< June 08, 2008 >

Commentary on Matthew 9:9-13, 18-26


The Lectionary combines the First Gospel's account of Matthew's call with the twin restorations of the woman with the flow of blood and the ruler's daughter. Sandwiched between the Lectionary excerpts Jesus insists that old garments and old wineskins cannot withstand new cloth and new wineskins.

Both passages provide grist for reflection upon the nature of ministry--that of Jesus as well as that of the church. Jesus calls Matthew to follow him, yet Jesus follows Matthew and the sinners to the table. Meanwhile, the desperate ruler and the suffering woman prevail upon Jesus to win his touch. Jesus reaches out to the toll collector, but he finds himself apprehended by those seeking his healing touch.

So it may be with the church's ministry: sometimes we go forth and identify ourselves with those on the margins; in other cases the needs of others draw the church beyond its comfortable boundaries. Like the Jesus of the First Gospel, the church needs to cultivate the art of following.

The First Gospel relates the call of Matthew, not Levi as in Mark 2:14. (Mark 3:18 does include Matthew among the twelve.) We do not know why. The Gospel describes Matthew as seated at his toll collection station.

Jesus calls Matthew to follow him. As it turns out, he accepts hospitality in Matthew's house. There he shares a table with his typical crowd, toll collectors and sinners. Several rabbinic sources indicate toll collectors' wicked reputation, but the story shares all we really need to know. The Pharisees perceive "toll collectors and sinners" as natural companions (9:11), and Jesus himself compares them not to those who are well but to those who are sick (9:12).

Jesus is notorious for his companionship with toll collectors and sinners in the First Gospel, a tradition that likely goes back to Jesus himself. His opponents scorn the company Jesus keeps (11:19), yet Jesus makes much of these toll collectors. When Jesus tells his disciples to love their enemies, he notes that "even the toll collectors" love those who love them (5:46). Later, Jesus admonishes the church to relate to unrepentant sinners as if they were Gentiles or--gasp!--even toll collectors (18:17). Confronted by hostile temple authorities, Jesus puts them in their place: even toll collectors and prostitutes enter the realm of heaven before these enemies who speak the will of God but do not live it out (21:31-32).

Jesus says the healthy do not need a physician while the sick do, that he has come to call not the righteous but sinners (9:13). Yet Jesus' companionship with sinners appears to be just that, companionship and not treatment. Jesus has many harsh words to say in the First Gospel, but he directs none of them at sinners. His inaugural message is a call to repent (4:17), and he denounces the cities he has visited for failing to repent (11:20-21; 12:41). He pronounces woe against the scribes and the Pharisees (chapter 23). But in the First Gospel Jesus not once reproves sinners. He does not criticize them. He does not demand their repentance. He simply eats and drinks with them. (This is true of the entire Gospel tradition, except for the story of the Adulterous Woman, which was inserted into John's Gospel long after its composition.)

Jesus often receives credit for touching a woman with a bloody discharge and for touching a dead girl's body. According to this preaching tradition, Jesus reaches across Israel's purity codes in doing so. More recent scholars recognize that Jesus does not transgress the Law in either instance, but he does touch ritual impurity. The thing is, Jesus initiates neither contact. Once again, he practices the art of following.

The girl's father is the one to suggest that Jesus "lay your hand upon her." Jesus eventually does touch the girl, restoring her to life, but not before the hemorrhaging woman sneaks up and touches Jesus first! She, not he, crosses the boundary between purity and impurity. She, not Jesus, proves that purity is more contagious than impurity. Could it be that the girl's father and the hemorrhaging woman draw Jesus out to this ministry of touching?

Sometimes the church needs to learn the art of following, as Jesus does in Matthew's Gospel. During the Civil Rights Movement some white liberals acted as heroes, risking social standing, employment, even bodily safety for the cause of justice. Their stories have inspired me, a white southerner, for as long as I can remember. Yet most of them did not seek out the cause of racial justice; rather, it found them. A particular incident opened their eyes to the harsh truth, or a specific crisis called them to action. Then, sometimes slowly, sometimes reluctantly, and usually hesitantly, they moved forth. Confronted with the leadership and the suffering of African Americans, some but not all white liberals joined the cause. As in many of the healing stories of Jesus, they were heroes not because they sought out the opportunity for healing but because they responded to the call set before them.

Many churches suffer from a misguided hero complex. Mainline churches--mine no less than yours--wonder how to draw people in rather than how to engage human beings where they live. Rather than wait for people to come in, perhaps the church should follow our neighbors out into the world, responding to their needs as they emerge. Rather than complain that families attend summer soccer games, we might offer clinics on parenting and sports. Rather than puzzle over why the multi-ethnic community in our neighborhood doesn't visit us, we might explore how to participate in Puerto Rico day.