Wednesday, September 21, 2011

Saint Matthew

Sermon on St Matthew’s Day

Reading: Matthew 9: 9 – 13

The day Matthew the tax-collector joined Jesus was a great day for the movement which
became the church ; and today we celebrate Matthew’s witness. To Matthew is attributed
one of the four gospels with so much of the sayings and teachings of Jesus about the
kingdom of God . Though we don’t know much about Matthew, we can celebrate that here is
a man who turned his life around and followed Jesus, who listened to the teaching of Jesus
and believed in Jesus; and; who passed on those life-giving words of Jesus to succeeding

Tax-collectors like Matthew were a despicable crew as far as most people of Israel were
concerned. They fleeced the hard-working locals and the proceeds financed the extravagant
life-styles of the elite in the imperial Roman regime. Little cogs in the empire’s economic
machine, still they were sure enough to make money out of it for themselves; and so in local
terms they were pretty wealthy. There’s a hint of Matthew’s superior life-style in the word used
to describe how they sat at dinner – it means “reclined”; which was a Greek and Roman
custom followed also by wealthy Jews.

But Jesus spent time with these “tax-collectors and sinners”. He did not condemn them like
the Pharisees did. He went to their parties; he ate their food, bought no doubt with the money
they had extracted from hard-working families. But what was even worse in the eyes of the
Pharisees – he ate and drank with people who were religiously unclean. The nature of the
tax-collectors role meant that to do business they had to break the strict Pharisaic
interpretations of the laws on uncleanness and observing the Sabbath. To eat at the same
table with people who were outside the Law was to defile yourself also.

The Pharisees’ disgust with tax-collectors was probably intensified by their partly
unconscious realisation they had something in common; they too were collaborators with the
pagan Roman imperial power. Like the tax-collectors the Pharisees had made a pragmatic
adaptation to that overwhelming regime which to defy was to invite destruction. Whilst the
tax-collectors’ tactic for survival in the Empire was to get a job with them and make some
money; the Pharisees’ method was to retreat into rigorous religious observance. Jesus saw
through the hypocrisy of the Pharisees and that’s why they disliked him so much. Though tax-
collectors like Matthew were self-regarding and uncaring of their neighbours’ plight, they
didn’t pretend to be piously superior. So Jesus condemned the Pharisees for the way they
covered their self-serving survival tactics with a cloak of outward piety whilst all the while they
cared equally little for the hopeless suffering of the ordinary people of Israel.

If tax-collectors were to be condemned it wasn’t for what the Pharisees condemned them for
– their failure to keep the religious observances – instead it was for the harm they were doing
to their neighbours and to themselves by working for the empire of Rome instead of working
for the kingdom of God; choosing to be the slaves of a deadly machine instead of claiming the
freedom of God’s promises.

So why didn’t Jesus condemn the tax-collectors and sinners? Why did he go to their parties?
It’s not that difficult to appreciate why the Lord gave attention to the poor, the sick, the lame
and the weak of his society – they needed the special care of God. But it’s a lot harder to
understand why he’d want to fraternise with tax-collectors. Imagine how you’d feel if you
heard that one of our bishops went to parties given by a well-known editor of pornographic
magazines, or an infamous loan shark? Not just once but quite a few times. It’s fishy isn’t it?

And this was the question the Pharisees put. Why did Jesus eat with these people? The
answer Jesus gave them shows that there is more to this than being accepted or condemned
according to compliance with standards, even moral standards. For Jesus uses the picture of
disease and sickness which needs healing. The sick person needs the help of a doctor if he is
to recover; not the condemnation of a judge. And so the picture is given here of a different
kind of community - which reaches out inclusively to help and heal even those who are doing
it harm. I desire mercy not sacrifice is a quotation from the prophet Hosea in the Old
Testament. Mercy in the Hebrew sits closer in meaning to compassion than our word
suggests. If our hearts are in the right place there is no need to waste time and energy
needlessly assuring ourselves of God’s love for us because we have that assurance from
God; rather true religion is about showing compassion for others who are in need of healing
and help.

Jesus invited Matthew to follow him and he did – he took that decision to begin again with his
life and to learn from Jesus and to serve Jesus. Matthew had caught a glimpse of the love
and compassion of God and it aroused his belief that there was hope for a better way of life.
The empire of the Romans was not the only world there was to live in ; there was hope of a
new world. He chose to stop working for the Roman empire and dedicate his life and his
energies to working for God’s kingdom to come on earth; which as the gospel which bears his
name spells out, the Lord taught us to pray for every day.

It’s salutary to remember St Matthew at this point in our country's history when the human
capacity for self-delusion; our failure to recognise limits in our economic systems, our failure
to remember that money should serve human life not the other way round; has been revealed
all too dramatically in the near collapse of the banking system three years ago and a major
economic downturn - with all the pain and suffering that has been causing in people’s
everyday lives. There is a lot to condemn in the combination of greed and fear which drives
our global economy – our lack of respect for God’s creation; our failure to share prosperity
more equitably; and care more comprehensively for the truly needy in our world. There is no
shortage of people who see the world and live their lives in a way similar to how Matthew
was before he believed in Jesus. How should our response to those who might be held
responsible for economic chaos be modelled on the way of Christ I wonder?

Matthew rejected the selfish pursuit of gain because he came to believe in Jesus who offered
the hope of a better way – not just in heaven when we die, but a better way to live on earth
believing God’s presence and power is very near and working to reveal and demonstrate
God’s economy for our world. Can we be like Matthew?

Revd Canon David Hodgson

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