An upside-down life
Transforming friendships: Matthew
Luke 5 vv 27-32
Good morning, Twickenham. Thank you for inviting me. My name is Matthew, though some call me Levi as I am from that tribe. I am here to tell you my story.
One morning my life changed. It started like any other day. I woke up that morning and looked out of my bedroom window. I have to say, the view was lovely that morning: the beautiful garden, lit by the early morning sun which was reflecting off the windows in Reuben’s house. Reuben has a vineyard. What a vineyard! He has some great wines there and I was one of his best customers.
I love my wine and the previous night’s amphora was as good as I could remember. My rather extensive wine cellar did not need restocking but I wanted another jar or two of that wine. I promised myself a quick visit to the vineyard on the way home from work.
Stepping out to my open-top chariot that morning, I reflected that life really could not get better. My training as an accountant had helped me get a plum job. Well, not a popular job as everybody hated me taking their money. But a plum job alright if money was the measure. Those Roman bosses of mine that everybody else hated even more than they hated me, well, they were quite friendly with me as long as I met their tax targets.
By my calculation, in four years, I would have been able to retire to a new life in a small town by the sea where nobody would have to know what I’d done to earn my wealth. Not bad for a guy who still did not know what it meant to be forty.
That day was a difficult one. Sure, a lot of people walked by my tax booth, but they were not on the road for reasons of commerce – which meant that I could not tax them. Instead, the town was buzzing with the news that Jesus had arrived.
You have to know this about Jesus – he was not an easy man to pin down. Quite a few claimed that he was the answer to the age old Jewish problem of foreign tyranny. I rather hoped that this were not true as my retirement plans would pretty much be up the swanee if some unruly Jewish rebel could beat the Romans into departing from Palestine.
Some called him Rabbi, a teacher. Well, if he was anything like those Pharisees who filled the town’s synagogues, then I wanted nothing to do with this Jesus and his particular brand of teaching. Those Pharisees know everything that could possibly be wrong about a person – except themselves. If Jesus was like them, then I was already taking an instant dislike to this new teaching sensation.
Some claimed he could do miracles. The town was thrumming with news of a lame man whose friends took him to see the teacher. It was crowded when they got there and so they took their lame friend up to the roof of the house that Jesus was in. There they took some tiles off the roof and let the lame man down through the open roof. Jesus, it seems, healed the man and now he can be seen walking around town.
Want to know what I think? Well, I am just pleased that it wasn’t my house where this happened, otherwise they would have made a mess of the new roof tiles I had had installed just the month before.
I really did not mind what stories people came up with. If it kept them happy and doing commerce, then I could charge them tax. And that made me, Levi, happy. Money made me happy and my lifestyle made me happy: nice clothes, great fitness club, sex and open-top chariots. Happy, happy, happy.
I once went to hear this man Jesus give a talk. Some said he was the Messiah, the one that God had promised us through his prophets ages ago. Well, if this was the Messiah then I wanted to make sure I knew what he was about. I have to confess that his message confused me.
Jesus said that the Kingdom of God was near. Now the idea that God, Yahweh, was our King was not a new one to us Jews. What was new from Jesus was the freshness and urgency of it all. Of course, I believed in God. What I struggled with was that my life as a tax collector, as a human, really had any connection with God at all. I found myself torn between wanting to be part of God’s kingdom, and wondering if any of this was real, in the way that my open-top chariot is real, or that girl in the gym is real.
The confusing bit about Jesus’ talk was his explanation of what God wanted from his kingdom subjects. The first thing he said was this: “Blessed are the poor in spirit, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven.” I have heard some daft things in my time but the idea that the poor should consider themselves blessed – well, that is tough for a guy like me Levi to accept.
The trouble with your English language is that you don’t have a word that really decribes what Jesus is talking about. When he says Blessed, he is not thinking of some calm, Zen-like blessing. He’s really saying “You lucky one, you o so lucky one.” Yet these lucky people who are going to inherit the kingdom of God are, according to Jesus, poor, mourning some immense loss, they are meek, they hunger and thirst for righteousness, yet they are merciful to others, pure in heart, but persecuted and insulted.
If you ask me, what this Jesus is really saying is this: You are so amazingly lucky to be unlucky.”
I am not an unlucky kind of guy. I have worked really hard not to be unlucky. I am not poor, hungry or thirsty. Is that how God really wants me in his kingdom?
That morning Jesus walked on the road that went past my tax booth. He stopped right in front of me. And he said this: “Follow me.”
I had to decide. I could not prevaricate.
Suddenly, I sensed this light gently turn on me. The kingdom life is an abundant one but not in the ways that I counted important. Jesus’ kingdom life comes from investing in others rather than in one’s own wealth, by taking courageous stands for justice, by ministering to the weak and needy, by pursuing God and not self.
I did not need a second invitation. I walked out of my tax booth that day, never to return. My retirement plans were up the swanee alright and yet I knew that I was making the right investment. I threw a fantastic party for all my friends to tell them about Jesus. I wondered what Jesus would have thought of some of my friends, but I had no reason to worry: he loved the party, loved my friends and we all loved my wine cellar.
After the party, those Pharisee types made a fuss about the way Jesus spent his time with people like me and my friends. Jesus had a simple reply, “Who needs a doctor: the healthy or the sick? I’m here inviting outsiders, not insiders—an invitation to a changed life, changed inside and out.” My friends and I are fully accepting that we are sinners needing God. No wonder Jesus had people in his kingdom who were lepers, adulterers, tax collectors, poverty-stricken and down-trodden. One woman had five husbands and an equal number of divorces. But there was no room in the Kingdom for people who thought they were already sinless and pure.
Later Jesus described the kingdom of heaven as a treasure of such value that any shrewd investor would “in his joy” sell all he has in order to buy it. It offers fantastic value both on earth and in heaven. He placed the emphasis not on what we give up, but on what we receive.
It’s an upside-down life compared to what I knew before. But the truth is that my life is now the right-side up – it wasn’t before.
I say to you what was said to me on that morning: “Follow Jesus.” You will not regret it.