On Having it All in a Nutshell
June 11, 2023
“Hear, O my people, and I will speak, O Israel, I will testify against you. I am God, your God. Not for your sacrifices do I rebuke you; your burnt offerings are continually before me. I will not accept a bull from your house, or goats from your folds. For every wild animal of the forest is mine, the cattle on a thousand hills. I know all the birds of the air, and all that moves in the field is mine. If I were hungry, I would not tell you, for the world and all that is in it is mine. Do I eat the flesh of bulls, or drink the blood of goats? Offer to God a sacrifice of thanksgiving, and pay your vows to the Most High. Call on me in the day of trouble; I will deliver you, and you shall glorify me.”
As Jesus was walking along, he saw a man called Matthew sitting at the tax booth; and he said to him, “Follow me.” And he got up and followed him. And as he sat at dinner in the house, many tax collectors and sinners came and were sitting with him and his disciples. When the Pharisees saw this, they said to his disciples, “Why does your teacher eat with tax collectors and sinners?” But when he heard this, he said, “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.”
Our sermon title for today is On Having it All in a Nutshell.
I chose this title because of the passage we just heard from Matthew, only 5 verses long, and yet it captures the entire scope of Jesus’s ministry, the opposition to his ministry, and a little lesson from the prophets thrown in there for good measure. That’s a lot to include in 5 verses.
Before we get into our consideration of those 5 verses, I want to share with you what I learned about the phrase “in a nutshell.” It comes from writings of Pliny the elder, a Roman author, naturalist, historian and philosopher. Pliny the elder was born in the year 23 and in some of his writings he refers to a copy of Homer’s Iliad that is written in script so small that the entire poem could fit “in a nutshell.” The Iliad is 15,000 lines long, and it typically fills a book of 500 pages. If I were to read it aloud to you, we would be here for 15 hours, give or take a few minutes. Readers of Pliny’s account of the entire Iliad fitting in a nutshell must have been incredulous about his claim, but it certainly made a lasting impression, enough that I can confidently say that the passage we are given today from Matthew contains the essence of Jesus’s ministry in a nutshell.
There are 5 verses in our reading and let’s consider what all they reveal. The first five words: “As Jesus was walking along” remind us that Jesus was constantly moving through the world. We never read about him residing anywhere, not in school or temple, and certainly not behind closed doors.
We are still in the first verse when we read, “He saw a man called Matthew sitting at the tax booth; and he said to him, ‘Follow me.’ And he got up and followed.” Here is one of so many examples where Jesus meets people where they are. He meets the fishermen when they come ashore, he meets the woman at the well as she comes to draw her water, and he meets Matthew at work, in the tax booth, collecting taxes for the Roman Empire.
Jesus is well aware of how the community regards tax collectors. Chapters before, in the Sermon on the Mount, Jesus says, “You have heard that it was said, ‘Love your neighbor and hate your enemy.’ But I tell you, love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you, that you may be children of your Father in heaven. He causes his sun to rise on the evil and the good, and sends rain on the righteous and the unrighteous. If you love those who love you, what reward will you get? Are not even the tax collectors doing that?”
To understand the cultural attitude towards tax collectors, imagine this: imagine we are Ukrainians living in the Russian-occupied territory of Crimea. We are obliged to pay taxes to Russia and we pay those taxes to a Ukrainian a few blocks over who is working for the Russians as a tax collector. We don’t really know how much Russia is taxing us, all we know is what the tax collector tells us to pay. Over time we notice that the tax collector has a new roof on the house and a few months later, a new car. The only friends the tax collector has are other tax collectors. Everyone suspects the tax collector is overcharging and keeping money for themselves.
So here is Matthew, literally sitting in a tax booth, in a position despised by his community, socially isolated, and working for the Roman Empire. He is the last person the religious authorities are concerned with and yet Jesus sees him and chooses him and invites him to join the movement.
In the next verse, Jesus is eating with Matthew and all of Matthew’s tax collector friends, presumably at Matthew’s house. The religious authorities are incensed. No reputable teacher would have been seen in the house of a tax collector, sharing food. Tax collectors were viewed as thieves and traitors; entering their home and sharing food would have condoned their behavior.
Then comes the question from the Pharisees, the religious authorities; they ask the disciples, “Why does your teacher eat with tax collectors and sinners?” This is one of many questions they want answers to, along with, “Why does your teacher not wash his hands before eating?” “Why does your teacher heal on the sabbath?” “Why does your teacher let that woman touch him; she is unclean?” I empathize with the Pharisees. They are just trying to tow the line. They are trying to keep their culture intact during an occupation, after they have been persecuted and separated, time and again. And here comes this upstart from Galilee, Jesus of Nazareth, and he has a powerful spirit working through him, but what kind of spirit is it exactly? If he was doing the work of God, wouldn’t he be in the temple? Why is he out here in the street? If he was doing the work of God, wouldn’t he be strictly observing the laws and established customs? If he was doing the work of God, wouldn’t he be one of us?
See, Friends, how difficult it was for some of the religious authorities to accept the ministry of Jesus? He was a threat to their understanding of the nature of God. Jesus was bringing the holiness out of the temple and into the streets. And some of the religious authorities who centered their lives around elevating God, and themselves, well….they just could not stand to see Jesus accepting the hospitality of tax collectors.
Jesus’s response to them is “I have come to call not the righteous but sinners. Those who are well have no need of a physician, but those who are sick.” Jesus’s work was with those who were pushed aside, those who were excluded, those who were overlooked, those who were deemed unworthy and unclean. To drive his message home, Jesus gives the religious authorities a little homework. He says, “Go and learn what this means, ‘I desire mercy, not sacrifice.” Those words are reminiscent of the words of the prophet Hosea from centuries before who claimed God desired “steadfast love, not sacrifice.” The prophet Micah, too, is quoted as saying, “With what shall I come before the Lord and bow down before the exalted God? Shall I come before him with burnt offerings, with calves a year old? Will the LORD be pleased with thousands of rams, with ten thousand rivers of olive oil? Shall I offer my firstborn for my transgression, the fruit of my body for the sin of my soul? He has shown you, O mortal, what is good. And what does the LORD require of you? To act justly and to love mercy and to walk humbly” (Micah 6: 6-8). We heard the same message today from our reading in Psalms, keep your bulls and goats…“offer to God a sacrifice of thanksgiving.”
In the 5 verses we are offered in our reading from Matthew today, we find a rather simple story that reveals the scope of Jesus’s ministry, the opposition to his ministry, and a little lesson from the prophets thrown in there for good measure. Here is the essence of Jesus’s ministry, in a nutshell. Jesus came, with the power of God in his heart and hands, to be among humanity, and to teach us four things:
The love that is God is available to us all; all beings are worthy and there are no exceptions.
When we love and care for one another we serve God in the highest way.
If we can maintain a spirit of gratefulness, in all circumstances, we bring heaven to earth.
Love is more powerful than fear and more powerful than death.
That’s it, in a nutshell. Amen.
In the stillness of morning, Lord, turn our hearts and minds to your presence. Help us to travel through our days with great care, paying close attention to how we are and where we are. Make us ever mindful of ways we can share your love, with a kind word, a smile, a note or a phone call. For all those who are ailing, Lord, we pray for their comfort. For all who are without, may they find the resources they need. For those facing death, we pray for peace. All these things I ask in the name of Jesus Christ, who gave us this prayer…Our Father, who art in heaven, hallowed be thy name. Thy kingdom come, thy will be done, on earth as it is in heaven. Give us this day our daily bread and forgive us our trespasses as we forgive those who trespass against us. Lead us not to temptation, but deliver us from evil, for thine is the kingdom and the power and the glory forever and ever and ever. Amen.
I leave you now with the words of Paul in his letter to the Colossians, chapter 2, verses 2 and 3: “May your hearts be comforted and well-equipped in charity and in all the riches of complete understanding so you may know the mystery of God.”