There was, or perhaps there still is an organization within the black community here in Cleveland called The Carnegie Roundtable, and on one occasion about 10-12 years ago they asked me if I would come to meet with them. This was a group of older men and women who would meet once a week at a certain location to discuss the political and social issues confronting the black community in Cleveland. Many of the members of that group were regular churchgoers; mostly they were members either at Antioch or at Olivet. However, there were several in that group who did not attend church at all. They were not bad people, they were not involved in any criminal conduct; they simply did not see the relevance of religious faith in their lives.
I was pleased to accept their invitation, and at that time they met in the back of a bar on 71st Street that was called The Chef’s Club. This bar had a restaurant attached, as many bars do, and they happened to serve some of the most delicious soul food you can imagine. That bar is no longer there, but for many years it was quite a popular place where business people and social activists in the black community would meet for lunch.
I can remember when I was working at Abyssinian Baptist Church in New York City; this same thing would happen where midday meetings would be held in bars that served food. You may have heard of some of those legendary places such as Small’s Paradise and The Red Rooster. The point is, I have been going to meetings in places like that during my entire ministry and I don’t give it a second thought. There are some people you might be able to reach with your witness for Jesus Christ that may never set foot inside a church. That is exactly why I went to meet with The Carnegie Roundtable that day.
The meeting went well, the lunch was even better, and I did have an opportunity to personally greet several people in the bar; people who were in attendance at the meeting and people who were just sitting in the bar having lunch and invite them to come to church here at Antioch. It just so happened that someone from The Call and Post newspaper was attending the meeting that day, and he took a picture of me talking with some of the people inside The Chef’s Club. I did not ask him to take a picture; in fact I am not sure that I was even aware that he was doing so. However, that picture appeared in the next issue of the newspaper under the title, Antioch’s pastor greets the public at a local bar.
I am not sure if any of you who were members of Antioch Baptist Church at that time remember that picture in The Call and Post, but I did get a letter from one former member who wrote to say that she was outraged to see her pastor inside a bar hanging out with “those kind of people.” That person actually did leave the church because she strongly objected to me being in a place with people she considered to be of “ill-repute.” She did not ask me why I was there in the first place. She did not know that I went there because I wanted to extend the message of Jesus Christ to people who would never come to the church to hear it. All she saw was her pastor in a photo taken inside The Chef’s Club, and on the strength of that photo she immediately changed church membership.
I think about that whole incident every time I read this passage in
This passage requires a little interpretation in order for the point to be made. Tax collectors were the most hated men in ancient Jewish society. A Jewish tax collector actually worked for the Roman government. At that point in history the Roman army had occupied Israel and reduced it to just another region of the far-flung Roman Empire. That empire was supported and sustained by the collection of taxes that were used to support the needs of the army stationed in that region. The people who collected those taxes were usually members of the local community who worked for the Romans by collecting taxes from their own people to support the army that was occupying their country. Their fellow Jews viewed Matthew and all the other tax collectors as collaborators.
I should probably tell you that tax collectors in the ancient Roman Empire should not be compared to modern day IRS agents. In those days, a tax collector was assigned a certain amount of money to raise within his district, and that money went to the Roman governor in that region. However, any money the tax collector was able to raise above and beyond that amount could be kept and put in his own pocket. Therefore, most tax collectors were hated not only because they worked for the Romans, but also because they gouged their neighbors for more money than they really owed so that the tax collector could grow rich.
We get a sense of that in the story of Zaccheus in
Going back to our text in
Once again, we find Jesus entering the house of a tax collector; just as he did with Zaccheus in
If The Call and Post had a photographer there that night I wonder what the caption under the photograph would have read. Probably something like; “Son of God breaks bread with sinners.” I imagine that the same woman who left Antioch when I was photographed inside The Chef’s Club would also have walked out on Jesus when she saw him photographed in the house of Matthew while eating with tax collectors and sinners.
However, such people are always wrong when they object to something like this because there are some people you are not going to reach if you wait for them to come inside your church. However, if you are willing to reach out to them in the place where they gather you might win one or more of them for the kingdom. If you reach out to Matthew, he might set up a dinner where you can meet with many other such people who can then hear the Gospel.
I remember during my lunch at The Chef’s Club there was one man I was trying to convince to come to Antioch or to attend any church. He had lost all faith in preachers and he had lost all faith in the church. He told me that he was “going to go one-on-one with God” because Christians need to practice what they preach. Maybe he had run into one of the saints who thought that the only place God works is inside the church sanctuary. Maybe he had run into a modern-day Pharisee who thought that true religion consisted of going through the motion of religious rituals, but who had no real passion for reaching lost souls for the Gospel.
It reminds me of the parable Jesus tells in
Notice this contrast; a religious man standing next to a sinner and all he can do is boast about the religious rituals he performs. He does not reach out to the tax collector and try to show him a better way. He does not challenge the tax collector to change the way he is living. All he does is boast about his own religiosity and thank God he is not like the sinner standing nearby.
That is the way so many Christians are today; we are very good at religion but not so good at reaching out to the lost. We are good at coming to church for ourselves, but not so good at leaving the church to share the message of the Gospel with those who will not and are not coming inside the church. At some point you and I need to follow the example of Jesus and reach out to people like Matthew the tax collector. Such people can put us in touch with those who need nothing more than they need to hear the Gospel of Jesus Christ. At some point we need to leave the safety and sanctity of this sanctuary and extend our ministry beyond these walls.
Today is Communion Sunday, and some people would not think of missing church on the first Sunday. In their mind, being in church for the Communion service stands at the heart of their understanding of what it means to be a Christian. Unfortunately, many such people, and by that I mean most of you will leave this Communion service and feel that you have fulfilled your religious obligations for the day. Like the Pharisee in the parable of Jesus in
That is the point Jesus was making in
What is the point of being religious if you and I are not willing to be righteous as well? What is the benefit to anyone but ourselves of coming out to the house of the Lord so we can be filled, unless we are also willing to leave here and go to Matthew’s house so we can empty out the bread of life in that place? That is what Jesus did over and over again, and I believe that is what Jesus wants us to do as well!
Many are the times I go to places where non-church-goers are present and where alcohol is being served. Many are the times I go to the house of Matthew the tax collector to have dinner with his friends. That is true at a host of fraternal and civic and political and corporate gatherings. Not everybody in those groups is saved and born again, and my being with them in those moments may be the only chance I will have to share with them about the things of God. It does not have to be a full-court press of evangelism. Sometimes it is just your willingness to be there and your ability to let the spirit of Christ flow from you with love and openness and concern for what is happening in their lives.
Make no mistake about it; however, I enjoy those opportunities for fellowship. Sometimes it is because of the good meal that is served and the fun that we have together. However, as when I went to The Chef’s Club, those events also give me a chance both by word and deed to share a different kind of meal with them; a meal that consists of the bread of life. I understand that if I want to serve them that meal I have to go where they are, because most of them are not yet ready to come here to where the church is assembled.
So here is a question I want to ask of the members of Antioch Baptist Church. If you were to see a photograph of me in the house of Matthew the tax collector eating with a company of known sinners would you send me a letter announcing your decision to leave Antioch because you don’t want your pastor associating with “those people?” Or would you say that Rev. is following the example of Jesus and taking the message out to those who are not likely to come in to hear it? More importantly, will you follow the example of Jesus yourself and reach out to the “sinners” around you, and in the places where you and they are together just take a moment to share the Gospel with them? There is more to being a Christian than coming here to worship God.
When you leave the Communion table today, do not consider that your service to God has ended. Be sure to stop off at the house of some “Matthew the tax collector” in your life. That may be the single most important thing you will do as a Christian in a very long time.
However, whether you go there or not, know that I am going back to Matthew’s house every chance I get. And if one day my picture should appear in the newspaper showing me mingling with the people in that place, you will have to decide for yourselves whether or not I am in the right or the wrong place. Before you decide to leave the church over an issue like that, remember that you will probably be leaving Jesus as well, since he spent a great deal of his time sharing in fellowship with the sinners who gathered to eat the physical bread that came from Matthew and the bread of life that the Lord himself served to those who would not or could not come to the synagogue for the service.
When you leave the sanctity and safety of this sanctuary of this beautiful Communion Sunday, will you make your next stop a trip to Matthew’s house? Worship alone is not enough.