Proper 5A 2005 Matthew 9:9-13; Hosea 5:15-6:6
“Why does your teacher eat with tax collectors and sinners?” the Pharisees asked Jesus’ disciples.. About
which Jesus said, Go and learn what this means, ‘I desire mercy, not sacrifice.’ For I have come to call not
the righteous but sinners.”
As June 15 approaches many of us might be tempted to fall into the pharisaic trap. It’s that time in the quarter when
we have to render unto Caesar’s tax collectors our quarterly tax payments. When I was in the Army I didn’t have
to worry about quarterly payments. The Finance Corps automatically deducted monthly taxes from my pay, as they do from my
pension. But with my salary here, largely because of the special tax laws concerning clergy, it seemed simpler to pay the
quarterly. I have to admit that I find myself falling into the pharisaic trap, especially since I was audited formally once,
of thinking of them as the “godless commissars of the IRS.”
Labeling. It’s usually a mistake to label people and institutions, to lump them together in categories like tax collectors
and sinners, just because we don’t like how different they are from us. How often have fallen into the trap of labeling
the guys who hang around the Corner Market day in and day out as “those people”, with all the overtones, nuances,
and connotations that class, economic, educational, and racial differences can pack into two simple words.
I was stunned when I saw the headlines as the identity of “Deep Throat” dominated the news this week. (1) I
had been convinced over the years that someone else had been Deep Throat. I don’t think I ever considered Mark Felt
as a possibility. I don’t think I ever knew who he was or what he did. Now I know more than I want to know.
Immediately after that revelation, former colleagues of W. Mark Felt changed their opinions of him as reflected in the labels
they applied to him. Some people, who for the past thirty years thought of him as an ally, now thought him a “traitor.”
Others, who approved his criminal conviction because of his role in illegal FBI surveillance activities, now offered fulsome
praise of him as an admirable public servant. And I’m not sure how I feel about it, myself.
Such a use of labels is the first level dynamic apparent in this Sunday’s reading from Matthew.
“Tax collectors and sinners” was a label used by those who wanted to disqualify some people from eating at the
same table with Jesus. Similarly, “Pharisee” is a coded label used by the gospel writes -- and others -- as a
broad category for the enemies of Jesus.
That Mathew was a tax collector and that collecting taxes for the Roman authorities was a disreputable occupation to most
Jewish minds – these two things are not in question. Instead, the question is whether being and doing such things automatically
excluded people from close association with Jesus and his disciples.
There is no question that some members of the Pharisee party of Judaism opposed Jesus and, after Easter, the church at every
opportunity, but that was not true of all Pharisees. Nevertheless, in this Gospel passage the term is used with clear implications
that these Pharisees are interfering with Jesus.
Using labels to create in-groups and out-groups within a single community has continued in the church, and the global society,
throughout history. Some of us remember painfully a time in adolescence when we were not allowed to be part of the really
cool “in group.”
Labels separate people according to their races, ethnicities, ages, opinions, preferences, genders, manners of dress, or any
other difference. Even here on the Northern Neck labels and categories can divide: born here, come here, come back here,
and the like.
Such labels may be valid descriptors and applied accurately; nevertheless, they divide members of the congregation from one
another and from the people they might serve as the Body of Christ in the world.
In such cases, differences become more important than unity; exclusion more important than inclusion; uniformity more important
than diversity; and agreement more important than community.
Jesus’ response to his critics is in our Old Testament lesson: Hosea 6:6. The Hebrew “hesed” is usually
translated “steadfast love”. But it encompasses a readiness to forgive and begin again after tensions or estrangements.
It reaches over barriers and labels and categories of class, economics, education, and race. As attributes of God heseth
means the divine kindness, lovingkindness, mercy, absolute goodness, faithfulness, unconditional love, and acts of kindness
The full verse in Hosea couples “the knowledge of God” with steadfast love, indicating a complete, faithful, and
close relationship, not unlike that of marriage or of parent and children. In Hosea, the point is that any act of worship,
any relationships, without “steadfast love” and “the knowledge of God” is empty and meaningless.
(1) The Old Testament and the New are clear that we who call ourselves Christians are to imitate God in all these things.
Let me close with a story about what such an imitation and such heseth love could look like.
It’s about the most Special Olympic Race:
John Beck used to be a football star for the University of Kentucky. Later on he became a preacher and was named as Chaplain
of the U.S. Olympic Teams. For a number of years he traveled with our Olympic Teams all over the world, leading in their devotions,
counseling & praying with many of the athletes.
As he watched these young men and women train for the events in which they competed, he decided that this was a picture of
what Christianity really ought to be. Here were people who were sincere and fervent and dedicated to the task before them.
They were willing to pay any price, regardless of how much suffering or pain they had to endure. They were willing to pay
any price to be number one, to win.
Then one day John Beck was invited to visit the Special Olympics. Special Olympics, as you know, are made up of special athletes.
All of them suffer from some kind of mental or physical impairment. He watched them as eight runners lined up for the 100-yard
dash. They all took off when the starting gun fired, and he was amazed at how good they actually were. But as they reached
halfway in the race, one of the boys fell down, skinned his knee on the track, and started to cry.
He said that what happened next was both beautiful and amazing. All seven of the other runners stopped, and all seven of them
turned around and went to the boy who had fallen. Together they helped him to his feet. And the eight walked to the finish
line together. Beck said that he then realized that he had seen the true meaning of Christianity, not in the Olympics, but
in the Special Olympics. (2)
Heseth: love in action. “Why does your teacher eat with tax collectors and sinners?” the Pharisees asked Jesus’
disciples.. About which Jesus said, Go and learn what this means, ‘I desire mercy -- heseth, not sacrifice.’
For I have come to call not the righteous but sinners.”
1. Ted Johnson, “Labels”, BodyBuilding newsletter for 5 June 2005, www.congregationsolutions.com.
2. eSermons illustrations for 5 June 2005, christianglobe.com.