Workers: Thoughts on all those unnamed disciples who do the work of the Lord.


Two summers ago, a small group of folks from JMPC went to Ch’ijtal, Mexico to help build a Christian education and office building with members of the local Presbyterian Church there.

Ch’ijtal is pretty far up in the mountains of Chiapas in southern Mexico.

When we got to the worksite, we found out that the building was to be built way up on top of a steep hill.

Way up.

My first thought as I looked up the long flight of stairs to the church was, “How will they get all the blocks, gravel and cement up there?”

The answer was simple.

People would carry it.

Carry blocks, cement and gravel up the hill on an uneven stairway of around 90 steps.

90 steps is about the same as a 5-story building.

Who was going to do that?

It turned out that it was the job of older men, young boys and women.

Each one would tie a strap to a big sack.

Into the bag went blocks or cement or gravel.

The bag would get hoisted onto their back and the strap was set on the forehead to help support the load.

Up the stairs they went they went, bent over.

Up and down.

Over and over and over.

Until the materials were all at the top.

Every day, more would arrive.

Up the stairs they went they went, bent over.

Up and down.

Over and over and over.

How many blocks or how much cement or gravel in the sack was up to the one heading up the steps.

When I saw this on the first day, I decided to give it a try.

I have no particular construction ability but I can carry stuff and walk up stairs.

The young boys thought I was funny.

This gray-haired white guy hauling the stuff up the steps!

They wanted me to take “tres” blocks.

I said, “No! Dos!”

We all laughed and up the stairs I went.

This was my job for the week.

I kind of liked it.

It certainly kept me in shape.

I’m pretty sure that no one in Ch’ijtal remembers that I did that.

They might remember that gray-haired white American who hauled all those blocks.

They don’t remember my name.

I never expected them to.

But what they do remember is that a bunch of people from the United States came to Ch’ijtal to help them build that building.

And that building is where they will teach their children about Jesus for years to come.

What, you might ask, does this have to do with Palm Sunday?

Let’s look at today’s text.

Mark 11: 1-11

11When they were approaching Jerusalem, at Bethphage and Bethany, near the Mount of Olives, he sent two of his disciples 2and said to them, ‘Go into the village ahead of you, and immediately as you enter it, you will find tied there a colt that has never been ridden; untie it and bring it. 3If anyone says to you, “Why are you doing this?” just say this, “The Lord needs it and will send it back here immediately.” ’ 4They went away and found a colt tied near a door, outside in the street. As they were untying it, 5some of the bystanders said to them, ‘What are you doing, untying the colt?’ 6They told them what Jesus had said; and they allowed them to take it. 7Then they brought the colt to Jesus and threw their cloaks on it; and he sat on it. 8Many people spread their cloaks on the road, and others spread leafy branches that they had cut in the fields. 9Then those who went ahead and those who followed were shouting,
   Blessed is the one who comes in the name of the Lord!
10   Blessed is the coming kingdom of our ancestor David!
Hosanna in the highest heaven!’

11 Then he entered Jerusalem and went into the temple; and when he had looked around at everything, as it was already late, he went out to Bethany with the twelve.

Today is Palm Sunday and our last lesson on the Strange Companions who were Jesus’ disciples.

We have talked about Peter, James, John, Matthew, Thomas and Judas.

On Palm Sunday I decided to talk about two disciples who are … well … anonymous.

We just heard the Palm Sunday story.

Jesus is on his way to Jerusalem.

When he gets close, he has to get prepared for the big, dramatic, triumphant entry.

There is really only one chore Jesus needs to have done.

Jesus needs a colt from town to be brought to him so he can ride it through the gates of the holy city.

Two disciples are dispatched to get a colt.

We are not told their names and while many have tried to figure out who they were, the two disciples remain anonymous.

They are given instructions by Jesus and go and do what they are told.

They bring the colt back and throw their coats on it.

Jesus climbs on and heads down the hill to Jerusalem.

Once he rides into Jerusalem, Jesus goes into the Temple, sizes things up and then, apparently walks back to Bethany where he is spending the night.

No mention of the colt.

The colt was probably given back to the owner.

That’s what Jesus said they would do.

Going back to the beginning of the story, I have this vision of Jesus at Bethany on his way to Jerusalem, pointing to two of the disciples and saying something like, “Hey, you two, go into town and get a colt for me to ride in on.”

I wonder what they thought.

“Why us?”

“Seems sort of menial.”

“Can’t one of those folks who follow us around go instead?”

But they go and get the colt, follow Jesus into town, watch him in the Temple, and then Jesus leaves!

Without the colt.

I wonder what the two disciples thought about that.

“We went and got the colt and that’s it?”

“What was the point?”

What was the point indeed?

Why does Jesus need to ride the colt?

He’s been walking around Judea for three years.

And Jerusalem is not that far from the Mount of Olives.

No, Jesus needs the colt to make a point.

To demonstrate that he is the Messiah Zechariah predicted.

Zechariah 9: 9
9 Rejoice greatly, O daughter Zion!
   Shout aloud, O daughter Jerusalem!
Lo, your king comes to you;
   triumphant and victorious is he,
humble and riding on a donkey,
   on a colt, the foal of a donkey.

Without that colt, Jesus’ proclamation that he was “that guy”, “your king”, might have been lost on his disciples and his other followers.

Jesus was putting on the messianic mantel, so to speak, with this short demonstration.

And the one thing he needed was that colt.

It worked.

Folks got it.

As Jesus rode by, they were singing Psalm 118!

A messianic psalm!

Our Call to Worship today!

26 Blessed is the one who comes in the name of the Lord.
   We bless you from the house of the Lord.
27 The Lord is God,
   and he has given us light.
Bind the festal procession with branches …

This is the one sent by God to save us!

Our King!

And they did in fact join themselves to the festal procession with branches.

Without that colt, maybe there would have been no singing.

Maybe no palm branches.

If that were so, no Palm Sunday?

Maybe Jesus would have been ignored.

The Temple authorities maybe unimpressed.

Pilate is never involved.

“Nothing to see here!”

Maybe no crucifixion, no resurrection and no Easter?

OK, I won’t go that far, but still, getting that colt seems to have been critical to the plan.

A seeming menial task that contributed to the deliverance of the world.

And no one even bothered to remember which two disciples it was who went to get the colt.

In all four Gospels they are simply “two disciples”.

This reminds me of an urban legend (it has many versions), that has the same point.

According to the story, President John F. Kennedy was touring the NASA headquarters.

It was late and he saw a janitor mopping the floor.

Kennedy walked over and said, “Hi. I’m Jack Kennedy. Why are you working so late?’

The janitor reportedly answered, “I’m helping to put a man on the moon.”

While that story might be just a legend, it does not change the fact that 400,000 people did what might have seemed to be menial and unimportant things that did in fact help put Neil Armstrong and Buzz Aldrin on the moon!

Andrew Carton, a professor of management at The Wharton School, studied the process that started with Kennedy’s vision and ended with the moon landing.

He is quoted as saying this about his many interviews of the workers.

“Rather than talking about, ‘I’m fixing electrical wiring’ or ‘I’m stitching space suits’ or ‘I’m mopping the floors,’ they would actually identify their work as ‘I’m putting a man on the moon.’ It was a strikingly unique period of time where many people across the entire organization had these kinds of perceptions”.

Like the menial but critical colt retrieving required of the two unnamed disciples, the small tasks carried out by each NASA worker ultimately put Armstrong and Aldrin on the moon.

If you think about it, that’s the way of many things.

It’s how products are developed and made.

It’s how sports are played.

It’s how churches work.

Everybody has a part.

Each worker does their part to accomplish the mission.

And while some, like Armstrong and Aldrin, get famous, most remain anonymous or are simply forgotten.

Like the guy in the command module.

What was his name?

It’s also how this church works.

A while back in my “state of the church” sermon I tried to list all the people who have kept JMPC going over the past year.

There are two problems with making such a list.

First, too many people get left off the list.

Second, some of the people on the list, don’t want anyone to know what they do.

For those who get left off the list, they probably never had any expectation that their efforts would be recognized in that way, but to be overlooked could have been irritating.

Happily, none complained.

For those who want to remain anonymous but were on the list (and there are several people at JMPC who have done yeoman’s work for JMPC but absolutely forbid any recognition) hearing their names could have been irritating.

Happily, none of them complained either.

But I did learn this from that act of list making and then reading this text.

Doing the work of the Lord without fanfare is what disciples do.

The goal is not fanfare.

The goal is the Kingdom of God.

I have seen what that looks like here.

I came to JMPC in October of 2014.

I was told that I was about to witness a miracle.

The Christmas Affair.

I was told that the church would be transformed from church to craft and food bazaar then back to the church in three days.

In fact, the “back to church” part would only take a couple hours!

It was all true.

Was it a miracle?

Not really.

We just all worked.

Everyone had a job.

Some jobs were small.

Some jobs were big.

No one expected nor wanted individual recognition.

Everyone did their job and $11,000 went to charity.

Here is another example.

A couple of weeks ago, I conducted the funeral of one of JMPC’s charter members.

I did not know her, so I asked if anyone did.

No one remembered her.

We checked the rolls and sure enough, she was a charter member.

She was one of the folks who started what we see around us.

One of those who started JMPC at William Penn School and then took it up on this hill.

And none of them had any expectation that their names would be remembered.

What they did expect was that Jesus would continue to be known, glorified and served by the next JMPC generations that would follow.

We are the current “next” generation. 

We need to carry on that work to the next, next generation.

We need new folks like the charter members of this church.

Like the janitor at NASA.

Like the folks carrying bricks up the stairs in Ch’ijtal.

Like the anonymous two disciples.

Folks who are willing to do what is necessary to accomplish our mission that will benefit folks who will not likely remember them.

That is what being a disciple is about.

When you do things for the Lord, we don’t seek recognition.

We seek the Kingdom of God.

We don’t know who those two disciples were, but we have seen the results of what they were part of.

They are part of that great cloud of witnesses.

And we see the results of what those unnamed folks have been doing anonymously as disciples of Jesus for almost 2,000 years.

That’s what Jesus calls us to.

And we need to keep doing it.

Not for fame and fortune.

But to be disciples of Jesus.

What is your part?

If you know, keep doing it.

If you don’t, take a look at the list Ruling Elders.

Which of those Pillars has a job that JMPC (or, if you are just visiting, your own church) needs to have done?

Trust me, there is a lot to be done as we emerge from this pandemic.

So, join us in getting those things done.

Not for fame of fortune.

But to be a disciple of Jesus.

Palm Sunday this week at John McMillan Presbyterian Church – “Go get a donkey, you two.”

Back around the turn of the century, I went on a mission trip with the high school youth group from my church. This was long before I became a pastor. I was just an adult volunteer. It was the second such trip I had chaperoned. In the previous year, I learned that one person was responsible for feeding the kids and adults their three meals and a snack every day for 6 days. There were a lot of people to feed. For reasons that I cannot explain, I volunteered to be the “cook” for the upcoming trip. I was given a book titled “Feeding Fifty” along with a pat on the back and the church credit card. I prepared the menu for each day. The only advice I got from the previous year’s cook was not to buy generic because the kids won’t eat it. When we arrived at the mission site, I was dropped off at the local grocery store and started to buy the food we would need. Probably about 8 carts full (they set up a special lane for me every time I came in and gave me every special they had running). My daily schedule thereafter was basically to give the kids breakfast (surprisingly easy because few ate it), put out lunch food so they could make their own lunches (not as easy), go to the store to buy 8 more carts of food (they knew me by name and I was very popular in the store), head back to the church where we were staying, unload the groceries and start getting dinner ready. This was all done by me, alone. I did not get to go to any of the work sites. Surprisingly, there were few complaints about the food. Yet, I was always in the kitchen, one of the “chaperones” and so basically ignored by the kids. I’m pretty sure a lot of them did not even know who I was. Here is the interesting thing. It was maybe my favorite youth mission trip. Even though few, if any, of those kids remember who cooked for them that week, they did the mission work, had great fellowship, and learned a bit about Jesus. I had a part in that. What does that have to do with the disciples? With Palm Sunday? It’s this. Jesus sent two disciples to get the colt he was to ride into Jerusalem. Who were they? No one knows. Join us Sunday at 10am in the John McMillan Presbyterian Church parking lot and/or on Facebook Live for Palm Sunday – this coming Sunday! – and hear something about the rest of the disciples.

Betrayer! Thoughts on Judas Iscariot and his role in assuring God’s will was done.


One of Frank Sinatra’s biggest hits was “My Way”.

The lyrics were written specifically for him by his friend Paul Anka.

Anka wrote the lyrics after Sinatra told him he was getting out of show business because he had no control over his career.

Sinatra wanted control.

Sinatra recorded the song in one take and it became his signature piece.

You know what the song is about.

And now the end is here
And so I face that final curtain
My friend I’ll make it clear
I’ll state my case, of which I’m certain
I’ve lived a life that’s full
I traveled each and every highway
And more, much more
than this, I did it my way!

At the end of life’s journey, the narrator says with great pride that he did everything “his way”.

That’s what the “Chairman of the Board” wanted.

This is the anthem of a control freak.

Someone who thinks he or she knows best about how things ought to be and does whatever can be done to make it so.

They know the outcome they want and take control of the process to assure that outcome.

It can be arrogant and selfish.

And the leader of the Rat Pack learned that.

This from Wikipedia:

Although this work became Frank Sinatra’s signature song his daughter Tina says the singer came to hate the song. “He didn’t like it. That song stuck and he couldn’t get it off his shoe. He always thought that song was self-serving and self-indulgent.”

What’s interesting is that Sinatra initially wanted control, but with that song, he lost control.

Even when he no longer wanted to sing it, when he hated what it meant, he had to keep singing it.

It was stuck to him and he could not scrape it off.

Maybe that’s what Judas Iscariot was all about.

John 13: 2-10; 18-30

2The devil had already put it into the heart of Judas son of Simon Iscariot to betray him. And during supper 3Jesus, knowing that the Father had given all things into his hands, and that he had come from God and was going to God, 4got up from the table, took off his outer robe, and tied a towel around himself. 5Then he poured water into a basin and began to wash the disciples’ feet and to wipe them with the towel that was tied around him. 6He came to Simon Peter, who said to him, ‘Lord, are you going to wash my feet?’ 7Jesus answered, ‘You do not know now what I am doing, but later you will understand.’ 8Peter said to him, ‘You will never wash my feet.’ Jesus answered, ‘Unless I wash you, you have no share with me.’ 9Simon Peter said to him, ‘Lord, not my feet only but also my hands and my head!’ 10Jesus said to him, ‘One who has bathed does not need to wash, except for the feet, but is entirely clean. And you are clean, though not all of you.’ 18I am not speaking of all of you; I know whom I have chosen. But it is to fulfil the scripture, “The one who ate my bread has lifted his heel against me.” 19I tell you this now, before it occurs, so that when it does occur, you may believe that I am he. 20Very truly, I tell you, whoever receives one whom I send receives me; and whoever receives me receives him who sent me.’

21 After saying this Jesus was troubled in spirit, and declared, ‘Very truly, I tell you, one of you will betray me.’ 22The disciples looked at one another, uncertain of whom he was speaking. 23One of his disciples—the one whom Jesus loved—was reclining next to him; 24Simon Peter therefore motioned to him to ask Jesus of whom he was speaking. 25So while reclining next to Jesus, he asked him, ‘Lord, who is it?’ 26Jesus answered, ‘It is the one to whom I give this piece of bread when I have dipped it in the dish.’ So when he had dipped the piece of bread, he gave it to Judas son of Simon Iscariot. 27After he received the piece of bread, Satan entered into him. Jesus said to him, ‘Do quickly what you are going to do.’ 28Now no one at the table knew why he said this to him. 29Some thought that, because Judas had the common purse, Jesus was telling him, ‘Buy what we need for the festival’; or, that he should give something to the poor. 30So, after receiving the piece of bread, he immediately went out. And it was night.

So, this week we talk about Judas Iscariot.

One of the twelve.

Picked by Jesus.

And the one who betrayed him.

With a kiss.

But what do we really know about him?

Not a lot.

He is listed in every Gospel as one of the twelve, but always last, stuck with that terrible phrase, “the one who betrayed him”.

Can’t get it off his sandal.

But I wonder what the disciples would have said about Judas before he turned Jesus in?

We only know what was written about him after his betrayal.

In the Gospel of John, written years later, Jesus says this:

… ‘Did I not choose you, the twelve? Yet one of you is a devil.’ He was speaking of Judas son of Simon Iscariot, for he, though one of the twelve, was going to betray him.

What else?

We are told Judas was the keeper of the purse.

He was the apostolic treasurer.

We are also told that he was troubled when money was spent on extravagance rather than the care of the poor.

Yet in retrospect, his motives even then were questioned.

He did not care for the poor, John says, but was a thief and wanted the money for himself.

Judas reputation as a bad guy can’t be scraped off of his shoe.

Maybe he deserved it.

But remember, Judas was one of the twelve!

While there is no call story for Judas in the Gospels and we see nothing about Judas’ participation in the ministry and miracles.

Yet, it is clear that as “one of the twelve” he was called by Jesus and did participate in all the missions and ministries.

What we do know is that Judas ultimately turned Jesus over to the religious authorities.

All four Gospels say that Judas went to these authorities to arrange for Jesus’ arrest.

In Matthew, Judas approaches the chief priests and asks what they will give him in return for arranging Jesus’ arrest.

In Mark, Judas merely offers to turn Jesus in to the chief priests who then say they will give Judas money.

In Luke, Judas is possessed by the devil and then kind of negotiates the terms and price of the betrayal with the Temple authorities.

John describes Judas’ betrayal as having been instigated by the devil without any prior arrangement with the chief priests and no talk of money.

In Matthew, Mark and Luke, Judas meets with the religious authorities after Jesus arrives in Jerusalem.

John is silent on Judas contact with the religions authorities.

Only in Matthew does Judas actually receive money – the thirty pieces of silver.

All four Gospels have Judas at the Last Supper.

It is from there that Judas goes to get the authorities.

Judas’ departure is only described in John.

Our text for today.

Note that Judas’ departure is not recognized as significant by any disciple.

It is assumed he is going to the store, so to speak.

This is despite Jesus’ comment that one of the disciples is going to betray him and that the one who eats the bread after him is the one who will do it.

Judas is clearly that guy as we see in the text, but no one seems to notice.

The actual arrest of Jesus is for the most part the same in each Gospel.

Jesus, after praying in Gethsemane, gathers with the disciples.

Judas shows up with a bunch of soldiers and representatives of the chief priests.

Matthew, Mark and Luke have Judas kiss Jesus to identify him., while in John, Jesus identifies himself.

As an aside, you might ask why Judas needed to do this in the first place.

Because finding Jesus without GPS, surveillance cameras, or a social media picture or video of him, would have been impossible without someone who had traveled with Jesus for three years and knew exactly where Jesus would be that night.

Judas takes the soldiers to Jesus, pecks him on the cheek, turns and says, “Here he is boys!”

Now we need to think about what Judas thought was going to happen.

Jesus was betrayed to the religious authorities, not the Romans.

Judas seems to have been setting up a confrontation between Jesus and those Temple folks.

There is only one reason to believe that Judas expected Jesus to be killed.

Jesus had predicted it.

But did Judas think he was precipitating that?

Scripture is silent.

According to Matthew, when Jesus is ultimately condemned by the Sanhedrin and sent to Pilate for execution , Judas is full of remorse and returns the money he got from the chief priests.

He apparently wants to cleanse himself of his betrayal.

The chief priests basically tell him, “Sorry, too late for that.”

 Judas then hangs himself.

Judas’ repentance and suicide are in no other Gospel.

The only other reference to Judas’ death is in Acts.

We are told in Acts that Judas bought a field with “the wages of iniquity”, the source of which we are not told, and then fell into the field and literally burst open.

As an aside, you might ask if Judas was eternally damned.

Scripture is silent.

But Jesus promised the twelve, one of which was Judas, that they would sit on thrones in God’s kingdom.

Is that where Judas is?

Scripture is silent.

That’s it for Judas in the New Testament.

Lots of questions.

According to John Paul Meier, American biblical scholar and Roman Catholic priest, there are only two things we can be certain of about Judas from scripture.

He was one of the twelve.

And arranged for Jesus to be handed over to the authorities.

But did Judas “betray” Jesus?

Believe it or not, that is debated.

The Greek word for “betrayal” is also translated as “handed over”.

While the result is the same, the motive is different.

“Betrayal” includes a malicious intent.

The goal is clearly to harm.

“Handing over” is an act transferring possession from one to another.

The motive of “handing over” seems almost like it is required.

This distinction is part of the debate on the question of why Judas would do such a thing to Jesus.

Remember, before Judas cuts his deal, Jesus says that twelve will join him in the Kingdom of Heaven where they will each have a throne and judge the twelve tribes of Israel.

Judas was one of them.

He was the real deal.

What changed?

Why did Judas go from disciple to traitor?

Maybe Judas was never a real believer.

Maybe money.

Maybe the devil.

Depends on what you read.

But when we look at the passage today, we might be given some clues.

For instance, John says the devil was behind the betrayal.

What might the devilish influence on Judas look like?

Maybe a desire for control.

Control over Jesus.

Control over the outcome.

But Jesus knew that Judas was influenced by the devil from way back in chapter 6.

Jesus knew demonic possession when he saw it, right?

God had put all things into Jesus’ hands.

Well, Jesus had exorcised demons before, right?

Why didn’t Jesus exorcise this one?

Why did Jesus let Judas be used by the devil for the devilish work?

Because Jesus needed someone to do it?

Maybe, but why?

Jesus could have turned himself in, right?

Well maybe Jesus needed someone to get him from the middle of the disciples so that they could not stop him from his journey to the cross.

So, Judas, a control guy to begin with, inspired by the devil, was the best candidate to do just that.

Judas and the devil want control?

Jesus gives it to them.

And then, Jesus does something really interesting.

He puts the “communion bread” into the “communion cup” and hands it to Judas.

It was then that Judas devil inspired desire for control is unleashed.

Jesus says to Judas, “Do quickly what you are going to do.”

It’s almost like Jesus is giving Judas a blessing.

Maybe this is why Judas was called.

Because he would do this.

That’s sort of my take on this.

One similar theory is a bit less devilish.

Judas wanted Jesus to announce to the world who he was and take the throne of Israel.

But Jesus seemed disinterested in that.

Rather, Jesus just wanted to teach and preach about loving God and loving neighbor.

Judas, knowing the power Jesus possessed, set Jesus up and put Jesus in a situation that would force Jesus to take charge and be the Messiah Judas wanted.

Judas tried to be in control.

Whichever of Judas’ possible motives you want to pick, what Judas tried to do was take control.

Like Frank Sinatra, Judas wanted it to be done “My way”.

But it did not happen the Judas way.

It happened the Jesus way.

So, what do we make of all this?

Is there a lesson for us?

What does it all mean?

It might mean that we cannot control God or God’s purposes for our lives and our world.

We might want it our way.

But we will get Jesus’ way.

Which is incredibly frustrating, right?

We want to be in charge.

In control.

But we aren’t.

Unless … our goals are God’s goals.

Only then will we get what we want.

That’s why Jesus tells us to pray that God’s will be done, not ours.

And then we should pray that we be given a role in accomplishing God’s will.

Maybe that is what Judas was all about.

He was given a role in accomplishing God’s plan.

I kind of hope that is what was going on with him.

I kind of hope that is what is going on with all of us.

This Week at John McMillan Presbyterian Church: Betrayal! The Story of Judas Iscariot.

Who is your favorite traitor? There are many to choose from. In the movies, we could identify Ephialtes, the disabled Spartan soldier want-to-be who leads Xerxes army around the flank of Leonidas’ “300” Spartans or the evil Saruman who betrays Middle Earth in “The Two Towers”. If we want to look at historical figures in the US, we can look at Aldrich Ames who while at the CIA disclosed the names of over 100 agents to the Soviet Union for $4.6M resulting in the deaths of 10 American agents. Or how about Julius and Ethel Rosenberg who delivered classified information to the Soviet Union on the building of an atomic bomb. Or John Walker who provided code translations, the positions of US nuclear submarines, submarine defense systems and plans for military operations in Vietnam to the Soviet Union over his 17 years as a US Navy communications officer. But the one that comes to everyone’s mind is clearly Benedict Arnold. Arnold was an American military leader in the American Revolution who claimed responsibility for several military victories against the British. When he felt “overlooked” for promotions by the Continental Congress and General George Washington, he decided to defect to the British and attempted to surrender the American fort at West Point. When the plot was discovered, Arnold fled, was commissioned a brigadier general in the British army after which he led attacks on New London, Connecticut and Richmond, Virginia, including a massacre of surrendering American forces at the Battle of Groton Heights. That should make him number one on anyone’s list. But there is one “traitor” whose name is infamous. Judas Iscariot, the “betrayer” of Jesus. What do we really know about him? Join us at John McMillan Presbyterian Church on Sunday March 21 as we continue our sermon series “Strange Companions” and fill out the biography of Judas Iscariot. We will be on Facebook Live at 10am, as we stream from the church parking lot. So, join us online or here at the church.

Tax Collector: Thoughts on want it means to be a “Matthew”.

Tax Collector

There is one hymn that we all know and love.

Amazing Grace.

We sing it all the time.

How sweet the sound.

The lyrics were written by John Newton.

His history is an interesting one.

According to Wikipedia:

Newton went to sea as a boy and continued in that occupation for many years.

As a young man, Newton had a reputation for the ability to elevate profanity to an art form.

While aboard the ship Greyhound, Newton was known as the most profane man the captain had ever met.

In a culture where sailors habitually swore, Newton was admonished several times for not only using the worst words the captain had ever heard but creating new ones to exceed the limits of verbal debauchery.

Quite something to be known for.

Newton ultimately became a ship captain, and his primary cargo was slaves taken to North America.

After retiring from active seafaring, he continued to invest in the slave trade. 

He moved to Liverpool and was appointed … wait for it … the tax collector!

It around that time he sought to become a clergyman.

It took him 7 years and applications to several denominations before he was finally ordained by the Anglican Church.

Only much later did Newton break a long silence on the subject of slavery when he became an ally of William Wilberforce, leader of the Parliamentary campaign to abolish the African slave trade with the passage of the Slave Trade Act of 1807.

John Newton.


Slave trader.

Tax Collector.

How did such a despicable fellow become a priest and writer of one of the most famous hymns ever written?

Amazing grace.

Which brings us to our scripture reading.

Matthew 9: 9-13

9 As Jesus was walking along, he saw a man called Matthew sitting at the tax booth; and he said to him, ‘Follow me.’ And he got up and followed him.

10 And as he sat at dinner in the house, many tax-collectors and sinners came and were sitting with him and his disciples. 11When the Pharisees saw this, they said to his disciples, ‘Why does your teacher eat with tax-collectors and sinners?’ 12But when he heard this, he said, ‘Those who are well have no need of a physician, but those who are sick. 13Go and learn what this means, “I desire mercy, not sacrifice.” For I have come to call not the righteous but sinners.’

This week we try to fill out the biography of the apostle Matthew.

Sort of an apostolic John Newton.

Our text is his Matthew’s story.

Jesus has just healed a paralytic in Nazareth and as he is leaving town, he sees a man named Matthew sitting in a tax booth.

Jesus says to Matthew, “Follow me.”


Why amazing?

Matthew is a tax collector.

And tax collecting is a very profitable venture.

In the days of Jesus, Rome collected primarily three kinds of taxes.

A “ground” tax of 1/10th of harvested grain and 1/5th of harvested fruit.

A poll tax which was basically a set amount for each adult.

An income tax of 1% of business income.

Collecting these taxes was a real problem.

That problem was assigned to the provincial governors.

The logistics of collecting the taxes took a good deal of planning and effort.

So, there had to be a census of the number of people in the area.

There has to be a good deal of intelligence on the economics of the community.

Who did what?

Who owned what?

What was the harvest like?

Who was making money?

The provincial governors the best source of intelligence and community insight would be people who lived there.

But that would require incentives.  

So, what the Romans did was to hire locals to do this work.

To get people to collect the taxes, they had to make it lucrative.

To do so, the Romans gave the tax collectors a percentage of the take.

How much was the take?

That depended on the whim of the tax collector.

How much did the tax collector sent to Rome?

That depended on what the tax collector told the governor.

“This is what I collected, and this is your portion, Governor.”

There were no audits.

So tax collecting could be very lucrative which, of course, attracted a fairly corrupt set of bidders for the franchises.

People looked at them as corrupt, evil and traitorous.

As Cicero put it:

“In regards to trades and commerce, which ones are to be respected and which ones are base, these are generally established. First, those that incur the hatred of men are the tax collectors …”

It was worse when a Jew took the job of tax collector.

Jews were particularly reluctant to pay taxes to Rome.

Fiercely nationalist and monotheistic, paying taxers to a foreign occupier was irritating and contrary to their perceived identity as the people of God.

A Jewish tax collector was considered even more despicable because of their cooperation with the occupying gentile force.

That was Matthew.

Jesus called him to be a disciple.

And Matthew did.

As I said, amazing, on both counts.

What more do we know about him?

In the Gospel of Matthew his name is … well  … Matthew.

In Mark and Luke his name is Levi.

Are these two different people or just one known by two different names?

There are a few lists of apostles, one by Clement of Alexandria, that have both Levi and Matthew in them implying they are two different people, but the vast majority of Biblical scholars conclude that there is only one tax collector among the disciples.

Matthew is his Greek name and Levi his Jewish name.

What else do we know?

Other than our text, nothing at all.

We see no more of Matthew in any Gospel and we don’t see him in Acts.

I know, you are thinking, “Well, we have the Gospel of Matthew, right? Didn’t he write that?”

That is debatable.

Eusebius believed that Matthew wrote this Gospel while he was in the north, first writing in Hebrew then later in “his native tongue” most likely Greek.

There are a couple others who take this view.

But the overwhelming opinion is that Matthew the tax collector did not write this Gospel.

It is a compilation of Mark’s Gospel, a source called “Q” (not the social media “Q”) and a source called “M”.

Why then is it called Matthew?

The use of a disciple’s name on early Christian documents was common.

It gave the document authority.

And there is a long list of such documents that were rejected as inauthentic.

For instance, there is another document attributed to Matthew that has the birth narrative but claims that peaceful lions and wolves attended the birth.

It also talks about a tree that bends itself over to give its fruit to Mary.

It also has a rather troubling story about how the young boy Jesus killed another boy who was bullying him.

Even Eusebius bewailed that such heretical documents were being attributed to apostles.

But just because we don’t think that the tax collector Matthew wrote this Gospel does not mean we don’t think it inspired, authoritative and canonical.

We do.

That is why I refer to it today.

What happened to Matthew?

The early church tradition was that Matthew did leave Judea on a missionary journey.

This tradition said that Matthew traveled through Syria where he met Peter and Andrew.

It then said that to the City of Nadaver in Ethiopia.

There he encounters, guess what?

Two magicians!

Magicians must have been on every corner in those days.

Their schtick was to paralyze people then free them.

People would then worship these magicians as deities.

Matthew takes them on.

He makes the sign of the cross and the battle is on.

The Eunuch that Phillip baptized sees this and takes Matthew to his home after the first skirmish.

Matthew preaches and converts many on the way.

The magicians later show up at the Eunuch’s home with a couple of dragons.

Matthew again makes the sign of the cross and chases them all away.

Matthew next gets word that the king’s son has died.

The magicians want to carve a statue to the boy and make the boy a God, but Matthew raises the boy from the dead in the name of Jesus.

The king, impressed, is converted.

But the king’s brother remains skeptical.

When Matthew starts encouraging one of the court princesses (who the brother has his eye on) to “marry Christ” and so become what today we would call a nun, Matthew is stabbed to death by and agent of the king’s brother.

The geography of this is a bit confusing.

The Ethiopia that these legends talk about is probably a province of Parthia, in what we know today as northern Iran.

There is some historical support for Matthew going first to the Ethiopia of East Africa before returning to Judea then heading up to Parthia, though there are no early accounts.

There is a good deal of traditional information that Matthew ministered in Parthia and was ultimately martyred there.

Here is a story of Matthew’s death in Parthia.

There was a city of cannibals called Myrna there.

In a vision, Matthew was called by Jesus to plant his staff at the gates of the city.

The staff would then grow into a tree that would somehow purify the cannibals.

Matthew is taken to the king where Matthew exorcizes the king’s wife and son from demon possession.

The demons then possess the king who then nails Matthew to the floor, pours oil on him and sets him on fire.

Matthew rebukes the fire, which turns into a dragon, chasing the king away and setting fire to all the idols in the court.

Matthew then destroys the dragon and dies.

The king has a vision of Matthew ascending with a crown of martyrdom and is immediately converted.

Those who touch Matthew’s remains have miraculous healings.

The burial of Matthew’s remains is a mystery.

There is the Monastery of Armenian Brotherhood in Kyrgyzstan that claims to be the tomb of Matthew.

There is no evidence for this.

It is also claimed that in 954 Matthews bones were found and taken to Italy and interred at the Salerno Cathedral.

If you want to celebrate Matthew, that’s the place to go.

So, is there anything we can learn from Matthew and his life, real or legendary?

I believe so.

It comes from the Gospel account of what happened right after Jesus call of Matthew.

The first stop is after Mathew walks away from the tax booth is Mathew’s house where he throws a party for Jesus.

The invitees are many.

Jesus current disciples, of course.

And other tax collectors and “sinners” are there as well.

The Pharisees are lurking and clearly have been stalking Jesus and want to know why Jesus eats with these disreputable folks.

A Jewish rabbi should not be hanging out with such despicable people.

Jesus responds that he came for folks such as these.

Jesus brings God’s mercy to them.

He is their doctor, and they are sick.

He came to heal them.

To heal their relationship with God.

The Pharisees believe that the only way to get right with God is to sacrifice.

Follow the sacrificial system!

Then Jesus says that God does not want sacrifice.

God want’s mercy.

God wants mercy, not sacrifice.

You want to please God?

The sacrificial law won’t do it.

What God wants is that we be merciful, even to these rascals!

See, Jesus came to be the embodiment of God’s mercy to us.

We are called to do likewise.

We are called to be the embodiment of God’s love for each other, regardless of our personal despicability and sinfulness.

We do that by living the Jesus way.

Matthew illustrates that point.

When we come across someone who wants to be part of our community of faith, that they are tax collectors or sinners is no reason to exclude them.

It didn’t preclude us from being disciples of Jesus, right?

That is the Good News.

If Matthew is welcome, so are we.

That is amazing grace.

This week at John McMillan Presbyterian Church: Tax Collector – Who was Matthew?

Most folks have three names. Two are the “given” names. A first name and a middle name. Then we have the surname, which is a hereditary name common to all members of a family. To family and friends, we are generally referred to by one of our given names (except in school when we are often called by just our last name, or some nick name). Most folks are called by their first name but, interestingly, some are called by their middle names. That is true in my family. My dad, whose name was Thomas James Tindall, Sr. was called Jim. I don’t know why. My brother, Thomas James Tindall, Jr. is called Tom. My full name is Marshall Jefferson Tindall. The name I have answered to most of my life has been Jeff (purportedly because Tom could not pronounce Marshall when I was born). What is interesting is that when I was in Middle School and High School, everyone called me Marshall. Before and after that everyone called me Jeff. So, when I meet someone from my past, and they call me Marshall, I know I knew them in middle school or high school. One time I was courting a girl in high school who thought Marshall and Jeff were two different people. I never asked her which one she preferred. This was a problem the apostle Matthew had in the early church. He was known by two different names. Some thought in those days (and some think now) that Matthew was two different people. That is just a minor point of information on Matthew that I will explore when we examine the life and legends of the apostle Matthew, the tax collector. Join us at 10am in the parking lot or on Facebook Live as we continue our apostles’ biographies.