In our reading from Romans, Paul says Abraham “grew strong in his faith as he gave glory to God.” And, Paul reminds us, quoting Genesis, Abraham’s faith was “reckoned to him as righteousness.”
Paul applies that line to us, too. If only we can grow strong in our faith, our faith will be reckoned to us as righteousness, just like it was for Abraham.
The obvious question for us is, how do we get that kind of faith? How do we learn to trust the promises God makes to us, as Abraham trusted the promises God made to him all those centuries ago?
To get at that question, we need to turn to our Gospel reading about the call of Matthew to become a disciple. Jesus found Matthew sitting at his tax booth. Jesus said, “Follow me.” And Matthew did. Just like that, Matthew “got up and followed him.”
But there is more to be said about Matthew’s response to Jesus’ call. By this time, Jesus had already called Peter and Andrew, James and John, and they, too, had immediately dropped everything to follow him (Matt 4:18-22). But Matthew was different. Matthew was a tax collector.
Over the course of his ministry, Jesus talks to and about tax collectors several times, but his call to Matthew was the first. And, as we can see in our reading, Jesus’ relationship with a tax collector was shocking. Scandalized Pharisees asked the disciples, “Why does your teacher eat with tax collectors and sinners?”
Their question says it all. Tax collectors were sinners. Respectable people did not associate with them.
Apparently the other disciples were also uncomfortable with their new companion because they repeated the Pharisees’ question to Jesus. How could he associate with a tax collector? Perhaps even more troubling, how could Jesus expect them to associate with a tax collector?
We’re not told how Matthew himself felt about all this, but it’s easy to guess.
Matthew knew people despised him for what he did. Matthew knew that his presence among Jesus’ disciples would compromise Jesus in the eyes of the world. Matthew knew that Jesus’ other disciples would not want him around. None of that can have felt good.
Worst of all, Matthew knew that they were all right to despise him. Collaborating with the Roman Empire to extract tax money from your own people really was dirty work, and every tax collector knew it.
So imagine Matthew’s astonishment when Jesus doesn’t avoid or despise him, when Jesus approaches him with love, when Jesus invites him to join the little band of disciples.
I wish we knew more about that first conversation between the two. I’m guessing Matthew said something like what Peter said when Jesus called him: “Go away from me, Lord, for I am a sinful man” (Luke 5:8). And I’m guessing Matthew meant it even more sincerely than Peter did. Because everybody knew, tax collectors were sinners indeed.
In reply, Jesus surely didn’t act like Matthew was wrong to hesitate, like Matthew was not a sinner. They both knew that he was. Instead, Jesus must have said to Matthew what Jesus says to the Pharisees a bit later in our reading. “I have come to call not the righteous but sinners.”
Jesus wasn’t looking for the perfect disciple, and Jesus certainly didn’t find the perfect disciple in Matthew the tax collector. What Jesus was looking for in a disciple was sinners who could become saints over time, with God’s help. That was Jesus’ promise to Matthew when Jesus called him.
The amazing thing in this story, after the fact that Jesus called Matthew in the first place, is that Matthew got the message. There were a million reasons why Jesus shouldn’t have called Matthew. There were a million reasons why Matthew shouldn’t answer Jesus’ call. There were a million reasons to believe that Matthew would never be a good disciple, to believe that Matthew would just embarrass Jesus and himself if Matthew even tried.
But Jesus had called Matthew. And Jesus had promised Matthew that he could answer the call, that he could be a disciple, that he could put his sinful past behind him and grow, truly grow, in the knowledge and love of God.
Matthew trusted Jesus’ promises. And Matthew’s faith in answering Jesus’ call was reckoned to Matthew as righteousness.
Even after his call, Matthew must have had periods of doubt. I am sure that Matthew wasn’t always a model disciple.
But Matthew kept trusting Jesus’ promises enough to stick with Jesus, to keep following despite his doubts. And Matthew eventually did become both a saint and an evangelist.
In our Gospel reading, Matthew is our man. Matthew is us.
We are the sinners Jesus has called to discipleship in this time and place. Jesus didn’t call us because we were awesome. Jesus called us as the sinners we are so that Jesus can help us to become saints.
It can be hard to believe that Jesus can do much with such crummy stuff as we sometimes are. But that’s the promise Jesus makes, the promise Jesus made to Matthew and the promise Jesus makes to us.
So, can we trust Christ’s promise to us? Do we have that kind of faith?
And that brings us back to Abraham. God had promised Abraham a child, and Abraham trusted God’s promise, knowing all the reasons why the promise seemed impossible. That trust, that faith, was reckoned to Abraham as righteousness and made Abraham the father of the faithful.
We, too, have our promise. In calling us, God promised to make us disciples, true disciples of Christ.
And we can all surely think of a million reasons why God shouldn’t have made that promise. But God did.
And we can all surely think of a million reasons why God’s promise to us could never come true. And if God’s promises depended on us, on our efforts, the promises wouldn’t come true.
But God’s promises don’t depend on us. God makes God’s promises come true in us. That’s what makes God’s promises trustworthy.
We all know that in our heads. We all sometimes trust God’s promises even in our hearts.
But still most of us have times of struggle. Of course. God’s promises sound too good to be true. Me, an agent of God’s kingdom? Me, a member of Christ’s own body? Me, a saint?
When we struggle with doubts like those, when we have trouble trusting God’s promises even though it is God who makes them, we’re not different from Abraham or Matthew. We know Abraham went through times of doubts (e.g. Gen 15:2-3). We can be sure Matthew did, too.
But Matthew kept following Jesus. As for Abraham, he prayed.
It was when Abraham gave glory to God, Paul tells us, that “Abraham grew strong in his faith.” It was in prayer that Abraham came to trust God’s promises.
When we pray, the same thing happens to and in us. Our faith grows stronger. By praying, we learn to trust God more fully. Praying is like practicing faith.
This week, I invite you to give it a try. Each day, take a few minutes to give God thanks and praise for calling you to be a disciple. Acknowledge your doubts and fears. And pray that God will strengthen your faith and help you to trust more fully in God’s promises.
If you do that, your faith will grow stronger. And the good news is that your faith, wavering though it may sometimes be, will be reckoned to you as righteousness, too
Thanks be to God. In Christ’s name. Amen.
Rev. Dr. Harvey Hill
Third Order Franciscan