as she lived through dying.
We can’t pray hard enough, do enough good in the world or do just the right thing to invoke the miracles. They come when God’s plan matches our desires. And although I would give just about anything for a few minutes with my healthy Mom, I was so very grateful that her incredibly debilitating pain ended much more quickly than anyone thought or believed. Her healing didn’t bring her back to the human life but brought her into the presence of our Savior.
So we wept for our loss of her presence, just as the mother who met Jesus was doing. This is normal for folks who love and all of us experience loss of this sort. Jesus feels sorry for us too, but now that he gave his life for us, he can call upon us to look forward in anticipation to the great gift of our resurrection. Maybe that is the miracle that is enough…we know what this grieving Mother did not know, that we have life eternal as our promise of perfect healing now. I want to ready at the right place and the right time for that.
Saving Father, we are so very grateful for the gift of your Son, sent to save us from our sins and give us the promise of life eternal. Comfort us as we grieve and teach us to trust your saving love for us. Help us walk in faith and to accept your gift of mercy. We thank you for loving us and protecting us. In your Holy Name we pray. AMEN.
New Revised Standard Version (NRSV)
A Sinful Woman Forgiven
36 One of the Pharisees asked Jesus to eat with him, and he went into the Pharisee’s house and took his place at the table. 37 And a woman in the city, who was a sinner, having learned that he was eating in the Pharisee’s house, brought an alabaster jar of ointment. 38 She stood behind him at his feet, weeping, and began to bathe his feet with her tears and to dry them with her hair. Then she continued kissing his feet and anointing them with the ointment. 39 Now when the Pharisee who had invited him saw it, he said to himself, “If this man were a prophet, he would have known who and what kind of woman this is who is touching him—that she is a sinner.” 40 Jesus spoke up and said to him, “Simon, I have something to say to you.” “Teacher,” he replied, “speak.” 41 “A certain creditor had two debtors; one owed five hundred denarii, and the other fifty. 42 When they could not pay, he canceled the debts for both of them. Now which of them will love him more?” 43 Simon answered, “I suppose the one for whom he canceled the greater debt.” And Jesus said to him, “You have judged rightly.” 44 Then turning toward the woman, he said to Simon, “Do you see this woman? I entered your house; you gave me no water for my feet, but she has bathed my feet with her tears and dried them with her hair. 45 You gave me no kiss, but from the time I came in she has not stopped kissing my feet. 46 You did not anoint my head with oil, but she has anointed my feet with ointment. 47 Therefore, I tell you, her sins, which were many, have been forgiven; hence she has shown great love. But the one to whom little is forgiven, loves little.” 48 Then he said to her, “Your sins are forgiven.” 49 But those who were at the table with him began to say among themselves, “Who is this who even forgives sins?” 50 And he said to the woman, “Your faith has saved you; go in peace.”
Some Women Accompany Jesus
8 Soon afterwards he went on through cities and villages, proclaiming and bringing the good news of the kingdom of God. The twelve were with him, 2 as well as some women who had been cured of evil spirits and infirmities: Mary, called Magdalene, from whom seven demons had gone out, 3 and Joanna, the wife of Herod’s steward Chuza, and Susanna, and many others, who provided for them out of their resources.
I was at the hair salon yesterday. This was one of those LONG appointments where I had several steps of service followed by periods of waiting for the next step. This always means that my hairdresser is serving several clients at once, sometimes with interesting conversations! Yesterday, there was a gal there who is on the same “schedule” as I am and our paths have crossed before. She was reading the newest edition of “People” magazine as she waited for her turn and the cover story was about some of the survivors of the Boston Marathon bombing. I only briefly glanced at the cover as she waved it to show our hairdresser – it showed a picture of three beautiful women who had all lost limbs in that terrible tragedy. This other client was incensed and she began a rant about immigration, terrorists and punishment, while sadly noting the ruin of these three ladies’ lives.
When I read today’s Gospel reading in preparation for this blog, I immediately felt the peace that comes from forgiveness. Hear me….I am not a believer in forgetting the crimes that have happened to absolutely innocent victims in our country and around the world. But I am working very hard on forgiveness as a personal choice. As I listened to the conversation in the hair salon yesterday, my internal dialogue (because I learned a long time ago that the hair salon is a dangerous place to engage with strangers who differ from you in beliefs) went in a completely different direction. This client stated that we should strap a bomb to the surviving accused man and set it off, letting him suffer without any medical treatment. That should be his “punishment,” she said.
I couldn’t believe the venom and the malice, but I understand feeling helpless in the face of tragedy. It doesn’t always bring out the best in us, as I saw yesterday and we see every day in our interactions with others. Luke’s Gospel story for today addresses forgiveness in two different ways. One of the ways Jesus shows and teaches about forgiveness is to give grace and mercy to the woman who serves him with the ointment on his feet and using her hair, weeping at the presence of Jesus. Undeserving the Pharisees – yes. The good news is we don’t have to do anything to DESERVE forgiveness. We just get this free gift because of our relationship with Christ.
The second way Jesus teaches about forgiveness is in his conversation with Simon. His message is about forgiving all sins, no matter the debt – no matter the seriousness. This really speaks to me and has, ever since I heard a sermon while visiting a church on our last vacation. Forgiveness isn’t incremental to the sin – it just is forgiveness. I have no idea if the “Boston Bomber” as he is called has sought forgiveness or has any understanding of Christ’s love for each of us. But what I know that I have to do a better job with is forgiving others…no matter what. Not conditional in any way and man, that is HARD to do. I need to do it even when it is not asked of me. I need to do it even when I am hurt, sad or mad. This is not a pansy way of just letting folks walk all over me, but really about bravely approaching my call to follow the Great Commission:
18 And Jesus came and said to them, “All authority in heaven and on earth has been given to me. 19 Go therefore and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, 20 and teaching them to obey everything that I have commanded you. And remember, I am with you always, to the end of the age.”
We are called to go out in the world and teach others to do what God has commanded. If forgiveness is what is expected of us as we are forgiven (John 13:34 – “A new command I give you: Love one another. As I have loved you, so you must love one another.”) by God, then love needs to be the lens we use to examine our world and all that we do and is done to us. Wishing pain and misery on our enemies just feels bad, and bad thoughts beget bad thoughts and even bad actions.
One of my favorite quotes of all time is “Be the change you want to see in the world,” by Ghandi. I can’t sit in my comfy house and wish that everyone was kinder and nice to one another, more forgiving and merciful and more full of love for all mankind. I have to go out and fulfill the Great Commission myself, hopefully living out the change I want to see in the world. God forgives us our most grievous sins and our smallest missteps. We should be striving to do the same – even when it’s hard.
Forgiving Father, we come to you not worthy of your grace and mercy. We humbly ask your forgiveness for all our wrongdoing and ask you to send your Holy Spirit to guide us in our work in the world. Send us out to do the work you have given us to do and help us to love one another as you have loved us, unconditionally. We ask all things through our mighty Savior, Jesus Christ. AMEN.
New Revised Standard Version (NRSV)
The Resurrection of Jesus
24 But on the first day of the week, at early dawn, they came to the tomb, taking the spices that they had prepared. 2 They found the stone rolled away from the tomb, 3 but when they went in, they did not find the body.[a] 4 While they were perplexed about this, suddenly two men in dazzling clothes stood beside them. 5 The women[b] were terrified and bowed their faces to the ground, but the men[c] said to them, “Why do you look for the living among the dead? He is not here, but has risen.[d] 6 Remember how he told you, while he was still in Galilee, 7 that the Son of Man must be handed over to sinners, and be crucified, and on the third day rise again.” 8 Then they remembered his words, 9 and returning from the tomb, they told all this to the eleven and to all the rest. 10 Now it was Mary Magdalene, Joanna, Mary the mother of James, and the other women with them who told this to the apostles. 11 But these words seemed to them an idle tale, and they did not believe them. 12 But Peter got up and ran to the tomb; stooping and looking in, he saw the linen cloths by themselves; then he went home, amazed at what had happened.
You know those days – we all have them. We have the best of intentions and set out to do our part to make the world a better place through our small niche of interactions, actions and reactions. Then it all goes horribly wrong. We make mistake after mistake and even begin to marvel at how absolutely screwed up things have gotten over a relatively short period of time. Those days it may seem even hard to put words together to fully state the crazy events of the day, because it is just THAT BAD. Then we go to bed, glad to have the day behind us, only to awaken with a fresh start and a renewed spirit (hopefully we were able to put the bad day behind us!).
Let’s face it – Thursday and Friday before Easter were some really bad days for Jesus’ friend and follower, Peter. Up until that point, things had really been rocking along with the disciples. They were witness to powerful miracles and developing an intensely personal relationship with Jesus. He was dropping hints about leaving them but I’m sure those subtle statements just rolled away like water off a duck’s back. There was simply no way for mere humans to understand the power of Jesus’ words about leaving – things were just too great to stop it all now. Peter was one of those closest to Jesus, so it must have been quite a surprise to hear – right from Jesus’ mouth – that Peter would deny knowing him not once, but three times. But deny him is exactly what we read that Peter did following Jesus’ arrest. Did he set out to do that – of course not. In fact, I am sure he couldn’t believe he had done it either when he heard that rooster crow the last time. But none of us knows what we will do in a scary conflict until we are there. Peter must have felt incredibly disappointed in himself. Then the events of the crucifixion unfolded and Peter had to have known he played a key role in the process. My bad days haven’t ever really been THAT bad, but Peter’s feelings of devastation must have been so very overwhelming as he watched his friend die that Friday afternoon.
But the opportunity for redemption came much sooner than any of them expected! Peter was the first to hop up and take off running for the tomb when he heard the news that his friend was risen again, just as he said he would. Peter felt “amazed at what had happened.” The word amazed is probably the best English word choice based on translation, but seems to be very much an understatement. When Jesus rose from the dead after the dark and confusing weekend following his death, thinking of it today as amazing seems also to fall short of how mysterious this would have been for Jesus’ friends and followers, especially for Peter.
In our Christian faith, Easter is the big one! It’s the day in the church that represents our foundational belief that Jesus Christ came to save us from ourselves. I’ve made some sacrifices in my life for those I love, but none can even scratch the surface of the sacrifice that God made to share this gift of his son with us, even when we obviously weren’t deserving of it. Jesus Christ is risen today, as we celebrate every Easter morning, with the promise of new life in him. I’m sure his friends were all grateful once they realized who he was (another blog post about how confusing that must have been to not even recognize him when they saw him!), but I’m sure that Peter’s feelings were just indescribable.
Our lives intersect with Peter’s in so many ways. We have denied our Lord many more than three times. We have turned away as things are going badly and we make sure to protect ourselves when confronted with challenges to our beliefs. But Peter and all the rest of us children of God get both grace and mercy on this beautiful Easter morning. Peter spent the rest of his life doing what God called him to do, spreading the word of God to all who would listen and dedicating his work to fulfilling the promise of the Holy Spirit. It seems to me to be the very least we can do as we are renewed and redeemed through the death and resurrection of Christ.
Gracious God, lover of all souls, bring us closer to you through the gift of your Son to the world. We are redeemed through the resurrection and we know what you ask of us as we walk with you in our daily lives. We commit to you that we will love one another and spread the Good News. Jesus Christ is Risen Today – Alleluia! Thanks be to God. AMEN.