Death and taxation are two things which none of us can escape, try though we might. Most of us, I suspect, while we recognise the fact that taxation is necessary, don’t particularly enjoy having to hand over money, though we recognise that for the greater good of society it is necessary. It was, I suspect, always thus. In the Roman Empire the business of tax collection was privatised – people paid money for the right to collect taxes, and as a result tended to collect a bit extra so that they could recover the cost of their having to buy the right to collect taxes. This could make tax collectors very wealthy indeed, and so they were not exactly the most popular people – they had a reputation for being corrupt and greedy and selfish, and were not exactly the sort of people with whom one might choose to associate.
And yet at the start of this morning’s Gospel we see Jesus walking past a tax collecting booth and he says to the man there, called Matthew, ‘Follow me’ and he gets up and follows Our Lord. An invitation is offered, to which he responds, which changes his life, and has left us with his account of the Good News of Jesus Christ. That evening at dinner many sinners and tax-collectors want to be near Jesus, they want to listen to him, to what he has to say. For the respectable religious elite, the Pharisees, it is all too much. Why is Jesus hanging around with social undesirables? It isn’t what you’re supposed to do. Hence Our Lord’s reply ‘Those who are well have no need of a physician, but those who are sick.’ These are people who know their need of God, who are humble enough to come to him, so that they can be healed by him. He tells the Pharisees to go away and learn what the prophet Hosea meant when he said ‘I desire mercy not sacrifice’. He has come not to call the righteous but sinners, not people who think they’re fine in the sight of God, but rather those who know that they are not.
The invitation which Jesus makes Matthew is the same one which the Church continues to make – we say to the world ‘Come and follow Him’ and the Church continues to exist because people continue to respond to that same call. The Church continues to invite people to the banquet of the Kingdom, not because they are worthy or respectable, because they have enough money or social standing, because they are the right sort, or people like us, but rather because we are all sinners in need of God’s mercy, people who need healing and restoration. We are the sick who need a physician, the physician who offers the medicine which can heal our souls – His Body and Blood. His sacrifice of Himself in Atonement for our sins and those of the whole world, to heal us and restore our relationship with God and with each other is that for which our sin-sick souls cry out. We need God’s mercy and a sacrifice which does what not human sacrifice can do. That is why we are here, so that we can be nourished with Word and Sacrament, we can be fed by the Lord, with the Lord.
As we are fed by Him and with Him, we can likewise respond to His invitation: ‘Follow me’. Our conversion is both an event and a process, the work of a lifetime, to draw ever closer to Him, and to seek to follow Him, and invite others so to do. This is the work of the kingdom – to continue to stand against the desire of the world to make the Church respectable, full of people like us, and to fling wide the doors and invite people into the banquet of the Kingdom. It is not a treasure which we keep to ourselves, jealously guarding it, but rather which we offer to all, for this is what it means to follow Him – to do what He tells us and to live lives which proclaim the reality of the Kingdom of God here and now, for all humanity.
So let us come and follow Him, let us respond to that invitation and encourage others so to do. Let us be fed by Him and with Him, so that our souls may be healed, so that we can experience the fullness of God’s healing love and mercy, which we do not deserve, but which nonetheless he gives to us so that we may have life and life in all its fullness.