No, "No bull" is not originally a euphemism. Since the early 1600's it has meant "no exaggerations", "no lies", "no nonsense". Byron uses the expression in his satirical poem Don Juan: "This is no bull, although it sounds so" (33). Bull' comes from medieval Latin bulla meaning "play, game, jest" (https://english.stackexchange.com/users). It is in the early 20th century that it became associated with bovine dung. But how in the world does this relate to this text?
In the sense that Byron uses it, no bull, Jesus eats with sinners. After being commanded to follow Jesus, Matthew immediately does and invites Him to his house for a feast. The tax collectors and sinners are there, but read Mark's account. Mark 2:15 adds this important detail: "And it came about that Jesus was reclining at the table in his house, and many tax-gatherers and sinners were dining with Jesus and His disciples; for there were many of them, and they were following Him." This is Marty Robbin's theology. This is the day they heard the Master's call. The kind of sinful living they had been doing "leads only to a fall." And with Marty, they "learned that much and more the night [they] heard [their] Master's call."
Jesus is not endorsing sin or sinners. Jesus is not schmoozing people into attending church. Jesus is not winning friends and influencing neighbors by "Friendship Evangelism." We are seeing how inclusive yet exclusive Jesus' meals were. Go back to Luke 7. There we see how a Pharisee could invite someone and make them feel uninvited. It happened to Jesus. He was invited to Simon the Pharisees house for a festal meal just like this one. We know that because reclining at the table are mentioned in both places. Jesus points out that unlike the other guest Simon didn't provide water for Jesus to wash His feet; Simon didn't greet Him with the customary kiss. Especially important guests were offered olive oil for personal grooming (Lutheran Study Bible, 1724). Simon didn't offer Jesus any.
Now go to Luke 14, there Jesus puts forth the radical proposition that fitting guests at table where the poor, the crippled, the lame, and the blind. Those everyone considered unworthy of sharing a meal with, let alone a feast, were God's invited guests. The only caveat to Jesus' meals was the Master's Call. Only those who followed Him are called to His table. Being rich or poor, healthy, or sick in this world didn't count. The Master's Call to sinners did. The Master's Call that He desired to be merciful to sinners did. No bull: Jesus ate with sinners. It is bull, a jest, a game, nonsense to say Jesus called sinners, won sinners by being nice. In my April vacation I attended 2 virtual Lutheran services one contemporary, one Confessional. The messages were the same: Hope and Change. I'm not making a political statement here. I'm saying that the vague, positive, upbeat message that sells in the political realm is now a dominant one in the churchly. And I'm saying: it's bull to think Jesus used it.
What's not bull is that this text invites us to leave here Matthews. Mark 2 and Luke 5 also have this account. Only they never call him Matthew but Levi. Matthew never refers to himself as Levi, which means associate', but as Matthew, gift of God'. He regards God in Christ calling him out of the sinful life that led only to a fall as all gift. Also Luke notes that Levi left all to follow Jesus. In Matthew's accounts of other disciples being called and following Jesus, he does note that they left all, but in his own case, although he did it, he doesn't note it. Likewise, Matthew never refers to himself without adding the descriptor "the tax collector."
The Greek Maththaios is similar in sound to the Greek for disciple, mathetes. Were told the disciples were eating with Jesus and the tax collectors and sinners and that Pharisees challenged the disciples as to why Jesus dared to eat with tax and collectors and sinners. Jesus is the one who answers them. He defends being at Maththaios' house with His mathetes eating with tax collectors and sinners by telling the Pharisees to go and learn, to go and manthete. The Greek word for disciples mathetes comes from the Greek word to learn', manthano. The Pharisees and us to are to go and learn what the Lord means in Hosea 6:6 when He says, "I desire mercy, not sacrifice." We know the Pharisees didn't become Matthew's because they didn't learn what Jesus told them to. After the Pharisees attack His disciples for picking grain and eating it on the Sabbath Jesus responds in Mat. 12:7, "If you had known what these words mean, 'I desire mercy, not sacrifice,' you would not have condemned the innocent." Do we know?
Our basic misunderstanding of the Old Testament Church is that they performed sacrifices to make God not angry. No, the Lord for Jesus' sake desired to be merciful to sinners only for Jesus' sake. The only wrath-removing sacrifice, and not just for us, or the Old Testament Church, but for the world says 1 John is the sacrifice of Jesus on the cross. More than God wanted sacrifices even of thanks, let only money, or animals, or crops, He wanted to be merciful to sinners. OT sacrifices of animals and grain and NT ones of thanks and praise not offered on the basis of God freely being merciful to you for Jesus' sake are bull.
Perhaps if I tell you where we're going it will help get you there. No one learns about mercy till the Law or circumstances, say a pandemic, say street riots, say war, say having your secret sins exposed shamefully, leaves you just as I am without one plea. Listen to Marty's The Master's Call and you'll hear that. Or listen to this story of Nixon. Loud protestors of Vietnam ringed the White House. Nixon was inside drinking and wallowing. He slipped outside in the wee morning hours and went to the Lincoln Memorial where protestors were dozing. He talked with them. He shared his own frustrations, sorrows, and helplessness when it came to Vietnam. One of the protestors said with a start, "This is bigger than even you; even you can't control it." When the Law, life, death, disease, politics, marriage, family, parents, or kids brings you to this point, then you can hear the Master's Call that has been sounding from the foundation of the world in Christ. No bull.
A literal bull is where this sermon started. My working title was, "Better than Red Bull." You know their slogan: "Red Bull Gives you Wings." Why would I attach that to this text? The four Gospels since the time of Irenaeus have had symbols. Matthew, a winged man; Mark a winged lion; Luke, a winged ox (bull); and John, a flying eagle. In 180 A.D. in Against Heresies (XI), Irenaeus spells this out. But he didn't create these symbols out of thin air. Go to Ezk. 1:1-21 and you'll see them. Then jump to the last book of the Bible, Rev. 4: 6-8, and you'll find them round the throne of God. Ezekiel and John see these 4 living beings. This, as Christians, we are bound to believe. Regarding them as symbols of the 4 Gospel writers is merely church tradition, ancient church tradition but still tradition not doctrine. But I don't think they're bull either.
The Holy Spirit begins Luke's Gospel in the temple with Zechariah performing the evening sacrifice. That's why Irenaeus considered Luke's symbol a winged ox, or bull. Matthew begins his Gospel with the human genealogy of the God-Man, Jesus. Read my Christmas Day, 2009 sermon, "Merry Christmas From the Family." There you'll see how Matthew goes through the dust and the mud, the muscle, and the blood of fallen humanity. He goes through murderers, adulterers, incesters, prostitutes and worse. Yet from all this Matthew gets to Jesus' mother: "and Mary was the mother of Jesus who is called the Messiah." You know the expression, "He's all boy" and what that means. Well Jesus is all Man, and that means He is 100% true Man, in all ways just as we are except sin says Hebrews 4. Yet, He is also 100% true God a Matthew 1 also declares. The Virgin Mary became pregnant through the Holy Spirit and He would be named Jesus, Yahweh Saves. The Gospel of Matthew presents to us a true Man who is also true God, and so his symbol is a winged-man, which is surely better than Red Bull giving us wings, no bull.
Go back to Marty's, "The Master's Call." That song has more theology in it than the hymns used in either of the church's I mentioned earlier. He presents himself as "a youth within my teens" who grieved his parents "to think their only boy was bad." He wasn't looking for the Lord, listening for the Lord. He was busy robbing and plundering. He's busy rustling cattle when "a norther started blowing and lightening flashed about." There is bad theology even in some good hymns, so expect as much from a country western song. But go with Marty as the lightening hits "not twenty yards from me/ And left there was a giant cross where once there was a tree." "So frighten I was thinking of sinful deeds I'd done/ I failed to see the thousand head of cattle start to run." His horse runs but stumbles and throws him to the ground. "I felt the end was near, that death would be the price." Yes, the Law can be preached by looming sickness, by death, by civil unrest, by life, by fearful, fretful times, by anything that makes you afraid.
The next line after "that death would be the price" is "When a mighty bolt of lightning showed the face of Jesus Christ." Scripture doesn't point us to lightning bolts or nature to see the face of Christ. It points us to Word and Sacrament. Here is not only His smiling face of forgiveness for sins and sinners, but here are His bleeding head, hands, side, and feet. Here is the blood that cleanses us from all sins. In Marty's song, he is saved when another bolt of lightening killed a hundred head of steers. These formed a barricade six or seven high for his salvation. Surely, when something like that happens, when cars don't hit, when spared a fall, or when delivered out of the blue from imminent danger, it is meet, right, and salutary to see the hand of God, the mercy of God, the love of God. How much more so when the Love of God strikes dead not a 100 head of steers, but His only beloved Son to provide us shelter from the stampeding judgment coming upon all the earth? That's no bull, and it gives you wings to rise above the fear and destruction below. Amen
Rev. Paul R. Harris
Trinity Lutheran Church, Austin, Texas
Third Sunday after Pentecost (20200621); Matthew 9: 9-13