Tax Collectors and Prostitutes

On Friday afternoon I took Isaac and Malachi down to Nobby’s Beach to remember the storms which hit Newcastle this time last year. The ABC were broadcasting from down there, and Phil Ashley-Brown had put together the most amazing programmes of story-telling about what happened to people in our area last year.

I had been listening to people re-telling their stories all day as I was driving around so I wanted the boys to be a part of it, and to see it all taking place.  The storms are particularly important to Malachi, because he has put together some memories, and some dreaming, and come up with the conclusion that he was the one who pulled the Pasha Bulker off Nobby’s Beach and back into deeper water.  Stories are so powerful, our stories as we tell them and as we listen to ourselves telling them, are powerful for us, and for those who hear them.

In our Gospel reading this morning Jesus is searching out those men and women who will journey with him as he brings his message of love and hope from God to the world.  But there is a surprise for the religious people of the day, because the people Jesus is choosing, and spending time with, are not the ones that they would expect to be the first to be invited into this or any new religious movement.

Jesus sees Matthew, a tax collector, (that is an employee of the occupying Roman forces, who according to everyone else is an undesirable man for Jews to be around), and despite this Jesus sees in Matthew the potential for so much more, and he says to him,  “follow me.”  Matthew says something like, “okay, I’m coming!” and he gets up leaves his job and his whole way of life and he follows Jesus.

I find the writers of Matthew’s Gospel wonderfully understated about the whole account, don’t you?

This is a massive moment in Matthew’s life, he is giving up everything for a man who he hardly knows, but who has spoken the words of love and acceptance right into to the heart of this tax collector, who is neither loved nor accepted by the people around him.  It’s a wonderful moment of grace, and Matthew responds to the hope which he sees in Jesus, and he gives up everything to follow him.  That is the pattern which we find throughout the Gospels.  Jesus searches out those who are the least, and the lost and the left out in. the society in which he finds himself, and he says to them that God has more in store for them than they could ever have imagined.  It does not matter what religious people think of them, it does not matter what the rest of society thinks of them: to God they are people who are a priority.

You know whichever culture you are in anywhere in the world, the tax man is never top of your list of friends!  So it makes sense that in the time of Jesus, when tax collectors were really hated because they were collecting taxes not even for their own government but for an occupying force, (it makes sense) that they stuck together. As Matthew eats a meal with Jesus, (the one who has spoken new life into his heart), tax collectors and other undesirable people come and join them.  They are there because they see what Matthew has done, and they’re amazed, and they want to know more about it. Matthew’s story challenges them to find out what is going on.  They want to know why he is giving up everything to follow a man he hardly knows — they have seen a change in their colleague, and they want to know what’s behind it.  Probably more than anything else, they want to meet this Jesus who believes, according to what their friends has told them, that even tax collectors are special people in God’s economy.  They want to know if it is really true that God might accept them as well; because what they do know is that the religious people have told them often enough in the past that they are not welcome, and that God isn’t interested in them.

And so they come, because of what has happened to their friend, to meet Jesus, the one at the centre of it all.  “Why is he spending time with tax collectors and sinners?” the religious leaders ask.  Jesus’ reply to them when he hears what they are saying, is that it is those people (who are the least and the lost and the left out in society), and not those who are accepted at the centre of it, who are most in need of Jesus’ time.  Which is shocking for the religious people of the day, because their model of God’s calling is the model which we heard in our first reading. They believe in a God who calls important people like Abraham, who was to be the father of nations. In their understanding God does not call tax collectors and sinners.  But despite their pre-conceived ideas, Jesus calls Matthew, and Matthew shares the story of what has happened to him with others, and then Jesus finds himself surrounded, at dinner, by a whole group of them, enjoying ban- g with him and each other over dinner.

It is an amazing Gospel isn’t it? But it is a terrifying Gospel too. Because many of us really want to celebrate that Jesus does that, but we don’t actually want him to do it here in our Church.  So for all those of you who are terrified like me, when we find ourselves face to face with the Jesus who really does want to draw everyone, absolutely everyone to himself, I want to tell you another story.

It is a true story about an encounter in the life of a man named Tony Campolo. Tony is a minister in Philadelphia in America. Tony Camplo is a well known preacher in international circles, and his mission agency in Philadelphia is known throughout that State for its work in caring for those people who are not cared for by the rest of society, it is an organisation like our own Samaritans Foundation.

Tony was speaking at an international Christian conference in Honolulu. On his first night in a hotel there, he woke sometime in the middle of the night, unable to sleep because of jet-lag, and got up and left the hotel in search of a coffee bar.

Eventually he found somewhere to get a cup of coffee and a doughnut and sat alone in the bar with the manager. (Only Americans would eat doughnuts in the middle of the night!)  But he wasn’t alone for long, quite suddenly the coffee bar was filled with girls. Some sat at small tables and others were at the bar near him.  From their conversation it became quickly apparent what kind of girls these were. And Tony recounts that he found out a great deal about Honolulu’s night life whilst the girls were discussing their night’s work and their male clients.

The girl who was now sitting next to Tony told her neighbour on the stool next but one that tomorrow was her birthday.  Her neighbour replied, “So what Mary? What do you want us to do about it?”  Then, as suddenly as the girls had entered the coffee bar they all left, leaving Tony alone once more with the manager.

Now here’s the point in the story at which most of us would have thought nothing more about it, and gone on our way (myself included). But Tony didn’t.  He began a conversation with the manager about this girl Mary, he discovered that she was a regular, and that all the girls came in about the same time every night.

So Tony made a proposition to the manager, “Tomorrow’s her birthday,” he said, “would it be alright if I bought her a cake and some streamers and came here early to put them up for her tomorrow night?”  The manager consulted his wife in the kitchen. The idea seemed to appeal, and the woman offered to make the cake herself.

The next day Tony did his speaking at the Christian conference and then went shopping for all that was needed for a birthday party. He set his alarm for the appropriate time, got up, dressed and went to the coffee bar.

When he arrived he found that word had already got around about what was going on. Some of the girls had come back from the street corners early and were putting up streamers.  When everything was ready Tony waited at the door for Mary, offering her his arm when she arrived, so that he could conduct her to the table.

They sang “Happy Birthday,” got Mary to blow out the candles, and then applauded when she did.

Then they gave her a knife to cut the cake, but Mary hesitated.  “Tye never had a birthday cake before,” she said. “Would you mind if I didn’t cut it, I want to take it home with me?”  So they watched her, as she picked up her cake, said her thank yous and then left the coffee bar.

Tony said (almost instinctively, without thinking about it), “let’s pray for Mary,” and he then led the group of girls in a prayer for her. The girls said a hearty  “Amen” and then left — back into the night.

After they had gone, the manager of the coffee bar said to Tony, “I didn’t know you were a priest.”

“Well, you never asked,” he replied.  Then the manager asked him, “what Church do you represent?”

There was a long silence, and then Tony replied, “I belong to the church that fixes birthday parties for prostitutes.”  The manager pondered these words, “if there were a church like that around here,” he said, “I would be the first to join it.”

I think that you’ve got the idea.  When I told that story in another Parish a few years ago in the Diocese of Perth, some of the members of that Church got really excited and wanted to put a banner up above the entrance which said “prostitutes welcome here!” and I had to explain to them that that might bring a very different response from the one that they hoped for.

Yet in a sense, that was what Jesus did in our Gospel reading this morning. Despite the widely held views at the time, (of who were the right people for religious people to hang around with and who were not), Jesus had other priorities.  He called Matthew, and through Matthew (a despised tax collector) he met Matthew’s friends (who were tax collectors too). And they brought people from all of the other groups that no one wanted to be seen with. And they found — to their great amazement, and the great amazement of the religious leaders as well – that Jesus wanted to be seen with them.

The same love which has been showered upon us by God in Jesus, needs to be shared by us as his body on earth with those who are loved by no one else.  So here is a question for us this week as we respond to this Gospel: who are the least, and the lost and the left out in our society, and what can we do to connect with them to share with them the love, and the hope which we have in Jesus?