September 21, 2014 Series: Lectionary
Topic: Biblical Verse: Matthew 9:9–9:13
St. Matthew, Apostle and Evangelist
St. John's Lutheran Church, Alexandria, VA
Matthew 9:9-13; Ezekiel 2:8–3:11
Hardheaded. Inflexible. Obstinate. Stiff-necked. Recalcitrant. There’s another, more common, word used to describe people like this: stubborn. If you know another human being, chances are you’ve had experience with someone being stubborn. They refused to change. They would not do something (or stop doing something), no matter how much you encouraged them. They would cling to their opinion with a tenacity which a dog licking peanut butter out of a Kong toy would admire. When people are stubborn, it’s pretty frustrating: they just won’t come around. It can feel like you’re just wasting your time and energy.
You might have heard of some of this author’s works: Horton Hears a Who!, One Fish Two Fish Red Fish Blue Fish, How the Grinch Stole Christmas!, The Cat in the Hat. How do you say his name? “Dr. Soose?” That’s the Anglicized version of Theodor Geisel’s pen name. The author himself used the standard German pronunciation of “Soice” (or “Zoice”). Even though I know this, I still say it the way that I learned it as a young boy. It’s what seems right to me, though it isn’t what it should be. Know anybody else like that? As it happened, Dr. Seuss eventually switched to using this Anglicized pronunciation, in part because it was how most people said his name. This is what can happen if someone’s stubborn long enough: their position becomes the norm, even despite the reality of a situation.
Society can be stubborn like that. And a lot of the time, that’s not a good thing. In our country in particular, the culture around us keeps on looking to convince people that almost everything’s OK, that pleasure and self-importance are the chief ideals for life. People line up for hours to get (or wake up in the middle of the night to order) the latest consumer technology with no thought to others who don’t even have access to clean water. Practices like heterosexual or homosexual affairs outside – and even within – marriage are condoned and even encouraged if that’s what you want. Society can be so vocal for so long that you might believe that those positions are right and even good. This isn’t a new concept, though. Human society (made of up us humans) has been stubborn this way since our earliest days. It’s a good thing, then, that God is used to working with stubborn people.
Take a look at the prophet Ezekiel’s situation. He was called by God to speak the Lord’s message to his fellow Judeans who had been taken into exile in Babylon. It was a hard word, calling the people to account for their sin and stubbornness in refusing God’s call to repentance. In today’s reading from the Old Testament, we hear that God would prepare the prophet for his ministry to a stubborn and rebellious people. The Lord fed Ezekiel with His word, word which would have seemed bitter in its content of “lamentation, mourning, and woe,” but was instead tasted “as sweet as honey.” Through Ezekiel, God would speak that message to His people Israel and point them ahead to the hope of restoration that awaited them if they turned back to Him in their hearts and in their lives. God would make Ezekiel stronger than the stubbornness that he would encounter. He would make the prophet more determined than the opposition that he would face. God made Ezekiel resolute, fed and filled up by God’s Word.
There’s a reason that the people of Judah had fallen, why God had allowed them to be taken into exile. They had become complacent. They resisted change because they were unwilling to repent and turn back to God. They were comfortable in their stubborn understanding of what was right. They ignored God’s instruction and the good that He had for them. And while different people would be involved, a similar scene played out 600 years later, events that changed the life of a man named Matthew.
In the life of the Church, September 21 marks the day of St. Matthew, apostle and evangelist (writer of one of the four Gospels in the Bible). We don’t know much about Matthew of Capernaum. He’s not mentioned much at all in the New Testament compared to most of the other apostles; however, from the very early years of Christianity, he was attributed as the writer of the Gospel from which we read today. He was a tax gatherer, but might not have been a chief official like Zacchaeus was. As someone who collected the tax up in Galilee for King Herod under Roman authority, Matthew might have been seen as a traitor to the Jewish people. Chances are, he wasn’t someone with whom you’d want to be seen. But then Jesus called him.
Matthew’s life would never be the same after Jesus saw him at the tax booth and said, “Follow me.” Even so, the Pharisees marveled that a teacher like Jesus, who should be concerned with righteousness before God, would share table fellowship with someone like Matthew and the other tax gatherers. Also surprising to the Pharisees was the presence of people like prostitutes and cheats who would have repeatedly and publicly failed to live up to the law. The Pharisees, who were all about setting an example as to what it means to live as a righteous Jew, couldn’t imagine a rabbi would go to spend time with people who were decidedly not righteous.
Like the people of Judah who had been taken into exile with Ezekiel centuries earlier, the Pharisees stubbornly refused to allow that God wanted something other than what they were comfortable providing. In his response to the Pharisees (from Hosea 6:6), Jesus pointed them to a truth about God. He desires that all His people are people of mercy and compassion, just as He is. Their identity as people who walk in a restored relationship with God isn’t just about the vertical – that is, their divine standing and status – it very much also includes the horizontal, their relationship with the people around them. They are meant to live out God’s love, not to make a show of how “good” they think they are.
Jesus’ mission is to sinners, to people separated from God because of their sin and stubbornness, not the righteous who have no need of a Messiah – which is no one! All people have sin in their heart and are in need of God’s grace, no matter how righteously they live, no matter of how good they are in their own sight or in the sight of others. Jesus was resolute in continuing to go to a stubborn people, even giving up his life for them – and for stubborn people like us.
Jesus loves sinners. He comes to them to have fellowship with them and some (but not all) repent and are changed. In his fellowship with people who are broken and in need of a Messiah, Jesus brings what’s needed. He teaches about God’s design for life and what that looks like. And even more importantly, Jesus’ fellowship is a transforming one, changing the people who are spending that time with him. Matthew became one of Jesus’ closest disciples, one of the twelve apostles that the Lord would send out to proclaim the good news of God’s reign that was breaking into our stubborn world.
The aim of Matthew’s Gospel is, in large part, to point to Jesus as the fulfillment of the Old Testament promises for which the Jewish people had so long hoped. Matthew carried this message of the Messiah to his own people, the house of Israel, the descendants of the exiles. Ezekiel proclaimed God’s word of hope and restoration to people who turned from their stubbornness and self-importance: Jesus delivers the full restoration of relationship with God that we all needed.
Like Matthew and Ezekiel, you and I must be resolute in the gospel for the good of our neighbor. Like the evangelist and the prophet, we aren’t meant to be cut off from the people around us, especially if self-righteous Pharisees would look down on them. There are other words for resolute: determined, unwavering, committed. As Christians in this broken world, we are called to be resolute, but it’s not something that we can do on our own. God’s empowering grace is the only way for us to speak the truth in love to stubborn and sometimes outright hostile audiences, whether they hear or refuse to hear.
Jesus invites you to table fellowship to be nurtured, to learn, and to be transformed by him. He feeds his disciples with his Word, not just here in the sanctuary but wherever you engage in reading the Scriptures. He gives us food and drink that are sweet as honey in his body and blood in the Lord’s Supper. He wants to welcome you in fellowship for every day of your life on this earth and beyond. And as he spends time with you, he will make you resolute in sharing his gifts with your neighbor.
God is used to working with stubborn people. Thanks be to God that He is resolute for us!