Sunday, September 21, 2008

Follow Me

Homily for the Feast of St. Matthew
Sunday, September 21st, 2008
Holy Trinity Anglican Church, Thornhill, ON
The Rev. Daniel F. Graves
Text: Matthew 9:9-13

“Follow me…” and he got up and followed him.
- Matthew 9:9

If a certain first century tax collector named Matthew was to be caught up somehow in the space/time continuum and transported to our present day and witness the celebrations held in his honour, see the churches dedicated to his memory, and notice the prefix of “Saint” added to his name, he would certainly be forgiven for thinking that he must be the victim of a case of mistaken identity. Surely, this festival and those churches could not be in honour of him, the hated tax collector! And if one of his contemporaries happened to have been caught up in that same time warp with him, he surely would have added, “I know the man well, and believe me… he ain’t no saint!” What happened that this most notorious of sinners should come to be thought of as one the preeminent saints of the Church?

Let us first consider, what was so bad about this man anyway? As modern people we may scratch our heads at the notion that being a tax collector was about as bad as one could get, but in ancient times tax collectors were looked upon with considerable distain and loathing. Often, they were free-agent local contractors who collected taxes on behalf of the hated Roman occupiers. Thus, to some extent, they were probably looked upon as collaborators. Furthermore, many were known for either skimming off the top or overcharging and pocketing considerable sums of money for themselves. They were individuals who should have served the public good but who abused their civic duty. In today’s terms we might draw an analogy with those, who, as members of respected professions engage in questionably ethical behaviour. Whether they be civil servants corrupted by access to the public purse, or the so-called ambulance-chasers of certain guilds, we can begin to understand the low regard in which this particular professional might have been held. To this end, tax collectors were grouped alongside all other kinds of sinners, such as prostitutes, thieves, rapists, and murderers, and in the case of today’s gospel, were singled out as especially bad.

However, by the end of the first century, the Church had a special book, claiming to come from the hand of this most heinous tax collector -- The Gospel According to St. Matthew, which has become the first book of our New Testament. To those who knew Matthew the tax collector, this most certainly would have come as a surprise. Scholars debate whether or not our tax -collecting friend was actually the author of this book, but it seems certain that the traditions within it go back to him. What is especially interesting is that this particular gospel soon achieved a preeminent status in the Church as the first amongst four gospels, and indeed has often been called “The Church’s book.” By the early second century, one writer, Papias (whose words are preserved in fourth century Church Historian Eusebius of Ceasarea) notes the importance of Matthew’s gospel by stating, “Matthew collected the oracles (of Jesus) in the Hebrew language and each interpreted them as best he could” (Eusebius Ecc. Hist. III.39.16). Later in the second century, the great Ireneus of Lyons also knows of this gospel and its preeminence. By the middle ages, several versions of his martyrdom existed, having him meet his demise in the defense of the faith variously in Persia, Ethiopia, or Pontus. Reputed relics of St. Matthew are found across Europe and remain to this day places of pilgrimage.

The question remains, though, how did this notorious sinner become the celebrated saint? The answer is deceptively simple and can be found in his response to that invitation offered by Jesus on that afternoon so long ago: “Follow me.”

The story is a simple one and so much remains untold. Jesus was simply walking by, caught sight of Matthew and offered him an invitation to become his follower, his disciple. We are simply told that Matthew “got up and followed him.” We are not told of what angst might have been on Matthew’s heart leading up to that moment. We are not told of the risk he took in leaving all behind. We are not told of how he might have felt at being offered a place in this special band of disciples given how his fellows disdained him. We are only told that he got up and followed Jesus.

I suppose that it really is as simple as that for each of us. We can wrestle and wrangle over what being a follower of Jesus might mean for us. What are the challenges of following Jesus? What will I have to give up? What lies ahead for me? What will people think of me? Will I be acceptable to God? Am I fit for God’s work? All these questions may pass before us – these and more – but ultimately we must face that moment of truth when all the questions and concerns are eclipsed by the invitation. Will I say yes to that invitation? Will I rise up and follow him?

Jesus sees beyond and through our doubt and angst into the depths of our truest selves and issues that call that cuts through all that distracts us. The terseness of the call illustrates that this is how he saw Matthew. He looked beyond all that separated Matthew from his fellow citizens. He saw Matthew with different eyes. Consider that the name Matthew derives from a Semitic word that means “gift from God.” Matthew may have been despised and rejected by amongst whom he lived and worked. And very likely, there was good cause to despise such a man. Yet, Jesus looked beyond what the world could see. He looked beyond even how Matthew might have viewed himself and recognized the man who was a gift from God, and invited him to follow him on his journey.

I am conscious, though, that the name “Matthew” might also be a play on the Greek word for disciple, mathetes. So again, the one who we might cast aside, the one who we might despise is gathered up by that great shepherd of our souls and recognized as being of great value to the kingdom of God. Jesus looked beyond the tax collector and saw the disciple. Our Lord looks into the depths of each one of us, beyond the things others do not like about us, and beyond the things that we do not like about ourselves, and recognizes and calls the disciple in each one of us.

I am also conscious that while Jesus called Matthew to be his disciple, Matthew became something more. A disciple is one who “follows behind” and indeed this is the sense of the Greek phrase that here we find translated, “follow me.” An apostle, on the other hand, is one who goes ahead, with a message and a proclamation. Thus, not only did Jesus recognize within Matthew the follower, he saw what he could become, which was the herald of good tidings, the apostle.

We catch a glimpse of this reality within the text because Matthew’s conversion is immediately followed by Jesus sitting at dinner not only with Matthew, but with many tax collectors and sinners. What has Matthew’s conversion done but lead others to Christ! By following he became a leader. Others around, others who felt unworthy, other who felt unloved, others who felt themselves to be the outcasts, others who believed that they had nothing to offer, others who believed they had no beauty within themselves, recognized that they, too, were gifts from God. Through the witness of Matthew’s discipleship, they were able to let go of everything that held them in bondage to their brokenness and sit in the presence of the Lord feeling loved and affirmed simply as children of God.

The message is as sure today as it was then. Underneath the rubble of my own mistakes and missteps, and underneath the wounds of our broken relationships there exists a person who is a gift to the world. Although we may not be able to see it ourselves and even others may write us off, Jesus looks deeply through the fog of our lives and utters those words, “follow me – be my disciple – I choose you.”

And if we dare to say yes, we too shall find that we are called not only to be disciples but called to be heralds and apostles of this scandalous message that each created person is indeed valuable and precious, that each one of us is a gift from God and have a gift to offer, and that there is no one who is not precious and beautiful in the sight of God.

Text copyright 2008 by the Rev. Daniel F. Graves. This homily may not be reproduced or redistributed, either in whole or part, by any means, without the express, written permission of the author.