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Readings: St Matthew, Apostle and Evangelist

12 September 2014

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Proverbs 3.13-18; 2 Corinthians 4.1-6; Matthew 9.9-13

O Almighty God, whose blessed Son called Matthew the tax collector to be an apostle and evangelist: give us grace to forsake the selfish pursuit of gain and the possessive love of riches that we may follow in the way of your Son Jesus Christ, who is alive and reigns with you, in the unity of the Holy Spirit, one God, now and for ever. Amen.

In chapters 8 and 9 of Matthew's Gospel, there are 13 instances when people "came", "followed", "approached", or were "brought" or "carried" to Jesus. Time after time, the initiative lay with them. Only twice did Jesus take the lead - in healing Peter's mother-in-law, and in calling Matthew. You have to wonder why. Did Jesus need Matthew, or see hidden potential in him, or know that Matthew was afraid of rejection and needed a challenging invitation?

Jesus was walking from his home town of Capernaum, which was near the frontier between territories controlled by Herod Agrippa and by Philip. Tax-collectors sat on the border, collecting duty on goods in transit (plus their own substantial rake-off, which helped to make them so hated), and possibly Jesus had seen Matthew many times.

The story makes it almost casual: Jesus was walking along, saw him, and said: "Follow me." As with Simon, Andrew, James, and John (Matthew 4.18-22), the response was instantaneous and life-changing.

In Mark and Luke, the tax-collector is called Levi; here, he is Matthew, derived from "gift of God". Perhaps whoever wrote the Gospel - scholars are divided on whether it is the same Matthew - used this name to be subtly self-referental to God's mercy in his life.

Very soon, life was further upended, as this disciple became an apostle, although he never quite shook off his former identity as a tax-collector (Matthew 10.1-4). Tradition tells us that, after Jesus's resurrection, he remained in Palestine, before heading to Ethiopia, Persia, or Parthia (now north-eastern Iran), once persecution started under Herod Agrippa. He may have been martyred.

But that is jumping ahead. What happened next? Simply a meal, which is quite typical of Jesus. The guest list comprised Matthew's companions, which provoked a predicable response from the Pharisees. Jesus's retort was more stinging than in Mark and Luke because he added to his comments about being sent to call sinners: "Go and learn what this means, 'I desire mercy and not sacrifice.'"

This alludes to Proverbs (21.3): "To do righteousness and justice is more acceptable to the Lord than sacrifice," and Hosea (6.6): "I desire steadfast love and not sacrifice, the knowledge of God rather than burnt offerings."

Jesus sent the Pharisees to "go and learn". Although teachers of the law, they needed to become disciples, to learn not about the niceties of the sacrificial system, but about the practice of mercy. Before long (Matthew 12.7), Jesus was again challenging them for failing to do this - this time, for criticising his disciples: "If you had known what this means, 'I desire mercy and not sacrifice,' you would not have condemned the guiltless."

In that light, it is salutary to hear Paul, himself a Pharisee, referring to God's mercy as the catalyst for the ministry to which he was called. It took dramatic events to convert him, and he invoked the creation story and God's life-giving words "Let light shine out of darkness" to describe what happened to him, as also happened to Matthew, when God's light shone in his heart. In each case, there was a new creation. It could happen to a Pharisee, just as it could to a tax-collector.

Why did Jesus have to challenge Matthew to follow him? What stopped Matthew's coming to Jesus of his own accord, like the other people in the stories surrounding his encounter with Jesus? What stops us from following Jesus? If we ask ourselves what or who is the hardest thing that God could ask us to give up, we might find the answer.

The collect points us to the dangers of "the selfish pursuit of gain and the possessive love of riches"; and Matthew learned the truth in Proverbs that wisdom's income is better than silver, gold, or jewels; that in wisdom is a tree of life.

For some people, this is where the rubber hits the road. For others, it might be something else entirely, but "selfish pursuit" and "possessive love" are probably at the heart of what holds most of us back. So, expecting God to put a finger on where the problem might lie for us, we pray for grace, like Matthew, to follow the way of Jesus Christ.

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