Are we sympathetic to people who face temptation, or are we harsh in our judgment of them? Today I want to think about how this played out in the lives of a few of Jesus’ disciples. And I want to think about how Wisdom can help us when we see people who are tempted.
Bible quiz. If I asked you “Who was Jesus’ money guy?” what would you say? Some of you will answer “Judas”. Because maybe you are familiar with the verses in the gospel of John that tells us that Judas was in charge of the common purse.
But that’s not the answer I am thinking of. By “money guy”, I mean “money expert”. I am wondering, “Who was the money expert? Who was the person who knew the most about money of all the disciples?”
And I think the answer to that was probably Matthew. Matthew was a tax-collector. Matthew, Mark and Luke all tell us that Matthew was sitting at a tax booth in Capernaum when he was called by Jesus. Capernaum was a city on the main north/south trade route from Egypt to Damascus. Matthew’s job in the tax booth was to figure out how much money everyone owed, to collect it and to count it. There was a tax on what you produced (in terms of crops), what you caught (in terms of fish), but also what you carried…what you were trading. Matthew could stop practically everyone and get money from them. There were no ATM’s then…there would have been piles of money in front of Matthew.
We know that four of the other disciples were fishermen…Peter, Andrew, James and John. While they were in the fishing trade, and would sell their fish, they would never have seen the types and amounts of money that Matthew did. The other disciples…we don’t know what their occupations were. But there were very few occupations would have allowed for that much access to money. I think it’s safe to say that Matthew was the money expert in the group of Jesus’ disciples.
Many of you know that Don Neufeld has been our treasurer here at Lendrum for ages. We give him that job every year because in his career, he was a money specialist…that’s what he did for a living. Don knows what he is doing with money, so it’s a no-brainer that he does that job for us in the church.
Why didn’t Jesus make the same choice, giving the money job to the money specialist? The reason is because tax collectors didn’t just collect money for the Roman government, it was well known and expected that they skimmed money off for themselves. Being a tax collector was a way to get rich, because as the government’s representative, you could take money for yourself with impunity. In Luke 3, many people go out to see John the Baptist in the wilderness. His advice to the tax collectors is that from now on they should “collect no more than the amount prescribed.”
Yes, Jesus had a money expert among his disciples. But he also knew that the money expert had a problem with greed, had a history of stealing money. Jesus could have condemned Matthew and made a point of saying what a sinner he was, he could have drawn attention to Matthew’ problem with money. But Jesus didn’t do any of these things.
He had compassion for Matthew and he helped him by keeping him out of temptation. One of the lines from the prayer that Jesus taught us is “Lead us not into temptation…” Temptation is tempting. And Jesus tried to keep temptation away from Matthew. Even though Matthew was a money expert, he kept him away from money, to help him avoid temptation.
Jesus knows that we are prone to falling, and that if we fall once, it is even easier to fall again a second time.
Let me tell you a story about that. A number of years ago my husband Eugene got a friend to help him chop down a big maple tree in our back yard. They cleaned up most of the smaller branches, but there were these two big logs, the main part of the trunk that they didn’t move because they were so big. Well those logs were sitting around my backyard for a couple months and every week I had to mow the lawn around them. So one day, I just got it into my head that I would roll this log to the front yard, so it would be easier for Eugene to take away in his truck.
So I started rolling this log, it was around 18” thick and around four feet long. It was pretty hard to roll, and I rolled it quite some distance. I was rolling it down the sidewalk beside our house when I realized, “OW, this is hurting my back!” So I decided, “This is stupid. I could really hurt myself doing this.” So I stopped. That night at dinner I told my family, “There’s a log on our sidewalk, don’t trip over it…one of these days Eugene has to take it away in his truck.”
Well, I should also tell you that at that time I had a job working as a chaplain at a hospital. I carried a pager, and was sometimes called out at night to go to be with people who were dying. And that night, in the middle of the night, my pager went off. So I quickly got dressed and I’m out the door headed for my car. And did I tell you yet that our porch light wasn’t working? I was striding down the driveway towards my car when suddenly I am on the ground with my legs straight up in the air. I’m looking up at the stars, wondering, ‘What has happened to me!” And I reach out and then I touch something rough…it all comes back to me….the log!!!
I dragged myself off the ground, and looked at the log. That’s a big hazard sitting there, I thought to myself. So I went into the garage and found this bright fluorescent orange plastic bin, and I put it on the log, so anyone would see it.
The very next night, I was woken from a deep sleep by my pager again. I quickly got dressed and headed out the door. I was simultaneously thinking, “Why is that orange bin hovering in mid air?”, I was simultaneously thinking and falling… WHOMP there I was on the ground AGAIN with my feet in the air. Drat, that stupid log. Who put that there? Oh, right, I did. The next day I moved the log.
I think this story is a very good metaphor for temptation. We think we are very smart and will have good memories and not make the same mistakes, but actually, bzzzt, that is the wrong answer…that is not human nature. We are prone to making the same mistakes again and again. From the Garden of Eden to the Garden of Gethsemene and in every garden since, even my own garden, we are tempted to fall, and we fall over the same things again and again.
I wonder how it was for Matthew, to not be able to take care of the money. He was the money guy. Did he ever go to Jesus and ask, “Why can’t I take care of the money? Why don’t you trust me?” Did he feel that Jesus was being unfair? Jesus would not lead him into temptation.
Jesus avoids giving the money job to someone who has stolen money. But the irony in the gospel story is that the man who Jesus does choose to be the money guy, turns out to be a thief too. The gospel of John tell us that Judas was stealing from the common purse. We hear about this in the context of the story of the woman who bought some very expensive perfume. As John tells that story, he says that it was Judas who objected to that expense, saying that the money should not have been wasted on the perfume.
I think it is very interesting that it is the gospel of John that mentions that Judas was stealing from the common purse. John was not a money expert, yet he knew that Judas was stealing money, and he tells us. Now Matthew was the money expert. If anyone would have known that Judas was stealing from the common purse, it would have been Matthew. Matthew undoubtedly knew there was money missing. But in Matthew’s gospel, there is not a word about Judas stealing money from the common purse. Matthew tells us that Judas betrays Jesus, he betrays Jesus for money, but Matthew does not point a finger at Judas for stealing money. Matthew does not feel a need to say anything else bad about Judas.
When you compare the gospel of John and the gospel of Matthew, as far as it relates to Judas, you notice some other interesting things. John has no use for Judas; as soon as Judas has betrayed Jesus, he is gone from the story. He will not waste one more word on him. But in Matthew’s gospel we hear a bit more about Judas, and the details are slightly different. That story about the woman anointing Jesus? It’s in Matthew’s gospel too. But there it is not Judas who objects to the expensive perfume. Matthew tells us that all the disciples are upset that the woman is wasting expensive perfume. John says it was only Judas who complained. Matthew says that all the disciples thought the perfume was a waste of money.
Matthew also tells us that on the night Jesus was betrayed by Judas, when Judas goes up to Jesus to betray him, Jesus calls Judas “Friend”. Right there in the garden of Gethsemene. No other gospel writer remembers that. But somehow that sticks in the mind of Matthew.
And it is only in Matthew’s gospel that we hear that Judas repents of what he did; only in Matthew’s gospel we hear that Judas returns the money before he takes his own life. Of all the gospel writers, Matthew is the most sympathetic to Judas. Why would that be?
I wonder if it is precisely because of the ideas we find from Matthew 7: ‘Do not judge, so that you may not be judged. For with the judgement you make you will be judged, and the measure you give will be the measure you get. Why do you see the speck in your neighbour’s eye, but do not notice the log in your own eye? Or how can you say to your neighbour, “Let me take the speck out of your eye”, while the log is in your own eye? You hypocrite, first take the log out of your own eye, and then you will see clearly to take the speck out of your neighbour’s eye.
Matthew absolutely refuses to get on the bandwagon of condemning Judas in his story. Maybe Matthew has a feeling of sympathy for him. He certainly remembers that Jesus does not give up on Judas, ever. Jesus looks at Judas and calls him “Friend”, even as he is being betrayed.
There are logistics to temptation, we are prone to falling, we are prone to falling again and again. If we are self-aware, and if we are honest about our own failings, how might that lead us to be empathetic with other sinners? How might we be like Matthew? Matthew is honest, he does say that Judas betrayed Jesus, and he betrayed him for money. But he fills out the story, you can see him trying to understand Judas, or at least to treat him with compassion.
I wonder if we can be like Jesus, and be like Matthew. When it comes to looking at the temptations that other people face, it is easy for us to be judgmental. Look at those senators, look at all the money they stole from the Canadian people. Or look at this elected official, or that elected official, look at the kickbacks they took, look at the influence they peddled. I think it’s practically a national pastime tsking tsking at people’s very public misdemeanors.
We are judgmental of people closer to home too. Churches can be places that are very judgmental. In particular, churches have historically been pretty merciless when it has come to condemning sexual sin. We have made people who have had premarital sex come to the front of the church and confess. I’m younger than a lot of people here, and I remember seeing that, although thankfully that has fallen out of fashion. I have never seen anyone asked to go to the front of the church for the sin of greed, or the sin of pride. Jesus does not single out sexual sin as the worst sin, although the church certainly does.
Churches don’t have to be places that judge others: they can be communities of love and acceptance. I have also seen churches refuse to judge, refuse to gossip. A young unmarried woman finds herself pregnant. Rather than lay blame and point fingers, the church organizes support for her as a single mother. People surround the young mother-to-be with love. She was a young person. She made a mistake, she now has a hard road to walk as a single mom.
We sometimes get it right. But sometimes we get it wrong. A woman is unfaithful to her husband, and the church can’t stop talking about it, and judging that woman. And I was guilty of that too, guilty of judging, guilty of gossip.
But God was working with us. As I thought and thought about what why this woman was unfaithful did and why she did it, I had to realize that I had never been tempted like she was. She was in a very unhappy marriage for a long time. She was in a work situation, where she had to travel for work, she was away for weeks at a time. She had a boss who was sexually interested in her, who was travelling with her. When I was honest, I realized that I had never faced those circumstances, those specific temptations. At the time this was happening, I had two small children under five. My life was so different, I observed to one of my friends, “I can’t even get away from my kids long enough to go to the bathroom, how would I ever find time to have an affair.” Having an affair just wasn’t a temptation that was very big for me at that time. I think that’s why it was easy for me and my friends to be very judgmental of that sister in Christ.
Where was I being tempted at that time? I was being tempted to lose my temper with my kids. I was being tempted to be self-centred. I was tempted to gossip. But when my friends and I got together, those were not the logs that I was talking about, even though I was falling over them again and again.
When I find myself getting on my high horse, looking down my nose at someone saying, “How could they be so stupid to fall over that log…they put that log there themselves!”; when I find myself doing that, that is the exact moment where I need to be looking at my own failings.
We need to do that not just as individuals, but as religions. I have sometimes heard people being very critical of Islam, making blanket statements about the connection between Islam and fundamentalist violence, between Islam and terrorism. “Look at that religion how it falls again and again over the same logs of violence!”
It is at precisely that moment we need to be self-reflective over our own Christian logs. Christian states have not been known for their shining non-violent witness. It was Christians that brought bloodshed to all of Europe and the Middle East with the crusades, Christians that colonized the world, that institutionalized slavery, who waged a cold war and a not so cold war against many nations.
Who will show us the way? We follow Jesus, who was able to resist the temptation of judging Judas. In the garden of Gethsemane he doesn’t greet Judas with the word “Traitor”. He greets him with the word “Friend.” Matthew takes Jesus’ example to heart.
As we go about our week, I encourage you to think about how you are being tempted. Do we find ourselves judging people when they fall over a log? How migt we have compassion for them? In a spirit of humility and wisdom, we can pray for mercy, “God have mercy on my neighbor, my friend, God have mercy on me.”
A sermon preached at Lendrum MB Church
July 5, 2015
by Carol Penner