The Feast of Saint Matthew

Matthew the Apostle, detail of mosaic from facade of the Romanian Patriarchal Cathedral, Bucharest, Europe

Matthew the Apostle, detail of mosaic from facade of the Romanian Patriarchal Cathedral, Bucharest, Europe

Last Sunday was the feast of Saint Matthew. At St John’s we had a presentation on the state of our finances, so I preached a very short sermon. However, the priest I live with was taking the service at one of the other churches in our team. so here is what Mother Anne-Marie said.

Matthew 9.9-13

Which do you think are the least trusted professions in the United Kingdom?  (And personally it is a bit of relief to me that that still includes Scotland?) The least trusted professions? Well a recent survey in the Daily Telegraph put politicians and journalists at the bottom – no doubt based on recent experiences. Third from bottom was bankers, sixth from bottom civil servants and seventh from bottom accountants. It will be no surprise that estate agents and builders were also amongst the top ten least trusted. Apologies to you if one of these is or was your profession! It’s a survey, not me saying this.

In case you are wondering, doctors and nurses regularly come top in polls of the most respected and most trusted professions despite our moans about the NHS! If such a survey had been conducted in 1st Century Palestine under Roman Occupation, I expect tax collectors would have been in the bottom three. Maybe along there with Roman Soldiers and possibly Pharisees. Tax collectors were hated for three reasons. First, they collected taxes. Second, they collected taxes for the Roman government. Third, they made big money creaming off a percentage of the taxes they collected for themselves.

I suspect a lot of people citing civil servants in that least trusted survey might have had in mind the staff of Her Majesty’s Revenue and Customs – probably the government department that nearly everyone has contact  with. And it is interesting that in the UK today professions associated with money – bankers and accountants are low in our esteem. It seems anyone who handles our money is a bit suspect. My auntie, who died a couple of years ago, used to get very worked up whenever tax collectors came up in the gospel reading in church. “Why” she would ask me “are tax collectors always linked with prostitutes and sinners by Jesus?” She felt personally affronted as she had worked honourably as a civil servant, a tax collector, doing the very necessary job of collecting taxes so that we could have the NHS and schools and the like.

There are jobs that are not popular, not liked or respected. In some cases the work is very necessary and someone has to do it. In other cases society could be better off if no one did the work at all. In first century Palestine someone had to collect taxes for the Romans but Matthew would have known for him as a Jew it was not an honourable profession, but he chose to do it, maybe with qualms, chose to do it because it was lucrative. However now he is a Saint. He became one of the twelve closest friends of Jesus, and he is remembered and honoured by the church today.

The Gospel set for today is the story of Jesus’ call to this tax collector by the name of Matthew. He is the same person as Levi, son of Alpheus in the Gospels of Mark and Luke. Well what do we actually know about St Matthew whose feast we keep today? The answer is very little! We know he was a tax collector in the small town of Capernaum located on the banks of the Sea of Galilee, the location of so much of Jesus’ ministry. We know his father was called Alpheus, and the fact that he is mentioned by name might indicate that he too was known to the early Christian community. We might think we know that Matthew wrote the gospel that bears his name. But this is highly unlikely as we know it is largely based on Mark’s gospel and comes from the second generation of Christians. Matthew would have been dead by this time. But the gospel we know as Matthew’s does contain much material that is unique and the gospel is very Jewish in character – is was pretty obviously written for a community of Christians that was still very Jewish. Maybe it was written for the community of which Matthew had been a part. Some church traditions say Matthew first evangelised in Judea. So maybe some of the unique material in Matthew’s gospel was handed down orally from the disciple, but that is just speculation. The gospel that bears his name was first associated with Matthew, the tax collector, in the latter part of the second century, and from then on it was part of tradition that he wrote the gospel, and when you see paintings of St. Matthew by artists from the past, he is often carrying a large book – symbolic of his gospel I think, not his book of tax payments!

And that is about it, in terms of what we know about Matthew. We don’t even know with any certainty where or how he died. Despite the fact that I wear red today to honour a martyr we don’t know for certain that Matthew was martyred. We assume he was from the tradition that only John of the original twelve disciples died a natural death. Some traditions say Matthew went to Ethiopia and was martyred there and others say he died in modern day Turkey. So little information, but it is the fact that Matthew was a tax collector and that he was called to be a disciple that make him so important to us as Christians today.

Matthew is a “bad” guy – perhaps we can think of him as a modern day extortionist or a thief. We know what people thought of those who collaborated with the Nazis in the second world war – Matthew was in the eyes of Jews, a collaborator. An extortionist, a thief, a collaborator and yet Jesus called him. And Matthew responded. It seems to me that Matthew must have been well aware of his shortcomings. In many ways he may have hated the job he was doing, but he had been seduced into doing it because the money was good. How many people in our own age do jobs that have dubious ethics but they carry on because they need to earn a living or maybe they want a good living, and can’t see a way out. How many people are just stuck in jobs they don’t like, that don’t use their skills, that basically drag them down and make them depressed, but they can’t see a way out. Matthew found a way out through following Jesus. And many people today can testify that they too found a way out through following Jesus. I don’t know how many of you watched the series “The Monastery” on Television a few years back – around 2005. It followed a group of men living alongside the monks at Worth Abbey and what happened to them in that time. One of them reminds me of Matthew. Tony encountered the divine during his time at Worth – it is most movingly portrayed in the series during a conversation with the monk who is his spiritual guide. Tony said of this later: “…mid-way through my last conversation with Brother Francis, I was hit by something I’ll never forget. It was like I’d taken a new drug and felt paralysed and unable to speak. It lasted about a minute. Francis blessed me and we went outside and I chain-smoked a pack of cigarettes, deeply moved by what had just happened. And that was it. That was my call.”

The result for Tony was that he had to change jobs – he couldn’t continue in his job in the porn industry. He was working in Soho making trailer films for a sex chat line. He had to change. Having said at the beginning of the TV series that he did not believe in God and had no moral hang ups about the job he was doing, he ends by having considerable moral hang ups about it. The values he has picked up in the monastery and his encounter with God and the gospel of Jesus, will not sit with his working life in porn. He gives it up, finds another job, and continues his association with the monastery, helping them with publicity and marketing. It was for him the beginning of a journey. He says he was not immediately a born again Christian, but he was taking God seriously and in addition to the Bible, was studying the rule of Benedict. He did not start going to church services but he did start going and sitting in churches quietly. The opening words of our reading from Proverbs comes to mind “Happy are those who find wisdom, and those who get understanding.”

I think Matthew too, as he encountered Jesus and heard his call, found wisdom and understanding. I am sure he was aware of his shortcomings and his need to change. It was the “how” that had eluded him thus far. But in Jesus and the call he received was his salvation – the means of change. He gave up his old life and began a journey. He knew he was spiritually needy – sick – and he needed a physician – the great physician Jesus. What we can learn from Matthew is to be honest about ourselves and where we are up to – recognise our needs and our sinfulness – where we fall short. What we can learn from Matthew is that no one, however bad their life has been, however much their life is in a mess, even if they are an extortionist or work in the sex industry, no one is beyond the love of God and his call. What we can learn from Matthew is that the work we do is important – it can drain our soul or feed our soul. What we can learn from Matthew is that change is possible. With the help of God lives can be turned around and they are every day. People come to faith and change. It may not be instant, but it is the beginning of a journey. Matthew, the tax collector and outcast, who heard God’s call and began a journey with Jesus that was to totally transform his life can be an inspiration to all of us. This can happen to us too. If we listen for God’s call and respond.

When Tony had his deep spiritual experience in the Monastery, Brother Francis blessed him with words from John O’Donahue’s book “Anam Cara – Spiritual Wisdom from the Celtic World”. It is a book I treasure that was given to me by a now deceased member of St John’s congregation. I am going to end with that blessing now, as a prayer for all of us, that we might find the wisdom and understanding that Matthew found. And that whatever stage of life we are at now, whether we are yet to begin work, whether we are still working or whether our work now is voluntary or in the home, that we might allow our spiritual journey to influence everything we do and experience, and that like Matthew we may be open to change and transformation.

Let us pray

May your soul calm, console and renew you.
May the light of your soul guide you.
May the light of your soul bless the work you do
with the secret love and warmth of your heart.
May you see in what you do the beauty of your own soul.
May the sacredness of your work bring healing, light and renewal to those   who work with you and to those who see and receive your work.
May your work never weary you.
May it release within you wellsprings of refreshment, inspiration
and excitement.
May you be present in what you do.
May you never become lost in the bland absences.
May the day never burden.
May dawn find you awake and alert, approaching your new day
with dreams, possibilities and promises.
May evening find you gracious and fulfilled.
May you go into the night blessed, sheltered and protected.