Friday, September 21, 2007

Of Tax-Collectors and Scribes

Friday, September 21, 2007 -- -- Week of Proper 19
(St. Matthew, Apostle and Evangelist)

"Morning Reflections" is a brief thought about the scripture readings from the Daily Office of Morning and Evening Prayer according to the practice found in the Book of Common Prayer of the Episcopal Church.

Morning Prayer begins on p. 80 of the Book of Common Prayer.
Evening Prayer begins on p. 117
An online resource for praying the Daily Office is found at
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Today's Readings for the Daily Office

EITHER the readings for Friday of Proper 19 (p. 984)
Psalms 69:1-23 (24-30) 31-38 (morning) 73 (evening)
2 Kings 1:2-17
1 Corinthians 3:16-23
Matthew 5:11-16

OR the readings for St. Matthew (p. 999)
Morning Prayer: Psalm 119:41-64 / Isaiah 8:11-20 / Romans 10:1-15
Evening Prayer: Psalms 19, 122 / Job 28:12-28 / Matthew 13:44-52

I read the readings for St. Matthew

There is something about the name "Matthew" that offers an image of the "Big Tent" of the fellowship of Jesus. Our feast day is titled "St. Matthew, Apostle and Evangelist." An alternative might be "St. Matthew, Tax-collector and Jewish Scribe."

Matthew, Apostle and Tax Collector
Matthew is the name of one of the twelve disciples of Jesus. In the Gospel of his name it is said that he was sitting in the custom-house in his occupation as a tax collector when Jesus called him. Matthew followed Jesus. The account is followed by a dinner in a house (possibly Matthew's) where sinners and tax-collectors share the table and fellowship with Jesus. Many observant Jews are offended and scandalized by Jesus' behavior.

Tax-collectors were despised by the people of Israel because they were collaborators with the hated Roman occupation. The taxes they collected were oppressive and excessive. The tax-collectors made their own money by charging significantly more than they turned over to the authorities, a custom referred to as "honest graft" (a socially accepted form of extortion). Because of their association with unclean persons and unclean coinage in an unclean profession, it was impossible for a tax-collector to observe the Jewish law, and so tax-collectors like shepherds and many others fell collectively into the class called "sinners." Sinners were those who couldn't or didn't try to follow the law.

A large part of Jesus' notoriety as an unorthodox rabbi was his practice of hospitality toward tax-collectors and sinners. Their presence at his table was a distinctive characteristic of his ministry. To include a tax-collector among the inner circle of his twelve disciples was amazing, scandalous, and counter-cultural. (Maybe a little like having a openly partnered homosexual as a Bishop might appear to someone from an African culture?)

That Matthew was part of the twelve is even more amazing when we note that also among them was Simon the Zealot (not to be confused with Simon Peter). Today we might call a Zealot a terrorist. Zealots were fanatic nationalists who sought to expel the Romans by violent guerrilla tactics -- ambushes, assassinations, and such. Tax-collectors as Roman collaborators were frequent targets of Zealot attack. What an amazing symbol of reconciliation to imagine Simon the Zealot and Matthew the tax-collector at the same table in the service of the same Lord.

Matthew, Evangelist and Jewish Scribe
Scholars doubt that the writer of the Gospel of Matthew is to be identified with the Matthew of the 12 apostles, although some have theorized the possibility that a collection of sayings from the earlier Matthew may have been passed down as part of the Gospel.

The book of Matthew is the most Jewish of all of our Gospels. It was written by a Jew for a Jewish audience. The author's perspective is strongly formed by the belief that Jesus is the long-expected Messiah who will reform and renew Judaism. In tomorrow's assignment for Morning Prayer, we will read a passage from Matthew that says that Jesus came not to abolish but to fulfill and to intensify the Jewish Torah, a passage unique to Matthew. For Matthew, Jesus is like Moses. Jesus is the perfect Rabbi. The 10 Beatitudes replace the 10 Commandments; his Gospel is five books, like the five books of the Torah. And it is decidedly Jewish in its content. This afternoon's reading from the Gospel sounds much like the author's self-description: "Therefore every scribe who has been trained for the kingdom of heaven is like the master of a household who brings out of his treasure what is new and what is old." In this exquisite work, new and old coexist within the framework of a reformed Judaism, Jesus' teaching and the Torah complement each other in the work of a great Jewish scribe.

That the name of a tax-collector and a pious Jewish scribe are forever linked within a fellowship that includes a Zealot is a worthy symbol of the breadth and inclusiveness of the reconciliation that Jesus creates. Those who followed Jesus were no band of homogeneous think-alikes. May the Church be forever be faithful to the expansive vision of the "Big Tent" of fellowship. Matthew is a fine icon of that vision.



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The Rev. Lowell Grisham
Paul's Episcopal Church
Fayetteville, AR

The Mission of St. Paul's Episcopal Church is to explore and celebrate
God's infinite grace, acceptance, and love.

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Our Rule of Life:
We aspire to...
worship weekly
pray daily
learn constantly
serve joyfully
live generously.


At 9:16 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

I only count 8 beatitudes and 4 books of the gospel. Can you explain? thank you.

At 10:32 PM, Blogger Doug said...

Thank you, Lowell. Too seldom we as lay people get the back story behind the words in the Gospels (and the rest of the Bible). I always enjoy your perspective because you are respecting of others, but firm in your belief in the breadth of Jesus, which hopefully will be imitated by us, his followers.

At 8:05 AM, Blogger Lowell said...


You are right. There are either 8 or 9 beatitudes, depending on how you count the end of the passage.

Matthew's Gospel is structured into five teachings or five sermons. Commentators have often remarked on that organizational technique as one of the ways Matthew seems to be intentionally connecting to the Torah tradition.


At 7:28 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

Thank you for clarifying. Loved the reflection!


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