Proper 5 Sermon Year A

Sunday, June 5, 2005

The Rev. Peter Faass, Rector

St. John the Baptist, Sanbornville

Hosea 5:15-6:6; Psalm 50; Rom. 4:13-18; Matthew 9:9-13

  In the name of God. Amen.

     What offends you about God? More specifically: what offends you about what God in Jesus Christ requires of you to do as his disciple?

     "This is a startling question!" you may be thinking, "Well nothing offends me about God! Of course not. I love God. Why in heavens name is he asking that kind of question? "

     But it is a question worthy of our consideration, because Jesus was seen as being a very offensive person. Jesus' teachings and his behavior - of his walking the talk of his life - frequently stood in direct opposition to what the proper religious practices of his day dictated. And that gave great offense, especially to those in authority, and the religious establishment. It would not be incorrect to say that the offense Jesus' behavior gave to those in authority, eventually lead to his trial, and subsequent crucifixion.

     I think that many of us are also offended by some of what Jesus' said, and the requirements for right behavior that Jesus has of us - but instead of open rebellion against him, we just quietly ignore them. Or we convince ourselves that we'll be O.K. in our relationship with Jesus, if we just follow some of what he demands of us - those things we feel like doing or can live with, ignoring the rest. We might call this the Chinese menu option of living our faith- making choices from various columns to create a meal. I enjoy the moo-shoo pork, but not the General Tsao's chicken. I enjoy giving food to the poor, but that loving my neighbor stuff, I don't find to my liking. The problem with this approach is that we are called to eat the entire meal at God's banquet of life, if we are to have the life God desires for us.

     Today's Gospel story from Matthew is a classic moment of Jesus giving great offense to the authorities. We hear of the calling of the tax collector Matthew with the simple command by Jesus to "follow me." And Matthew does exactly that: he rises and leaves everything behind - including presumably the monies he's collected that day, and he follows Jesus. Next thing we know Jesus is at the dinner table. Being one of the subjects of the story, and possibly the writer, Matthew just assumes that we understand that the dinner is being held at his house. Mark and Luke confirm this fact. In fact Luke tells us that it's not just a simple Sunday supper, but "a great banquet." This makes sense because as a tax collector Matthew could have afforded to throw a nice party, and would have been eager to do so for Jesus, the guest of honor, the man who has just saved his life.

     It is in the next phrase of scripture where we learn what brings the great offense. We read that at this elegant soiree Matthew is throwing, that, "many tax collectors and sinners came and sat down with Jesus." Jesus actually sits at the same table with these sinner folks and eats with them. Imagine that! And the Pharisees are absolutely appalled when they observe this. "When the Pharisees saw this they said to [Jesus'] disciples, ‘Why does your teacher eat with tax collectors and sinners?' We cannot over emphasis their sense of indignation, and the offense that they feel, by seeing a holy man dining with what they consider to be the dregs of society. Imagine the most egregious offense that you could suffer from someone in your life, and you'll get some sense of the Pharisees reaction to Jesus' dining with sinners. These guys were truly offended. Respectable rabbis did not go about associating with low-life tax-collectors, or the other sinners at this banquet. Period. In so doing Jesus violated a hand-full of religious laws by ministering to untouchables and undesirables. And that's was pretty offensive behavior to many of the religious folks in Jesus' day. As an aside: things haven't changed much since then. Many religious folks in our day, also get offended when those they consider to be untouchables and undesirables get invited to dine at God's banquet table.

     So what is this great offense the Pharisees feel, all about? Well, remember in Roman controlled Palestine, tax collectors were considered traitorous, as the taxes they collected supported the Roman occupation. It was also considered blasphemous to collect taxes because a portion of the money was used to build pagan temples.

     (Now please, don't be going down to Town Hall and telling Kathy Kinvale and Mim Drugg that I told you that tax collecting was a traitorous and blasphemous endeavor. They are both very fine folks. Plus we are talking about first century Palestine here, not 21st century Wakefield. And I'm not trying to instigate some tax rebellion!)

     Tax collectors also had a free hand in levying an arbitrary additional sum of money on top of what was due Rome, which they did freely - so they were generally well-to-do folks. They were also despised and considered sinners. And we can understand the term sinners used in the scripture to include prostitutes and gentiles, as well as assorted and sundry other folks looked down upon by the religious establishment.

     And this was hardly the first time Jesus gave offense. We learn in Mark that from the very beginning of Jesus' ministry he offended others.

     One Sabbath Jesus enters a synagogue and encounters a man with a crippled hand. And the Pharisees watch him closely to see if he will violate the Sabbath by healing the man. Jesus asks them, "Is it lawful to do good or do harm on the Sabbath, to save life or to kill?" Jesus then heals the man because showing compassion for the needy far outweighs proper Sabbath observance. Yet this breaking of the Sabbath law gives such offense to the religious authorities that they immediately go out and conspire on how to destroy Jesus.

     A few days later Jesus is teaching in the synagogue in his home town of Nazareth, and those in attendance were in awe of his wisdom and rhetorical skills. But some of the townsfolk also wondered where this local boy could get such wisdom and oratorical skills. Isn't he just Mary's son, a plain old carpenter? they ask. And the scripture tells us, " they took offense at him." (Mk 6: 3) No favorite son status here, only jealousy and malice that a local kid made something of himself, and was preaching God's word in a new and amazing way.

     Yes, Jesus was an offensive person. Thanks be to God!

     So back to my original question: what offends you about what God in Jesus asks of you to do? Associate with and care for people you don't like, or who are different from you? Offer unlimited forgiveness to those who have harmed you? Hear the word of God spoken in a new way? Pray for your enemies? Give out of your own abundance of time, talent and money for the needs of others? To not store up treasure for yourself on earth? To not judge others? To feel blessed when you are reviled by people because you believe in Jesus? To not resist someone who does evil to you or strikes you?

     Which one of these directions of Jesus to us, gives you the greatest offense?

      I've been pondering my own answer, and I think that of all of them, it's the one requiring me to offer unlimited forgiveness to those who have harmed me. The others are by no means easy, but I struggle with abundant, unlimited forgiveness the most. Sometimes it just sticks in my craw to have to do so. It requires a lot of processing and prayer for me to get there - and it's usually a difficult endeavor, as I struggle with the offended voice in me that resists doing so.

     But I do pray, because I realize that when I am offended by something that God requires of me, that my soul is ill, and I am in need of a physician. Jesus told the offended Pharisees when his disciples came to report their reaction to his dining with sinners that, " those who are well have no need for a physician, but those who are sick." I think Jesus' response was lost on the Pharisees - it went over their heads. They never got the message that their own offense at Jesus' words and behavior, was symptomatic of their own sin sick souls.

      If you are feeling offended by something God requires of you, it's time to see a physician. Your being offended is a symptom - like running a high temperature or have a persistent hacking cough - indicating that your soul is sick. You need the healing of the only physician that can make you well, and that is Jesus. And the prescription for health and wholeness is the same for you as it was for the tax collector Matthew: follow me! Follow me and you will be made well. And remember Jesus said, "Blessed is he who takes no offense at me." (Mt. 11:6)