Proverbs 3.13-18; 2 Corinthians 4.1-6; Matthew 9.9-13
Well all I can say is – at last. I have been coming here to Mass on St Matthew’s Day for nineteen years now and finally I get to speak.
And what a wonderful occasion this always is - a chance to meet with friends old and new. Perhaps people we only ever hook up with when we are here. St Matthew’s is most definitely a church where warmth and hospitality abound.
The statue of St. Matthew over there portrays him holding a book, and the picture on the front cover the service booklet has him about to write in one. Is he about to make an entry in a tax ledger or write a gospel?
Who are we celebrating when we keep the feast of St. Matthew, the apostle and evangelist? Is it one person or two? The clergy are sometimes accused of sheltering their flocks from the results of biblical scholarship, so as not to frighten the horses. Let me say that it is quite clear that the apostle and the evangelist are two quite separate characters. The name of the apostle came to be attached to the gospel written by an anonymous author. The ancient world did not have our scruples about copyright and plagiarism.
But let's look on the bright side: it's like going to the supermarket and getting two for the price of one: buy one and you get one free. You have two patron saints to pray for you.
The Calling of St Matthew, Caravaggio
I am grateful to all of you for making me go to Rome to prepare for this sermon. I had to go twice and each time I happened to be presented to the Pope. How interesting that I remembered him but that he did not appear to recognise me! This was quite incidental to my having to be in Rome to visit the church of San Luigi dei francesi close to the Piazza Navona. The church houses several Caravaggio paintings.
Caravaggio could well be the kind of resident artist well-suited to St Matthew’s. He travelled widely, like Father Philip. He mixed with a very wide group of friends, just like the congregation of St Matthew’s does. I shall stop there, I think, while the going is good. I am particularly fond of the Caravaggio painting The Call of Matthew which was my roman homework. Accompanied by Peter, Jesus bursts into the dark room of the counting house bearing a miraculous light about him and points to the seated Matthew as the sign of his call. Matthew points to himself as if to say, ‘Do you mean me?’ Matthew’s companions either do not notice Jesus’s appearing or are ambivalent to him. Matthew, the unlikely one, is chosen; and there is no time to tarry. Jesus is already poised to turn and return to the wider world. He wants Matthew to follow him out into the world right away.
You can tell a lot about a person by the company they keep and you can tell even more about them by looking at those they call friends – just look at people’s Facebook pages!
That’s why the Pharisees in today’s Gospel were so scandalised by what they saw. Not only did they find that Jesus had called Matthew from the seat of custom, from his tax desk, to follow him, but then Jesus accepts an invitation from this new disciple to dine at his house along with Matthew’s friends – a whole bunch of tax collectors and sinners.
The tax collector no longer sits in his booth on the street corner. At this time of year he appears instead on television and the radio urging us to complete our self-assessment forms before the end of September. St. Matthew’s day is now conveniently set as a reminder of a key date in the fiscal calendar. Tax, we are told, doesn’t have to be taxing.
Tell that to my eldest son, who is setting up his own business not far from here and who is making the painful discovery of just how much of his earnings the government will claim by various means. Tell that to thousands of people like me who put off filling in their tax forms to the last possible date. In my case normally the last week in January.
“For God, who said, “Let light shine out of darkness,” made his light shine in our hearts to give us the light of the knowledge of the glory of God in the face of Christ.” 2 Cor 4.6
It’s a funny word ‘glory’. We use it a lot in church. As a boy, my theological development was greatly hindered because I had an Aunty Glory, and thought that all references in hymns and the Bible, were to her. When I spoke at her funeral a couple of years ago I discovered she was named Glory because my grandmother had given birth to 7 boys and when the midwife said ‘it’s a girl!’ The response came back - ‘glory be!’ And so she was.
The Church of England in its present form no human power can save. Not said by AN Wilson in last week's Spectator, but by Dr Thomas Arnold, the famous headmaster of Rugby in the 1830's, so if you think we are in a mess today, just have a sense of history.
Mind you, Arnold had a point. A third of all incumbents in the 1830's had a second living. Only four out of ten parishes at that time had a resident incumbent. The Bishop of Durham earned today's equivalent of £750,000 a year, whereas a curate earned today's equivalent of £3,200.