2 Corinthians 4. 1-16, St Matthew 9. 9-13
It is a truth, not universally acknowledged, that Christianity flourished in these islands long before Augustine came to Canterbury and Milletus came to London.
Just one year after Augustine landed near Canterbury a devout monk and scribe became Bishop of Lindisfarne Before that he had spent several years in the monastery scripting and decorating the most treasured of Anglo Saxon documents, now in the British Library.
In the Lindisfarne Gospels the monk spent as much time meditating as writing and his reflection on the character of St Mathew is rendered at the beginning of the gospel by the magnificent letters M, A. The painting is an icon in itself. The main letter is made of two great bows and five animal heads are introduced, two of them combined to form a single face. It is as if the personality of Matthew intercedes
into the wild surroundings of the coast of Northumbria.
So let dear Matthew intercede in and for today’s wilderness of Westminster.
In his memoirs stretching to 16 chapters he refers to himself only twice and then very briefly. He writes about himself in the third person. There is no self- justification, no excruciating apologies and no criticism of others. Just fact - and we are left at the end with an assessment and portrait - of - someone else.
But his story begins with Matthew with his head down, preoccupied with his accounts and the safety of the money he is collecting. The people who come to him are grudging, not only because he is collecting taxes but because he is the representative of an occupying power. In provincial Galilee they see very little spent on public amenities and more on the soldiers who keep them supressed. These grudging tax payers also suspect, probably correctly, that Matthew is taking his percentage from what they resentfully give him.
It is a world full of blame, relentless conflict, entrenched attitudes, secrecy and lies. Of course it couldn’t happen in today’s enlightened parliamentary democracies. Matthew endures it because it’s his livelihood and because he is obsessed by his calculations and profits. He keeps his head down.
In fact Matthew’s very existence is inseparable from his table.
And then, as he momentarily looks up to his next reluctant face, he catches the eyes of a passer-by. Jesus is always passing by. That divine movement of the earth’s creator is walking in the dusts and amongst the tax payers of Galilee. It is at once ultimate and intimate.
But for that glance which passed between these two we would not have this gospel, this very Jewish and provincial take on the life of God amongst us. What was it about that moment which triggered a spontaneous call from Jesus ? What was it that caused Matthew’s immediate response and provoked a radical change on his life purpose ?
We only know that a flash of insight can open up new horizons of thought and action. With a piece of art when we see something we had never seen before, when we are touched by Mozart or Britten to which we have been treated this morning, when a bible reading is seen from a different angle, when a hungry person is fed or a homeless person is given a welcome, we receive a glance from the One who delights in us. God can do a lot with a glance as Matthew knew and as Peter also knew.
We know that a glance can mean a thousand words. That mutual trust can arise from the meeting of eyes.
It reminds us that God is the principal of life’s principles. That he is always present and ready to intervene. In the words of Thomas Aquinas ‘ God is pure act’.
In Matthews’s case he tells this story with detachment as if he is speaking about another person in the past. We contrast the old Matthew preoccupied with worldly gains, working for the extortion of non-roman citizens and a shady character on the fringes of society.
We contrast that with the other Matthew who commits himself to the service of the disenfranchised, working for the people he has once exploited.
Then we move to the scene where Matthew exchanges the table of discord for the table of hospitality. The table of disputes and contracts for the table of generosity and freedom and trust.
Jesus is round Matthews’s table lying down propped by one elbow as was the custom. Instead of avoiding eye contact, the guests glance around with welcoming faces to fellow guests. Instead of head bowed in defence of their obsessions, their heads are facing upwards in a position of vulnerability, sharing and acceptance of the others around the table.
The scene demonstrates that the deepest meaning of Christian discipleship is not the work done for Jesus but what is enjoyed in his company.
So today we gather round the table at St Matthews thankful to him for inviting Jesus to preside here and
offering us this place of divine hospitality. We leave all our negotiations around other tables behind.
When we hear others asking ‘ what do these people think they are doing ? They do not conform to our view of modern society. ‘ , we are relaxed to hear Jesus saying ‘I have not come to call righteous, but sinners’ What a relief. Thank you Matthew. Thank you Jesus.
Another monk from the north east – Bede of Jarrow who bridged the Celtic and Catholic traditions – wrote in his homily for this day ‘ Matthew could understand that Christ, who was summoning him away from earthly possessions, had incorruptible treasures of heaven in his gift ‘.
So be it this day and for ever.
Jane Austen – Pride and prejudice
Janet Backhouse – The Lindisfarne Gospels, p60 Father Simeon – Fire and Mercy, p 419f
Thomas Aquinas – Wis 7.26f
Bede – Hom. 21 CCL 122, 149-151