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.
One is the tax collector turned apostle. Passing by the tax booth, Jesus sees Matthew and calls him to follow. Matthew does just that. Jesus' word has such authority that it makes people disciples without prior contact. There is no suggestion that Matthew had been pondering a mid-life career change; as someone might think of a post-retiral ministry in the Church of England!
Paying taxes is not something we do with much enthusiasm. We know that some individuals and companies go to extraordinary and dubious lengths to avoid it. But we recognise that the people who collect our taxes are just civil servants doing their job. We don't usually hold them personally responsible for what we have to pay, or for what others manage to avoid paying: we tend to blame politicians for that.
In Jesus' time things were very different. Taxes had to be paid to rulers you did not choose. In the case of the Jews, to the Empire of which they were unwilling servants and its client kings. So tax collectors were collaborators, traitors, part of a system of oppression. To make matters worse, collection was not the work of civil servants but of private contractors. They were allocated a sum to be raised from their district. They received no salary, so they added their cut to the assessment. The wealthy would, no doubt, find ways of reducing their liability – a judicious bribe here and there – so the burden would fall disproportionately on ordinary people. Collection was backed up with force, so they had no choice but to pay up and see their hard-earned money go to support imperial armies or the grand building projects of the Herod dynasty.
After Matthew is called, the action moves to a supper party, at which many sinners and tax-collectors join Jesus at table. The complaints start when the Pharisees present object to him eating with such people. In the ancient world, who you ate with spoke volumes. The Gospel celebrates Jesus keeping company with people the righteous shun because they carry a spiritual contagion. They are unclean and this rubs off on you. Even more than this, the Gospel celebrates the fact that Jesus does not just welcome such outcasts; he calls them to leadership in the Church.
Sermons about inclusivity and welcome are fairly commonplace in churches like this one these days. We sing Fr. Faber's “There's a wideness in God's mercy” with gusto – rather to his surprise, I suspect. Of course, there are churches where the message still needs to be be preached and heard. And even here at St. Matthews, where inclusivity seems part of the DNA, we always need to be asking ourselves: “Who are we excluding? Who is not made to feel welcome here? Who does not have a place at our table and in our ministry? Who are our tax-collectors and sinners?”
There is a warning for us in the way Matthew's Gospel has been distorted in the history of the Church. Matthew is often thought of as the most Jewish of the Gospels. He quotes from and alludes to the Old Testament to portray Jesus as its fulfilment. He is the new and greater Moses, the one who fulfils the law and the prophets.
Matthew seems to have written for a predominantly Jewish-Christian community at a time of chage and conflict. The Temple has been destroyed after the Romans crushed the Jewish revolt of AD.70. Judaism was re-grouping under the leadership os the Pharisees, so that it might survive this collective trauma. Discipline was being tightened, boundaries drawn. Jewish Christians found themselves barred from the synagogue. Times of conflict do not make for tolerance and understanding. We see this reflected in the Matthew's polemical passages against the scribes and pharisees. By the standards of the time, and other times of religious strife, his language is quite restrained. But an argument between Jews, sowed the seeds for Christian anti-Judaism: the accusation that the Jews were for all time guilty of the death of Jesus: “His blood be upon us and upon our children.” I so not need to spell out where that led.
When I was an ordinand, we had to pass an exam called “Use of the Bible.” This was jokingly referred to by us as “Abuse of the Bible.” But we were only half-joking. The Bible has been abised to justify the persecution of the Jews, the enslavement of blacks, the subordination and abuse of women, up to and including marital rape, discrimination and violence against gay people. It is still being abused.
After that health warning, let's turn our attention to Matthew the Evangelist. We find, tucked away at the end of a collection of parables, a self-portrait of the writer of the Gospel:
“Therefore every scribe who has been trained for the kingdom of heaven is like the master of a household who brings out of his treasure what is new and what is old.” (Matt. 13.52)
This word-picture is also Matthew's description of those who would come after him as teachers in the Church; those called from whatever walk of life to pass on the treasures of Jesus's teaching to the people of God.
“Every scribe who has been trained for the kingdom of heaven.” The Christian preacher and teacher is, first and foremost, a disciple, a student, an apprentice, a pupil of Jesus Christ. “Trained for the kingdom of heaven” is Jesus' term for “discipled” to himself. These scribes or teachers can never be independent operators. They are always dependent on their teacher. They are perpetual students. That is why Matthew tells us that, even after Jesus has died, they are not to use the usual titles or rabbi, father and master, because God retains these roles. They remain disciples, who every day must go to school in the kingdom of heaven.
For Matthew, the Jesus who is “Emmanuel, God-with-us,” at the beginning of the Gospel, is also the Lord who will be with us always and to the end of the ages at its close. In our tradition, we are used to thinking of him present in the tabernacle, but he is also present in his word. The Church is always the community which Jesus gathers to him on the mount where he opens his mouth and teaches us. The disciples in the Gospel symbolize all those who will be faithful followers of Jesus after this death.
Matthew incorporates most of Mark, although he is more sympathetic to the disciples. Mark things they are a pretty stupid lot. In Matthew, when they misunderstand, they turn to jesus for instruction and explanation: “Why do you speak to them in parables?...Explain to us the parable.” And when they lack faith encourages them: Have you understood all this?”
An you, as Christian people have a right to expect your priests, your scribes and teachers – represented by this array of the never-knowingly underdressed behind me – to be men and women whose lives are formed and transformed by the Gospel. And we who are called to that ministry must, as the Ordinal reminds us, “be diligent in prayer, in reading Holy Scripture, and in all studies that will deepen (y)our faith and fit us (you) to bear witness to the truth of the gospel.”
We must be people who can bring out of their treasure both new and old because we are constantly immersed in it. But you also have a responsibility to seek that teaching. We are all disciples.
This is not so that we can learn lots of facts about God or Jesus, the Bible or Church history, for the pub quiz; for own information or self-improvement. It is so that we might take our share in the work of the kingdom of heaven. We are disciples, not just for our own sakes, but for others. We sit at the feet of Jesus so that what we learn we might share with others; to be trained as apostles and evangelists, heralds of the good news. Matthew ends his Gospel, “Go, therefore, and make disciples of all the nations, baptising them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, teaching them to observe all that I have commanded you...”
When we came into church this morning, we passed the great crucifix which is a memorial to Bishop FrankWeston (a former curate) and other missionaries of UMCA, who responded to that Great Commission by leaving home and family to go to all nations. Well now, the nations have come to us in our city, but the call to mission still sounds.
That mission is more than passing on information. Matthew sees Jesus as the one in whom the law is fulfilled: the perfect embodiment of the law of love for God and neighbour. Jesus obeys that law and teaches his disciples the same obedience. Obedience is the mark of the disciple. His disciples are called to a righteousness greater than that of the pharisees.
Inclusiveness of outcasts and sinners is at the heart of the gospel, but it is not an excuse for downplaying or ignoring the command to obedience and holiness we find in Matthew. At the last judgement, at the Great Assize, he tells us that we will be judged not on correctness of belief, or knowledge of the Bible, or devotion to Christ in the Blessed Sacrament but, as Bishop Weston pointed out in his famous address to the Anglo-Catholic Congress, on whether we have recognised Christ in the poor and hungry, the homeless and naked, the sick and the prisoner.
© 2013, Alan Moses