Sermon for the Second Sunday after Pentecost –Sermon for the Second Sunday after Pentecost – June 11, 2023
Matthew 9:9-13, 18-26
Dear friends, grace to you and peace from God our Father and our Lord Jesus Christ.
I have a route that I run a few days a week for exercise. It’s always the same route, and usually at the same time of day. Along this route there’s a guy I see just about every time I run. I think he’s walking to work or to catch a bus or something. We always cross paths in the same block, and when we do, he first gives me a polite nod, but then, as I pass him, he quickly turns his head away. I’m pretty sure he’s holding his breath as I go by. This has gone on for literally years now. For a long time I thought it was a COVID thing. Maybe he thinks he’s going to catch the virus from me as I run by. But now the pandemic is over and we know so much more about how people get coronavirus (It’s just about impossible to get it outside). Now it has mutated to become something much milder for most people. But in spite of all this, he’s still doing it! Maybe it’s a residual habit, but lately I’ve been wondering if it is COVID-related at all. I’ve been wondering if maybe he’s turning his head and holding his breath as I run by because I stink! It is towards the end of my three-mile run, so I guess it is possible!
Anyway, it bothers me when he turns away. It makes me doubt the sincerity of his friendly nod. It makes me want to stop and ask him what his problem is, what it is that makes me so off-putting to him. Every time he turns away it makes me feel contagious and gross and…unclean.
Unclean. In the Bible, to be unclean is to be potentially contagious. It is to be thought of as gross. It is an off-putting condition to be in. People would turn away from you – and this was not only to avoid catching something, whether that something was a virus or a whiff of body odor. People turned away because getting too close to someone who was unclean made you unclean too. To be unclean not only made you unfit for relationships with others; you were also thought to be unfit for a relationship with God.
We have a cluster of stories in our gospel reading for today. Three of them. And the strand that runs through all three of them is how Jesus interacts with those who are unclean.
First up we have Matthew. Matthew was a tax collector. As a tax collector, Matthew was despised by most of his fellow Jews. Think of how you feel whenever you get something in the mail from the IRS. Unless you’re expecting a refund, it makes you at least a little nervous. Perhaps some suspicion or resentment is stirred up. “What is this about? What are they coming after now?” Well, that’s what people felt whenever they saw someone like Matthew. He was someone who had the authority to get all up in your business and take away your hard-earned money. Even worse, he did so on behalf of the Romans, who had invaded and pillaged and occupied Israel, their Promised Land. And so, tax collectors were thought of as traitors to their own people. Furthermore, as employees of the Roman Empire these Jews handled Roman currency, which had imprints on them proclaiming Caesar to be Lord – a blasphemous statement. All of this together made tax collectors profoundly unclean. They were considered unfit for relationship with most other Jews. They were considered unfit for a relationship with God. When Pharisees or other pious Jews walked past, they turned their heads and held their breath in disgust.
But not Jesus. Jesus went right up to Matthew’s tax booth, with its neat piles of blasphemous coinage, and said to him, “Follow me.” Matthew got up and followed Jesus, leaving his old life behind.
Later, Jesus sat down and ate dinner with him. There were other tax collectors and sinners in attendance too. We need to understand that rabbis didn’t just sit down with unclean people and share dinner with them, dipping their bread into the common bowls and rubbing elbows with them.
But Jesus did, and when the Pharisees saw it, they couldn’t believe their eyes. They asked some of the disciples, “Why does your teacher eat with tax collectors and sinners?” And Jesus, overhearing them, explained, “Those who are well have no need of a physician, but those who are sick.”
With this statement, Jesus acknowledged that these guys he was eating with were not well. They were indeed unclean. Jesus doesn’t make light of their sin. He doesn’t excuse it. He certainly doesn’t encourage it. Instead, he is there to heal them of it. He is there, eating and drinking with them, so that he might clean them and cure them as the physician he is. He doesn’t turn away and hold his breath. Instead he gets in close to them, sharing their germs, inhaling their odors, taking their uncleanliness upon himself, in order to make them well.
Next up we have a woman who had been suffering from hemorrhages for twelve years. Talk about unclean! In the ancient world a woman’s regular cycle rendered her unclean for a limited time each month. This uncleanliness was not a moral issue, as it was with the tax collectors and sinners. This was a natural process related to fertility – a good thing. This, rather, was a hygienic matter. Any time there was blood outside of the body, it was a major concern. You were expected to stay away from others. You were expected to stay home from synagogue. And this woman had been dealing with these hemorrhages non-stop for twelve years! This meant twelve years of social and religious isolation. This meant she wasn’t eligible for marriage, and if she was already married, it made her eligible to be divorced. This meant constantly having people turn away from her as if she was gross.
But not Jesus. When this woman reached out for Jesus’ cloak as he passed by, when she reached out in faith and touched him, Jesus didn’t turn away and hold his breath. He turned towards her! Jesus didn’t find her off-putting or gross. Instead he said, “Take heart, daughter, your faith has made you well.” Did you hear that? He called her daughter. Is there a more loving way he could have addressed her? And rather than rebuking her for daring to touch him with her unclean hand, which made him unclean in the process, instead he praised her for her faith in him. “Your faith has made you well,” he said.
Finally, we have the most difficult story of the three. A leader of the synagogue came up to Jesus, begging for his help. His daughter had just died. He asked Jesus to come lay hands on her, so that she would live. Jesus went to the house where the girl was. There was already a crowd of mourners there. There were already flute-players playing a funeral dirge. When Jesus told the crowd to go away, that she was not dead but sleeping, they all laughed at him. Jesus went into the house where this precious daughter laid still in her bed.
Blood was bad enough when it came to uncleanliness, but a dead body was a whole new level of unclean. The Jewish Mishnah describes a human corpse as “the father of the father of all uncleanliness.” It was considered the ultimate impurity. We know how hard it is to look upon someone who is deceased. It is off-putting, to say the least. Unless it is someone you dearly love, you can’t help but want to turn away. You certainly don’t want to touch them. According to Jewish law, touching the dead made you unclean for seven days, and then there was an even more complex rite of purification you had to go through to be made clean again. And so nobody wanted to be near the dead. Aside from perhaps her parents, everyone turned away. Everyone went outside. But not Jesus. Jesus went right up to her. Jesus took her by the hand, and she got up.
Sin. Blood. Death. Instead of turning away and holding his breath in disgust, Jesus turned towards them, bringing healing and new life. Sinners were made holy by his gracious presence. A flow of blood was stopped and a woman was healed. A corpse came back to life and a young girl, a beloved daughter, got out of bed.
These three stories, in one way or another, reflect our own stories, our own lives. Sin continues to mess up our relationships with others and our relationship with God. Many have experienced how debilitating and isolating it is when we are sick or when our bodies don’t work the way they are supposed to. We know well the somber notes of the funeral liturgy.
And instead of turning away and holding his breath, our Lord Jesus has turned towards us. He is not repulsed by all the things that make us unclean or off-putting. He is not afraid of viruses or body odor. He does not turn away because of sin, or blood, or death.
Jesus Christ has turned towards us through his Word, forgiving us for our sin and calling us to follow him. He calls us away from our old lives and into new life with him. Jesus Christ continues to eat and drink with sinners, rubbing elbows with us, taking all that is unclean in us upon himself and giving us his holiness in return.
Jesus Christ comes to us through these means of grace that we might take hold of him, that we might reach out to him in faith and touch his cloak, and in so doing be made whole again, restored to fellowship with one another and fellowship with God.
Jesus Christ has come to show us that he has power even over death, and so when the final uncleanliness comes, he will not turn away. He will instead take us by the hand and raise us up to eternal life.
Many may turn away from us in our times of uncleanliness. But not Jesus. He turns towards us, not away, making us clean, and holy, and alive.
Thanks be to God. Amen.
Rev. Jeffrey R. Spencer
Oak Harbor Lutheran Church