Today the Church honours the apostle Matthew, whose name is attached to the first of the four Gospels. In fact, the Gospel of Matthew we know was written by a later hand, but in part it probably depends on sayings and stories of Jesus that we’re told were assembled by Matthew, and then expounded by others.
There was no need for a written account of the life and teachings of Jesus when the Church was very new – not least because the first followers of our Lord expected the day of judgement would arrive at any moment. They were already in the last days. But as the Church grew, and time went on, and those who led the church in each place hadn’t necessarily known or heard Jesus themselves, that it became important to write things down.
Matthew should no doubt be honoured for his part in beginning the work of assembling the written Gospels, but today I’d like to concentrate on Matthew the disciple rather than Matthew the evangelist. Like Peter, Andrew, James and John, he wasn’t an obvious candidate. To be honest, he was a much less obvious candidate than the other four, now that I come to think of it. They were fishermen, an honourable enough occupation; he was a tax collector, and no-one likes them, do they?
Now I’ve known a few tax collectors fairly well, and all the ones I’ve known have been really nice people. And I have a fairly positive feeling about paying my taxes, because that’s part of how we ensure a society in which all members can find a level of provision and care and have the chance to live together in peace. Although that’s not to say I agree with everything the government chooses to do with the money it takes from me.
But at least it is my government, and if I don’t like what it does, then every five years or so I get the chance to cast my vote and maybe effect a change. Tax collectors at the time of Jesus were working for a government that was imposed on the people from outside, and which was hostile or at best dismissive of their faith and therefore their law. Israel had been a free kingdom with kings of the line of David; but now they were part of the Empire of Rome, and that’s where their taxes went, and that’s who the tax collectors who received their taxes worked for.
You could make a good living as a tax collector. You could in fact pretty much collect as much as you liked, provided you remitted to the Roman exchequer the amount the Romans had assessed. So really you had permission from the authorities to be extortionate; the downside of that was that anyone who took the job was going to be hated by his own people, and treated with suspicion and contempt. By definition a tax collector was likely to be a man who cared more for money and for the trappings of wealth than he cared for community or friends or even family. And since his hands were fatally tainted by being in league with the godless Romans, no man of religion, no priest or Pharisee, would have anything at all to do with a tax collector.
But Jesus did. In the Gospel stories we find Jesus quite deliberately meeting with tax collectors, eating at their tables, and treating them as though they hadn’t completely and utterly excluded themselves from God’s favour. You’ll remember the story of little Zaccheus, the tax collector who climbed up a tree to see Jesus over the heads of the crowd. Jesus called him down and invited himself to have tea at Zaccheus’ house. You’ll remember too the anger of the Pharisees when they saw this rabbi, teacher, sitting to eat with tax collectors.
I suppose Matthew – or Levi as he would have been then – must have been at such an event. Or maybe like Zaccheus he’d been jostled by the crowd as he strained to hear what Jesus had to say out on the streets. And then one day Jesus called him, there as he was sitting at his seat of custom, doing his books, collecting and counting the money. Why would Jesus call a tax collector, though? Why would Jesus want someone like that? What would Jesus expect to do with him?
Jesus called Matthew for the same reason that he called Peter and the others; because he could see that Matthew was ready to follow. That’s exactly what he did: he left his seat straight away, and didn’t hesitate for a moment. Then as now, for Jesus qualifications or status or suitability (in the way that society might assess it) – these things aren’t important in a disciple . . . the important thing is that they’re ready to follow, ready to listen, ready to learn.
The words of the traditional collect for St Matthew’s day speak of Jesus calling Matthew “from the selfish pursuit of gain”. So we’re talking about a life turned upside down, and a radical changing of priorities. Matthew’s good life as a tax collector had turned out not to be good after all. He might have thought money would compensate for the rejection and abuse and cold shoulders – but I think he’d found that however much money you got, and however much money you spent, there was an empty space in the middle of him that mere money could never fill. A God shaped space, if you like.
So Levi became a disciple, left his old life, left his money behind, I suppose, started afresh. And from being Levi, which means “attached” or “pledged”, he became Matthew, which means “gift of God”.
I think that at the point of Jesus’ call to him, Matthew had come to realise the truth of that simple but profound statement, attributed among others to William Ruskin, that “he who gives God second place in life gives him no place.” If our priorities are wrong, whoever and wherever we are, the God shaped slot remains empty and unfilled, and, however rich we may like to think we may be, we are in fact fatally poor.
But here for me is the crux of the matter, and here’s why the story of Matthew matters to me, and not only to the bankers of Canary Wharf or the City of London: let me put it as a question – what’s the difference between Matthew the tax collector and the Pharisees and priests who were so quick to condemn Jesus for spending time with Matthew and his like?
Here’s an immediate and obvious difference. Matthew had chosen money, and the Pharisees had chosen religion. But that’s a bit of red herring, not least because religion and faith are not necessarily the same thing. Religion can in fact become as much of a self-seeking thing as any pursuit of wealth or power. Just look at the amount of misery and conflict religion causes in our world today. Do you imagine God wants any of that? Do you imagine God is calling people into any of that?
The difference between Matthew and the Pharisees, the difference that matters, is this: Matthew knew he needed to be saved and repaired and healed by God. The Pharisees didn’t. And for us too, as for Matthew, we are here gathered today not because we’re good enough, not because we’re sorted out and are getting it all right, but because we know we need God to fix us, and that there is inside me and you a God-shaped hole that only the love of Jesus can fill. And he knows that, which is why he calls me and you as he called Matthew that day, to put him first, to leave the other stuff behind, and to follow.