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.
This hasn’t been a good month for tax collectors – the blunders in the calculation of tax affecting, so they tell us, six million of us, the reluctance of the head of the Inland Revenue to immediately say sorry – all of it has fuelled the way in which we regard those who today sit at the modern equivalent of the tax booth. It can seem that nobody likes a taxman and as we keep this feast, your patronal festival, it appears that it’s ever been the case. Matthew and his mates were hated.
But in order to understand the rather harsh reaction from the Pharisees, that makes our response to our tax collectors seem rather mild, you have to remember that Matthew and his colleagues were nothing like the present occupants of the post.
For a start off they most probably had to buy their way into the job. This was a highly prized line of employment for those who wanted to make money – in fact getting the job was almost a license to print money. Not only were you working for the Roman occupying force, collecting the taxes that they required to be collected, but you then had the opportunity to impose a heavy top up tax for yourself.
The tax collectors were collaborators and swindlers rolled into one – people who were willing to risk being ostracised as long as they were making money. And of course coupled with all of this was the distance they put between themselves and their religion. Doing the job meant mixing with the Romans and so becoming ritually unclean.
The tax collector was turning his back on nation, neighbour and God in order to line his own pocket.
The remarkable thing about Jesus is that no one for him is beyond the pail. He always counts people in and it’s only people themselves who count themselves out. Prostitutes, adulterers, lepers, tax collectors, rich people, poor people, you and me – we’re all given the same chance by Jesus. Some like the rich young man decide that they can’t accept what Jesus has to offer – he steps back - but most step forward when Jesus calls.
According to Mark and Luke’s Gospels the person we’re celebrating today was called Levi. But in the Gospel that bears his name we use Matthew throughout.
Jesus is well known as being someone who gave others nicknames – Peter is the greatest and most obvious example of his accurate and at times ironic skill in this and it may be that ‘Matthew’ is just such a name.
The name Matthew in fact means ‘the gift of God’ and it may be that Jesus, recognising in the man a personality that was searching for riches, decided to reveal to him the nature of the love of God as free gift. What Matthew encountered in Jesus was the richness of God’s mercy and the abundance of God’s goodness.
The writer of Proverbs had identified this already. There we hear of the wisdom of God – ‘her income is better than silver, her revenue better than gold’. More precious than jewels, beyond compare - this is what Jesus is revealing to Matthew as he calls him.
He’s been chasing something ephemeral; he’s lost everything in order to gain nothing. He’s lost the respect of neighbour, lost his rightful place in the nation, in the synagogue, perhaps deep down he’s also lost his own sense of self respect – who can tell what misery lay at the heart of Matthew that enabled him to hear the call.
Because that’s what’s so incredible! Matthew doesn’t wait, he doesn’t question – he simply gets up from where he’s been sitting and leaves it all behind. The fishermen that Jesus called made sure that their boats and their nets were safely back on land and that they’d handed the whole lot over to a family member – then they followed. But there was nothing for Matthew to hand over, nothing that he’d want to hand on, nothing of which he could be proud.
Later in the gospels the fishermen among the disciples would be found back in their boats and back with their nets. But theirs was a respectable life, a real trade – Matthew never goes back to what he was doing in the past – he couldn’t go back.
Instead Jesus gives him more riches than he’s ever had. He restores him and that’s what’s at the heart of the gospel and why this feast and why this church dedicated to Matthew are so important to us. Jesus restores Matthew within the community, within his family, within the nation and he’s set right with God. Matthew had by his own choices been excluded, Matthew because of the opinions of others had been excluded; Jesus though comes along and includes, draws him out of his exclusion and includes him. And deep down as well restoration, healing has taken place – Matthew has his own sense of self-respect, his own sense of worth, his own appreciation of real value restored, healed.
And how do we know that? - because he invites his friends along so that they can meet the man that has done all this. The dinner which Jesus and his disciples attends, given in his honour by Matthew now rich with God’s gift of restoration, is an opportunity for these tax collectors and sinners reclining alongside Jesus, to experience the same.
Like many of the stories of call in the gospels this one is accompanied by an act of mission. When Andrew was called he brought his brother with him, when Matthew was called he gathered his partners in crime for a dinner party so that they too could share in the gift of God – restoration, healing, inclusion.
And that’s why we come to this eucharist because we know that the gift of God is the greatest thing that we can have, something that makes the greatest difference in our lives. And when we know that for ourselves then we naturally want the same for our children, for family, friends and neighbours.
One of the greatest things that this church has to offer is the reputation that you have for generous hospitality, for a commitment to an inclusive gospel and for a living out of the mission of Jesus to include. It’s a counter cultural mission for many in the church but that’s what you do, inviting people who haven’t known God’s generosity before, or who have forgotten just what it’s like, or think that there’s no place at the table for them to share with us, to be at the party, at the banquet – people who have been found and embraced by Jesus..
St Paul expresses it like this in the second reading ‘we do not proclaim ourselves, we proclaim Jesus Christ as Lord’. With Matthew we’re evangelists, telling others about the truth of Jesus Christ, part of a church, when at its best, that’s constantly proclaiming the good news and calling people from where they are to where they should be, from the places that are destroying them, physically, mentally, morally to a place in which total restoration can take place.
We could debate who the equivalent of tax collectors are in our contemporary society. Whoever they are it’s they whom Jesus wishes to sit down and break bread with – and whoever we are he wishes to break bread with us.
This Holy Eucharist that we celebrate is free gift – God’s gift to each one of us gathered here. All we’re asked to do is to come forward and receive – there’s no catch – there’s nothing else like this on offer in the world. This is a unique place and a unique moment – God counts you in - only you can count yourself out!
© Andrew Nunn