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Matthew writes: “And as he sat at dinner in the house, many tax collectors and sinners came and were sitting with him and his disciples.” It is entirely possible that after dinner, a small group of those tax collectors, who had obviously had too much to drink, started carousing around the neighborhood. And it is possible (perhaps unlikely, but possible) that as the tax collectors caroused they came across two men holding hands and walking toward them on the sidewalk.
Their talk with Jesus at dinner was already forgotten, along with whatever he had been trying to teach them. Girls had joined them, and young tax collectors are always eager to impress girls. And for most of human history, two men holding hands and walking down the street have presented an opportunity for a certain type of man to try to impress girls at the expense of the hand-holding men. Whether or not girls have ever been impressed by the display that ensues remains to be seen.
So there they are: tax collectors, moving steadily toward the two hand-holding men over the concrete sidewalk. Somehow the sidewalk suddenly narrows, and contact becomes inevitable… Was that your shoulder that bumped into my lady?
Was it an accident? Was it forced? There is actually plenty of room on the sidewalk, so how did it become so narrow all of a sudden? Who knows? But the gauntlet has been thrown down: Was that you that bumped into my girl?
And all eyes are on the two hands, still holding each other – a privilege none of the girls has yet granted any of the tax collectors. So the ante has to be upped: What are you… boyfriends?
Comes the answer, a little defiant: Yes, we are.
Across the street there happens to be a small gaggle of Pharisees. They had seen the tipsy tax collectors leave the dinner with Jesus, and they had been tsk-tsking as they watched the group stumble down the sidewalk, knowing full well in whose company they had been just minutes ago.
The Pharisees, too, saw the hand-holders coming. And they tsked another tsk without much of a second thought. They had real blasphemy to worry about without making up new categories of it, and besides, several of them had ample reasons to want to live and let live. They were not thinking much about the hand-holding men at all, they were thinking of how shameful it was for Jesus to associate with people like these tax collectors. The Pharisees did not anticipate the encounter on the sidewalk, however, and had almost walked by when the shouting started.
When the shouting did start, they heard the word hissed out, and they knew that it would lead to trouble, and they stopped in their tracks when they heard it the second time from the tax collectors: I’m sick of these faggots!
And one of the Pharisees quickly and quietly reached for his cell phone and dialed 911.
But before the cops could get there, the two young men had let go of each other’s hands the better to protect themselves. But to little avail. When the cops did arrive, the tax collectors fled, and the two young men were found face down on the sidewalk, their bloodied faces staining the concrete before they were lifted into the ambulance and taken to have their wounds tended to.
The problem with this story is, of course, that the real version of it took place only steps from this church, just around the corner on 16th and Chancellor Streets, ten days ago.
I like my version of the story better than the real version, first and foremost because mine is fiction and no one really gets hurt in my story. But the two young men in the real story are in real pain. And something tells me that the hurt is only beginning for the real perpetrators of the beating that took place around the corner from here.
But I also prefer my version of the story because it began with a dinner at which Jesus was teaching tax collectors and sinners. And in my version of the story there’s always a chance to go back to that dinner, back to that table, back to Jesus, and try to remember what it was he was teaching. The real version of the story seems to be altogether devoid of good news. But I’m hoping there is some to be found in my version.
Here’s what Jesus was teaching the tax collectors and sinners at dinner: “Those who are well have no need of a physician, but those who are sick. Go and learn what this means, ‘I desire mercy not sacrifice.’ For I have come to call not the righteous, but sinners.”
It’s very hard to apply this teaching to the real version of the story of the two men who were beaten so badly on 16th Street.
And it’s not even easy to apply the lesson to my version of the story, but I think it is possible. I think it is possible to find in my version of the story an explanation of what Jesus meant when he was teaching tax collectors and sinners this way.
Many of us have dreamed of the retribution that could be meted out by way of rough justice for the violent bullies who left two men bleeding on the street, their faces badly disfigured. It’s hard for us to believe they could have come from a dinner with Jesus. But Jesus seems to think that he will have to sit down with them again, perhaps as they await trial, or while they serve their sentence. He says. “Those who are well have no need of a physician, but those who are sick. I have come to call not the righteous, but sinners.” So I am forced to allow myself to imagine what Jesus might say to them, these hateful tax collectors, knowing full well what evil they have wrought.
“Boys,” he might say, “the last time we spoke you did not listen. You were drunk, and you were foolish, and you were cruel, and you were stupid, and now you are paying for what you have done. And this is as it should be.
“You do not remember what I said to you. And you do not remember what I said to the Pharisees who thought me despicable for sharing a meal with the likes of you. You did not hear me stand up for you.
“I told them, as they passed by, ‘I have come to call not the righteous, but sinners.’ And I was talking about you. But you did not care.
“I told them, ‘Go and learn what this means, “I desire mercy, not sacrifice.”’ And you paid no heed when I said this, because it meant nothing to you.
“But now it means something to you. Because now you would be glad for some mercy. Now you know there are many who would be only too happy to sacrifice you, to throw you to the wolves, to let you rot in prison, or even worse, which many think is exactly what you deserve.
“That may be what you deserve, but it is not what you need. What you need is to learn my teaching.
“You need to learn that I do not wish to see you locked up and someone throw away the key – though this is the way of the world you live in.
“You need to learn that I am not offended in the least by two men holding hands, and I never have been. It never once in my life occurred to me to address the matter, except, of course, to invite two such men to sup with me, as I often have done.
“You need to learn that I am asking my Father to change this world you live in, and that he is asking me to teach that he will do so.
“You need to learn that when my Father’s will is finally done on earth as it is in heaven then there will be no tax collectors, there will be no sinners, there will be no faggots; there will only be neighbors and friends.
“You need to learn to come back to my table, to come back to my dinner, to come back to me over and over again, because you are woefully prone to do stupid things that hurt you more than they hurt anyone else.
“You need to learn what it means to stand in the shadow of my Cross; to see what happens when cruelty and hatred tries to kill true love.
“You need to learn that my love cannot be killed, that it rises from the grave with me, and that it always triumphs over those who wield the whip, the thorns, the hammer and nails, the spear.
“You need to learn to be on the right side of love, and leave your ugly slurs in the gutter where they belong.
“You need to learn that even the Pharisees, who think very little of me, think even less of you and what you did, since at their best they are trying to be on the right side of love.
“You need to learn what it means that I desire mercy and not sacrifice. Because right now you are in far greater need of mercy than you ever imagined you would be.
“You need to learn from your fellow tax collector Matthew, how to follow me, without question, and without hesitation.
“And some day you will need to learn to hold the hands of those hand-holding men whose faces you beat to a pulp. And, holding their hands, you will need to learn to ask them for forgiveness, and hope that they too have learned to desire mercy, not sacrifice.
“Until then you will need to keep coming back to my table, back to my dinner, back to my teaching, back to me, again and again, because you are deeply in need of a physician.
“But you are not alone in this world. You have a great deal of company. Which is why I have come to you, why my table is so expansive, and why my mercy is so great.”
And then Jesus will turn from the faces of the tax collectors he addressed, and to the faces of the hand-holding men, still battered and bruised. And he will tend their wounds.
And then he will set his table again, and ask us all to follow him, to sit and to eat, and to learn, and to desire with him not sacrifice, but mercy.
Preached by Fr. Sean Mullen
The Feast of St. Matthew the Evangelist, 2014
Saint Mark’s Church, Philadelphia