Jesus Heals Sinners
St. Matthew, Apostle & Evangelist
Today the Church remembers and thanks God for St. Matthew, the Apostle and Evangelist. In our Gospel reading, he calls himself “Matthew,” but in Mark and Luke, he’s called “Levi.” Other than that other name, the story before us today, and the Gospel that bears his name, not much is known of Matthew for sure.
We do know for certain that Matthew was a tax collector. (Hiss! Boo!) Now we know what it’s like to deal with the taxman on April 15, but that’s nothing compared to Matthew. You see, Matthew did not work for the government of his own people. No, he worked for the much-hated Roman government, the empire that occupied Palestine in the first century. So he and other tax collectors were viewed as treasonous traitors to their country. On top of that, they were also considered apostates, or standing outside of, their people’s religion in the synagogue and the temple. And on top of all that, the tax collectors would routinely overcharge the folks, in order that they could line their own pockets. Hey, what’s a few extra shekels? Give the Roman authorities their due to keep them off your back, but then have a little extra left over to get rich quick. So, what we see in our Gospel reading is pretty remarkable just because of who Matthew was before he encountered the Savior.
Then Jesus, the Word of God made flesh and dwelling among us, came to Matthew and said two simple words: “Follow Me.” Matthew, the hardened, corrupted, thieving tax collector simply “rose and followed Him.” What a miracle! Matthew was one of the sin-hardened Israelites. Why would he want to hear God’s Word in the flesh? After all, it would mean a complete change in his life. He would have to give up his dishonest gain from over charging people on their tax returns. He would have to sacrifice his posh lifestyle. But he would receive something much better in place of it all. He would receive full life with God and complete healing from sin and death.
Matthew was changed by the forgiving mercy of Jesus, and he threw a great banquet for the Lord of Life, the Word of God in the flesh. And Matthew wanted his business associates and his acquaintances to take part in this new life too. So Jesus came to eat and drink with tax collectors and sinners. What a great display of God’s eternal mercy, forgiveness, and life!
But the sin-hardened Israelites did not like what they saw: Jesus dining with sinners. “Why does He do it?” they asked the disciples. Jesus answered: “Those who are well have no need of a physician, but those who are sick.” You see, dear saints, Matthew shows us how to realize and admit our sickness of being hardened in sin. Matthew shows us how Jesus comes to heal us.
I’m sure that each of us can identify with Matthew. He had his lying, cheating, and stealing ways. We have our lies. We cheat or steal in different ways. Perhaps we cannot tell our spouse what’s really upsetting us. Perhaps we lied to the boss about that little conflict the other day. Perhaps we did not want to be completely honest with our mom or dad, or with our children. Perhaps we cut corners on our tax returns, this last year or for several years. Perhaps we cheated on that test at school, or copied someone else’s work on that term paper. Perhaps we stole the company’s time by not working to our fullest potential. We’re a lot like Matthew.
But remember this: “Those who are well have no need of a physician, but those who are sick.” You don’t go to the doctor if you are healthy; you go when you are not well. And so we have come to Jesus’ hospital for sinners here today. Since He desires mercy and not sacrifice, He gives us a wonderful prescription of healing forgiveness. Yes, it’s expensive, and no health plan can cover the cost. It cost Jesus His very life as He spilled His holy, precious, life-giving blood from the cross. But that, dear friends, is our greatest medicine! That’s what we receive today in our ears and our mouths. Jesus, our Divine Physician, desires to give us His mercy, the mercy He showed by sacrificing Himself for us and for the whole world.
Notice how He did that with Matthew. First, Jesus called him to follow after Him. Then, Matthew threw a banquet for this Jesus who showed him mercy. Then—scandal of scandals!—this Jesus starts hanging out with and dining with other tax collectors and sinners. (Gasp!) But isn’t that the way of a physician? He kind of has to hang around those who are sick with all the nasty little viruses and bacteria. A physician kind of has to deal with all of the messy, putrid little details of sick people.
Well, that’s exactly what Jesus came to do for Matthew and for us. When He was conceived by the Holy Spirit and born of the Virgin Mary, He truly came to hang around with and deal with us who are infected by sin and death. And just why would He lower Himself to hang out with us sin-sick people? In order to set us free from our sickness of sin and death. Jesus’ life, death, and resurrection set us free from our sickness that leads to lying, cheating and stealing.
We certainly see how Jesus’ healing changed Matthew. He went on to write the first Gospel account. He probably wrote it in Palestine for his fellow Israelites. That certainly comes out in his Gospel account as he shows that Jesus came to fulfill the various Old Testament prophecies of the Messiah. According to Church tradition, Matthew also proclaimed the healing of Jesus, the Gospel, in various countries in the Middle East. It’s generally believed that Matthew was martyred, that is, executed for confessing Christ and His forgiveness and life. No one is quite sure how it happened, whether he was burned, or stoned to death, or beheaded, but it does seem that Matthew was martyred for confessing and proclaiming the Lord of life and His healing of forgiveness. What enabled Matthew to do this? The full and perfect healing that he received from Jesus, the Son of God. Yes, Matthew shows us “the unity of the faith and of the knowledge of the Son of God.” Matthew shows us how Jesus’ healing in forgiveness leads us in the Church to “a mature manhood, to the measure of the stature of the fullness of Christ.”
When Jesus heals us, as He did Matthew, we too can endure whatever afflictions come our way, confident that God will always love us and always see to our needs. We no longer need to live like a tax collector, scraping and scratching, thieving and cheating to make ends meet or to make our lives meaningful. No, we can live in complete confidence that we are well, that we live with God. We can enjoy the feast that our Lord puts on for us here today, a feast with all of us sinners gathered together for healing. As one preacher said: “Jesus’ sitting at table has more significance for Matthew than just dining. Jesus will be feasting not on food but on the return of sinners. He will call them back through feasting, collegiality and human affection, enjoying himself with their pleasant conversation while reclining at table.” (Peter Chysologus, ACCS, NT, I:178) Amen.