Last Sunday we kept the feast of Saint Matthew the Apostle, which was actually the day before on 21st September.
“For I have come to call not the righteous but sinners.” (Matthew 9:13)
The Crystal Palace was built in Hyde Park to house the Great Exhibition in 1851. After the Exhibition was over it was dismantled and rebuilt in an enlarged form on what was then known as Penge Common in Sydenham Hill – now known, of course, as Crystal Palace Park. Sydenham Hill was at that time an affluent London suburb full of large houses. And the rebuilding of the Crystal Palace presented the residents with something of a problem.
What on earth were they going to do with all the workers who would be coming to live locally to do the rebuilding. For one thing was quite clear. They couldn’t possibly attend the same church as the local residents, Saint Bartholomew’s in Sydenham. Saint Barthomew’s is a big church and the subject of a famous painting by Pisarro which hangs in the National Gallery. No way that people could be expected to worship with common labourers so something had to be done – unthinkable for the wealthy middle classes of Sydenham Hill to have labourers in their church! The obvious solution, of course, was to build the workers their own church. So they did. And the church of Saint Philip the Apostle, Wells Park, was built – a small church compared to Saint Bartholomew’s, and built of inferior stone.
Which was why by the late 1970s it was crumbling away and in need of serious work to keep it up. Finally, a fire sealed its fate, and it was demolished and rebuilt. And the parish church of Saint Bartholomew’s, being the next door parish, had to play host to its weddings and funerals during the rebuilding. But by that time, of course, Sydenham Hill was very much a part of Greater London and attitudes had changed – the congregation at Saint Bartholomew’s were far more welcoming than their predecessors of a century earlier. How – you might think – can Christians not want to mix with other Christians, however different their class or culture or background? And yet look back at the history of the Church and we see that it has not always reflected the attitude of Jesus towards those who are different.
The Church, whether individual congregations or whole denominations, in spite of the things that Jesus said and did, has had a long history of encouraging segregation in many forms, because particular groups or people have been viewed as being inferior or even unclean in some kind of ritualistic sense. We have seen segregated churches in South Africa during apartheid. When we lived in Sydenham we had a Brethren church that used the church hall on a Sunday morning at All Saints, one of our two parishes. They only allowed the men to sing. You could hear them as you walked past the church hall on a summer Sunday when they had the windows open.
Some extreme churches even cut themselves off totally from the rest of society – exclusive brethren, for example, won’t even eat with people not from their church. In Clapham I saw the churchwardens escort a rather dirty and smelly tramp from the church – he had come into the morning service part way through and before he had time to blink they had decided he had to go! They didn’t give him time to talk, they didn’t give him time to even sit down. Had he just come in to worship? We’ll never know because he was out of the door within seconds of walking in.
Too often Christians have treated people as unclean in just the way that Jesus condemned. This is not how it should be, said Jesus, and he made sure that his actions would get his message across – the gospel, the good news, is for the rejects of society as much as for the upright and self-righteous – more so, even. If it isn’t then it’s not good news at all.
Today’s gospel reading is about Jesus reaching out to rejects. Those society saw as people to be shunned, the unwanted or the unclean. Three people that no self-respecting Jew of the time would have gone anywhere near. Three times in today’s gospel reading, we see Jesus reaching out to people who were of no importance in anyone else’s eyes, or who were on the edge of respectable society. It is actually Luke’s Gospel that tells us that Matthew, also called Levi, is a tax collector. Matthew’s Gospel only implies this, because we first meet him sitting at a tax booth and then eating with Jesus in the company of other tax collectors and sinners. But no doubt there were some who questioned Jesus’ choice of follower – Matthew, of course, being a tax-collector and a collaborator with the Roman occupiers, had placed himself outside contemporary Jewish society. It was his choice, yet Jesus wants him. In defending his choice of Matthew, Jesus gives us one of the central definitions of his – and our – mission. He has come to call “not the righteous but sinners”.
If, before he met Jesus, Matthew had actively earned his place as an outsider, that cannot be said of the two women who enter in the second part of today’s gospel reading. But, nonetheless, because of their uncleanness, they, like Matthew, are excluded from the company of their peers. The woman with the haemorrhages has been untouched and ignored for twelve years – such an illness rendered her unclean – but her hope and her spirit are still strong. She is determined enough to manoeuvre herself close to Jesus, and brave enough to admit what she has done. She earns from Jesus more than just her health as her reward; she also earns her self-worth. Jesus gives her some of the warmest words of commendation that we hear from his lips. The little girl’s only fault is to have died. But in death, she became ritually unclean, and Jesus should not have touched her. The leader of the synagogue asks Jesus to come and lay his hands on his daughter. At one level he ought not to have done, for touching a dead body would make Jesus unclean, yet his faith that Jesus can bring his daughter from death to life overcomes his instinctive desire to uphold the law.
And so Jesus goes and touches her, taking her by the hand. He makes all the noisy mourners leave, and, in the quiet he has created, he calls the girl back to life. Astounding as this miracle is, he does not do it for the crowds, but for one little girl. He gives her back her life and with it her sense of how precious she is.
These stories have perhaps lost some of their impact for us, since we do not have the same understanding of ritual uncleanness or the same ways of making it clear who belongs in our society and who doesn’t as the Jewish society of the time of Jesus. But just hear how fierce Jesus is with those people who question the company he keeps. He says to them, “Go and learn what this means, ‘I desire mercy, not sacrifice.’” What would make Jesus say such strong words to us and our values? For we fool ourselves if we simply say, “But we’re not like that, nothing wrong with us.”
There are many sicknesses even today which can be healed by love and mercy and justice. The sicknesses caused by loneliness or resentment or a lack of forgiveness – and these sicknesses can have physical as well as emotional symptoms. There are also many people who feel dead on the inside, who know nothing of life’s joys but who could be brought back to life by the practical application of Christianity in the form of real, genuine love. And Christians who are able to stop putting themselves first with God and others in second and third place, Christians who have felt the loving touch of Jesus on their lives and want to reach out in turn and show that love to others, are people who are able to touch untouchables The untouchables of modern society, the present-day outsiders, such as drug addicts and alcoholics and people with AIDS and prostitutes and criminals.
It is easy to avoid mixing with such people, or to avoid contact when they cross our path – far less easy to sit beside them in a doorway holding a conversation with them. And yet these are the people Jesus reaches out to: “I have come to call not the righteous but sinners.” The kingdom of heaven may be experienced in its entirety after death, but it can also be very much experienced here and now. When Christians are able to get alongside other people, not preaching at them or condemning them but quietly expressing God’s love through acts of selfless friendship, through simply reaching out and touching their lives, then we see the Jesus who calls “not the righteous but sinners” at work in our midst.
For when people are bathed in genuine love, the love of Jesus, the love of Jesus shown through us, they respond. Like Matthew and like the woman with the haemorrhages and the little girl who was brought back to life they experience the love of Jesus.