21 September 2014
10.30 Priory Sung Eucharist
St Matthew, Apostle
Revd Simon Cowling
2 Corinthians 4. 1-6; Matthew 9. 9-13
‘The Tax’, or if you know your Yiddish ‘Di Takse’. As a title for a play it doesn’t really set the blood racing. But for the Jewish communities, the shtetls, of late nineteenth century Russia the title of Sholem Abramovitsh’s satirical drama would have had a particular resonance. These communities were a long way from Fiddler on the Roof. Unrelenting squalor and grinding poverty were the daily realities; and to their inhabitants tax meant principally two things: corruption and exploitation. ‘Di Takse’ dramatises the exploitation of poorer Jews through a particular tax, the korobka, which was imposed by the Tsarist authorities. The korobka system required every Jew to pay tax on kosher meat and on candles – two items no religiously observant Jew could avoid buying. Each shtetl was individually assessed and had to stump up the required amount. But the really pernicious aspect of this system, and this is the focus for Abramovitsh’s play, was that the authorities declined themselves to have anything to do with Jews. Instead, they leased the right to collect the korobka, the tax, to local Jews. Under the terms of the lease, they had to pay the total amount of the assessed tax up front, but were then allowed to keep whatever surplus they were able to make for themselves. As well as being convenient for the authorities, it was a classic divide and rule tactic. A small number of Jews grew very wealthy, and thus incurred massive resentment from the bulk of their co-religionists, resentment which might otherwise have been directed at the Tsarist authorities, who were ultimately responsible for the tax. They, of course, were glad to be relieved of at least some of the threat of unrest.
Tsarist Russia is a long way from first century Capernaum, where Jesus encounters Matthew in today’s Gospel reading. But the Roman imperial authorities collected its taxes just as did the Russian imperial authorities: through local agents who were awarded contracts and allowed to keep any excess collected. So Matthew in his tax booth, at his seat of custom, would have been on the receiving end of his fellow Jews’ resentment in exactly the same way as his Jewish counterpart in any nineteenth century shtetl. As agents of the occupying power, the Jewish tax collectors of first century Palestine were considered ritually impure, they were viewed as nothing so much as walking contaminants, confined to the fringes of the community. Imagine an existence living in the shadow of the oral Jewish Law that stated: when tax collectors enter into a house, the house is considered unclean. This is why the only other people at table when Jesus eats with Matthew are his fellow tax collectors and sinners – natural bedfellows as far as religiously observant Jews were concerned. Matthew’s occupation excluded him from the company of those who considered themselves righteous, because his very presence in their homes, or theirs in his, would have rendered them in need of ritual cleansing.
None of this is of concern to Jesus. ‘Follow me’ he says to Matthew; though, as it turns out, it seems that Jesus actually follows Matthew – straight to his house to enjoy table-fellowship with him and with a gathering of Capernaum’s other sinners. This not surprisingly scandalizes the Pharisees. We notice the manipulative way in which they express their outrage: not directly to Jesus but to his disciples, perhaps hoping to detach them from him as a way of vindicating their position. Therapists describe such manipulation as ‘triangling’; but Jesus refuses to be manipulated, to be ‘triangled’, and addresses their concerns head on – no doubt irritating them even more by quoting God’s word to them as pronounced by the prophet Hosea: I desire mercy, not sacrifice.
By quoting Hosea in this way Jesus does two things. Firstly, he places himself firmly in his own Jewish tradition, the same tradition, of course, as those who are so bitterly opposed to his actions in eating with Matthew and other sinners. But more especially Jesus aligns himself with a particular aspect of the Jewish tradition, one which his opponents have clearly lost sight of but which is fundamental to much of the prophetic tradition in the Hebrew scriptures: Jesus is reminding the Pharisees that ‘doing’ religion properly, by means of regular sacrifices in the Temple and through an obsessive desire to remain ritually pure, is no substitute for the real fruits that grow in the soil of authentic faith in God, namely the exercise of justice and righteousness in relation to the needy.
For centuries the Church has also had a good line in ‘doing’ religion. It was one of the chief criticisms of the sixteenth century Reformers that ‘doing’ religion the old way had hollowed out true faith: mere outward observance and conformity to the supposedly right way of doing things had obscured the need for both personal and corporate responses to the ‘evangel’, the Good News of Jesus Christ. I wonder if the Church of England in the past twenty years has been fully committed to keeping this Reformation insight firmly in view. Or have our internal debates, for instance about what we consider to be the ‘right’ way to deal with human sexuality or the gender of our ordained ministers, have these debates obscured our understanding of the need for a personal and corporate response to the Good News of Jesus Christ? A response that demonstrates to the world our commitment to God’s justice and righteousness.
There is something else intriguing about this short passage. Jesus says to the grumbling Pharisees that it’s the sick who are in need of a physician rather than those who are well. We might infer from this that Jesus recognizes and indeed names Matthew and his friends as sinners. And we might be right. But equally we notice that Jesus doesn’t reprove them or criticize them, far less demand repentance. Significantly, this is entirely characteristic of Jesus’ ministry. There is scarcely any example of him explicitly calling on a sinner to repent or to mend their ways. So it is in today’s Gospel reading: Jesus simply enjoys being with sinners – eating and drinking as one might with friends. The lesson for us might be that imitating Jesus does not necessarily mean asking people to follow us, and to join in with what we are doing; it might mean our following people whom we might instinctively wish to avoid, and joining in with what they are doing. How many Matthews might we then then discover in unexpected places?