21 September 2014
Trinity 14 – Matthew the Apostle and Evangelist
2 Cor 4:1-6; Matt 9:9-13
May I speak this morning in the name of God, Father, Son and Holy Spirit. Amen.
Although we are still in the middle of the Green season of ordinary time last week we were in red as we celebrated Holy Cross day and this week we remain in red as we celebrate the feast of St Matthew the Apostle and Evangelist.
As many of you know Vivienne and I were in Rome a few weeks ago and I learnt a lot of lessons there, some of which I am still processing and will probably surface in the future. However one lesson I definitely learnt is this: Even amidst all the grandeur of Rome and even in the middle of the crush of tourists in St. Peters I was reminded time and again of the humanity of the characters of those who surrounded Jesus. In relation to St Peter, from whom the apostolic succession of Popes flows, I was struck by a painting which showed him being crucified upside down and one couldn’t help but see, at the heart of it all, an old man being murdered. When we start putting titles on people like saint, apostle, evangelist we mentally distance those people from ourselves, we put them in a different category and we may think that their experience of what it meant to be alive and human was wholly different from ours.
But of course behind the history and the titles the saints were real living, breathing human beings exactly like you and I who had real lives, real personalities, real hopes, fears and disappointments. The one thing they had in common with each other and the one thing that transformed them into saints was not the possession of any super powers on their part but the fact that they encountered the holy and allowed it to transform the meaning of their lives. If that was true of Peter who started out as a fisherman before becoming the first head of the Christian community in Rome it is even more true of Matthew whose background was much less romantic sounding than being a fisherman.
As we heard in this morning’s gospel reading when Matthew first encountered Jesus he was a tax collector sitting in a booth. For those of you who came to the screening of the Rule Breaker last week you may well remember the section about the man surrounded by his books who was despised by all those around him for the way in which he made his living. Today Matthew is the patron saint of accountants, tax collectors, bankers and customs officers and pictures of him often show him holding a bag of money in reference to his profession. Now it has to be said that in recent years none of the professions of which Matthew is patron saint have been held in particularly high regard but that is almost as nothing compared with the disdain and even hatred that tax collectors in Judea faced at the time of Jesus. And of course the reasons for that are very simple: firstly they were seen as traitors and collaborators because they were collecting taxes on behalf of the Roman occupiers and secondly because they were often corrupt and made themselves rich by cheating the people whilst being protected by the Roman empire. Tax collectors were rich but they were hated by all in Jewish society.
And so this man Matthew, or Levi, made his living sitting in a booth by the side of the road collecting taxes from his fellow Jews on behalf of the Romans. The reason I say that his name was also Levi is because this story is told in the gospels of Mark and Luke but there the tax collectors name is given as Levi. It is believed that Levi was his original Jewish name but that after he became a follower of Jesus he was given the name Matthew, which means gift from God, and that when Matthew wrote his account of his own calling he used his new name. Of course you only have to think of Saul becoming Paul after his conversion to see that this was not unusual.
And so Matthew, or Levi as he was then, was sitting in his booth at the side of the road collecting taxes and probably suffering the daily round of abuse from those he was taxing. Jesus saw him there and with no reported pre-amble or word play or anything Jesus simply said “Follow me.” And again with no reported conversation or question we are told simply that Matthew ‘got up and followed him.’
I was picking apples from the tree in the Vicarage garden last week and those that weren’t quite ready took a little bit of twisting and pulling but those that were about to fall came straight off.
Matthew was obviously ready to be called – he had had enough of his life as it was and Jesus only had to say the word and ‘pop’ he was there.
But then Matthew obviously invited Jesus and his disciples to come and eat with him and his fellow tax collectors. Perhaps it was simple hospitality on Matthew’s part, perhaps he wanted to show his gratitude to Jesus for calling him out of his booth and opening up a world of new possibilities, or perhaps he even wanted to introduce Jesus to his fellow tax collectors so that they too could be called and saved. Alas we are not told that but we are told that the religious Pharisees were horrified at seeing Jesus eating in such disreputable company as a gathering of tax collectors – surely any good Jew knew better than to hang out with such a crowd?
And Jesus says, it is not the healthy who need a doctor but the sick. One of my favourite quotes about church is that a church should be a hospital for sinners and not a museum for saints. Jesus is making the point loud and clear that the reason he came into the world is the same reason he came into Matthew’s life that day – not to affirm the self-righteous but to heal the sick, which includes the sick of soul.
As a lawyer who came out of my own booth at the call of Jesus I feel a certain affinity for the story of Matthew but it should say to all of us that no matter how we think we stand with God nonetheless he is always there to heal and redeem us. No one is beyond the love and grace of God. In fact the sicker and further off we think we are the closer God stands to us and wants to heal us. And for those who may have been walking with God for a long time we should never allow ourselves to become self-righteous and Pharisaic about those who seem most unlike us or who seem most un-Christian in our eyes – for they are exactly the ones that Jesus may choose to sit and eat with now.
So we are all saints and sinners together and I pray that we are united by the call of Jesus on our lives and are gathered here not as exhibits in a museum but as patients in a place of healing.