Summary: No one is too bad for the grace of God
The Call of St. Matthew (Mt. 9:9-13 and 18-26)
Story: From 1987 to 1990, the ministry of television evangelists (popularly referred to in the press and the televangelists) in the USA was brought into disrepute by the revelation of a string of frauds, mismanagement of funds and infidelities.
The first scandal to break – and probably the most infamous - was that of Jim and Tammy Baaker’s PTL ministry – PTL - standing for Praise The Lord -followed by the fall of Jimmy Swaggart. The press quickly renamed the PTL ministry as “Pass the Loot” ministry.
In 1986 PTL’s income was $129 million and included Heritage USA - a 2300-acre religious theme park, a hotel and a shopping mall in North Carolina and its own TV station on 1200 channels.
Jim Baaker had an affair with the church secretary Jessica Hahn in 1980 and resigned in 1987, when it came to light that he had paid her about $265,000 in blackmail money over the affair.
After his resignation, Baaker asked Jerry Falwell to take over PTL. When Falwell began examining the accounts, he discovered that the Baakers had been taking large amounts of money from the ministry fund, including hundreds of thousands of dollars in salaries for Baaker and his wife, insurance, property and other fees.
The US Inland Revenue Service investigated the accounts and they discovered that the couple had diverted $4.8 million for personal use.
Part of that sum came from fraudent $1,000 partnerships, which secured each partner three days per year of free lodging at the hotel in Heritage USA.
However Baaker took the money for so many partners that it was a promise that he was unable to keep. Indeed the fraud was on such a scale that it was estimated that about 1500 people a month were being defrauded of their free time-share
Jim Baaker was indicted for fraud in 1988 and sentenced to 45 years in prison and fined $500,000.
When the scandal broke, Baaker’s Christian friends quickly deserted him. He became an outcast in the Christian world. And when he was sentenced, his wife Tammy Faye left him and then divorced him.
Six months into his sentence, Baaker was surprised one afternoon when the prison governor called him into his office. Baaker had a visitor: Billy Graham.
When Graham came in, Baaker asked him why he had come to visit – because he knew that any association with Baaker would tarnish Graham’s reputation.
Graham replied that Baaker was his friend in good and in bad times – and now when things were bad, he would stand by his side. And Billy Graham was true to his word.
Baaker’s sentence was eventually reduced, on
appeal, to ten years and when he came out of prison on parole, he had nowhere to stay.
So the Grahams invited him to stay with them.
On the Sunday following Baaker’s release, Ruth Graham took him to church with her.
Disregarding what people would think about her, she stood up in church and introduced Jim Baaker to the congregation as her friend Jim Baaker.
The Grahams showed a real Christ-like love to Jim Baaker very much on par with love Jesus showed to tax collectors like Matthew who he called into his inner circle of friends in this morning’s Gospel reading - Mt. 9:9-13.
In the same way as Baaker was an outcast in the Christian community in the USA in the 80’s and 90’s, so Matthew the tax collector would have been an outcast in the eyes of the Jewish community.
Yet Jesus was prepared to call Matthew his friend.
Tax collectors in those days were seen as traitors for two reasons.
Firstly, they were working for the hated oppressors – the Romans – collecting taxes. A bit like the collaborators in France in the Second World War.
Secondly they generally had become very rich by setting exorbitant tax rates - far in excess of what Rome required. And they enforced payment by using the Roman army.
Three things strike me about the call of Matthew
1. No one is beyond the pail.
2. Matthew’s immediate and wholehearted commitment
3. Matthew used his home to bring people, who normally would not have associated with a Jewish Rabbi to meet Jesus.
The important message of this morning’s Gospel passage is that "no one is too bad for the Grace of God".
Jesus summed up his ministry admirably in Mt. 9:13
"It is not the healthy who need a doctor, but the sick. But go and learn what this means: “I desire mercy not sacrifice. For I have not come to call the righteous, but sinners”"
The Gospel is for those who know that they are sinners – that they need forgiveness.
Matthew the hated tax collector was chosen by Jesus to become one of his inner circle of friends.