Proper 5A; Matthew 9:9-13
We have officially entered Ordinary Time. We've come through the liturgical seasons of Advent, Christmas, Lent, and Easter, those times and seasons that focus on the events of Jesus' life, and have moved into the season that focuses on Jesus' daily life. This is where we get to know him and his ministry. And there might be no better way to get to know him than to see how he deals with sin.
On this first Sunday of the season we see Jesus calling a tax collector to follow him, and then seeing Jesus join tax collectors and sinners for a meal.
First, tax collectors. We all know about tax collectors. When Rome invaded a territory they used locals to collect taxes, not paying them a salary but allowing them to keep any extra money they collected for themselves. So if you owed $100 in taxes, my salary comes from anything over and above that amount I can collect. It's basically a 1st Century money laundering scheme or extortion ring. Add to that that these people were Jews who decided to work for the invading Romans. Probably the closest example we have of that today would be the French/Dutch people who collaborated with the Nazis after being invaded. So . . . tax collectors . . . not exactly respected pillars of the community.
Then there are the ever-present sinners who are also at this meal. Have you ever noticed that this group is never identified beyond “sinners”? We most often get tax collectors and prostitutes lumped in with them, but it's just some general “sinners” we hear about. We're never really told what sins they are committing. Was it the Big Seven: pride, greed, wrath, envy, lust, gluttony, and sloth? Was it something for which the community and religious leaders labeled as sin to bolster their positions? Was it something labeled as sin to project their own sinful acts onto others so as not to draw attention to themselves? Or maybe it was a way to simply lump certain people together so as to easily marginalize them. Is “sinner” just a term we use for people we don't like?
As I pondered all this, I thought, “Wouldn't it be helpful if we had a good definition for sin?” Thankfully for us, we do. In the Catechism on pg. 848 of the BCP, there is a question: “What is sin?” According to the Catechism, sin is seeking our own will instead of the will of God.
Seeking our own will instead of the will of God. That puts a whole new spin on things.
If sin is seeking our own will instead of God's, then those big seven become more personal.
Pride: An inordinately high opinion of our own importance or superiority. We continually seek ways to be the most important person not only in our own lives, but in the lives of others.
Greed: Never being satisfied with what we have and always desiring more. Seeing life as a continual competition for stuff where you must be victorious in a system of limited resources.
Wrath: Looking for ways to put your anger into action so that you feel better about another person's suffering.
Envy: Similar to greed, but having a resentful covetousness towards the traits or possessions of another. Envy will never let you be happy because you don't have what they have.
Lust: An intense desire or craving for someone or something which can be discarded when it no longer satisfies you. Dante described this as a disordered love.
Gluttony: Overindulgence or over-consumption to the point of waste without thinking how it affects you or those in need.
Sloth: An absence of interest or habitual disinclination to exertion. It not only includes general laziness, but also includes the unwillingness to become involved in any activity because it's inconvenient for you or it doesn't directly impact you.
These seven deadly sins were part of an original eight first organized by the desert monk Evagrius and his pupil, John Cassian. Eventually Pope Gregory I codified them into seven as the opposite of the seven heavenly virtues. All of them take our natural desires (such as eating) to unnatural extremes where we are solely focused on ourselves and our own gratification. In other words, they are the ultimate representatives of seeking our will instead of the will of God.
It is very easy for us to lump groups of people we don't like into a single class of people called sinners. Don't like women who wear pants? Sinners. Don't like people who drink alcohol? Sinners. Don't like people who smoke? Sinners. Don't like people who challenge the status quo? Sinners. I could be wrong, but the people we label as sinners are not only the people we don't like, but are also the people who do things we claim we would never do. Which, again, makes it very easy to judge them in comparison to our own holy selves. I mean, I may sin sometimes, but I'm not as bad as those other people.
This is the problem with the Pharisees saying, “Why does he eat with tax collectors and sinners?”
All of us sin in one way or another on a weekly, maybe daily, basis: me, you, those watching online. We are all sinners. We need to stop treating people who make us uncomfortable or are different or who have a different value system or have a different religion as sinners whom we can condemn. Instead, we should remember how the Catechism defines sin – seeking our own will instead of the will of God – and work to make corrections in our own lives.
Because let's be honest – isn't it hard being judgmental all the time? It's got to be exhausting spending all your time looking for faults in other people while trying to maintain your own perfection.
What we need is less judging and more compassion. We need less attacking and more mercy. We need to clean up our own lives before we willingly sacrifice the lives of those other sinners in the name of purity.
If we do those things, we just might find ourselves being extremely thankful that Jesus is with us who are gathered here for this meal at this table. And by paying attention to how Jesus treats sinners, we just might learn a thing or two about how we should be treating the sinners in our own lives – including ourselves.