Jesus calls, Matthew responds

Stephen Adam, 20 September 2015

Proverbs 3: 13–18; Matthew 9: 9–13

Matthew, Mark, Luke and John – the four gospel writers. What a debt we owe to them! Were it not for their writings we would not be able to imagine this person Jesus, God with us in our own kind of life. The gospels allow us to relate to Jesus 2,000 years later. Each writer brings his own particular perspective, shaping how he presents Jesus.

The gospel traditionally attributed to Matthew is the first appearing in the New Testament. But the most commonly accepted theory is that Mark’s gospel was the first to be written and that Matthew had Mark’s account in front of him as he wrote, together with a second document that Luke also had.

For one of our pre-eminent apostles, surprisingly little is known about Matthew. The story of his response to Jesus’ call appears as well in Mark and Luke, where he is referred to as Levi; the reason for the change of name is unclear and, other than a fleeting reference in the next chapter, no more is heard of Matthew.

He is reputed to have died a martyr’s death in Ethiopia, and his reputed bones are venerated in the cathedral of Salerno, south of Naples. Otherwise he has marched off into the mists of history, a fragmentary and elusive character, leaving us the great gift of the gospel bearing his name. So today, on this festival day, as we commemorate Matthew – apostle, evangelist and tax collector – what can learn from his call?

Some of you may have had the good fortune to visit Rome, and there in the Contarelli Chapel of the Church of St Louis, the church of the French congregation, hangs one of Caravaggio’s most famous paintings, The Calling of St Matthew.

Matthew is a despised tax collector, one of those people who colluded with the Roman occupying authorities, doing a lot of their dirty work – quislings, if you like. And to make it worse, the tax collectors would add an extra tax for themselves; they were embezzlers and swindlers.

Caravaggio depicts Matthew in a dark, gloomy room, sitting round a table with four young, foppishly dressed friends, who doubtless saw in him their prospect to good money. Christ takes the initiative. Entering the room, he points with his arm a beam of light into this dark scene. It’s a call and an invitation. There’s puzzlement on Matthew’s face – you can imagine him saying, ‘Who, me?’ It’s a collision of two worlds, the call of faith interrupting the mundane and sordid.

Matthew is a pretty unlikely candidate to be an apostle, but Jesus could see beyond what he was to what he could be. It’s an invitation to ordinary people, one that Matthew cannot refuse. We’re not told if any words passed between them. The gospel simply focuses on the immediacy of Matthew’s response, his unquestioning acceptance of Jesus’ invitation: ‘He got up and followed him’.

Jesus could see beyond what he was to what he could be. It’s an invitation to ordinary people.

Pope Francis has mentioned that he often went into this chapel as a young man and, referring to Christ’s outstretched arm and Matthew’s response, Francis says, ‘This is me, a sinner, on whom the Lord has turned his gaze’. This gospel story celebrates God’s mercy. We are conditioned to think of good things having to be earned or deserved, but that’s not God’s way or how he acts. The Franciscan priest Richard Rohr has written, ‘God does not love you because you are good, but God loves you because God is good’.

And so when Matthew, the despised tax collector and outcast, is called, there is no judgement or examination; it’s a simple invitation to which he responds.

Then note what happens next. Jesus does what he does throughout the gospel: he sits down and eats with the tax collectors and sinners, accepting and opening himself to their hospitality. He is not ashamed to be in their company or to identify himself with them – people who are outcasts and ostracised, at the margins of respectable society. And of course the irony is that it is the religious people – the Pharisees, the (self-) righteous – who cannot see this mercy in action, and who complain.

Hospitality is at the heart of God’s relationship with us. So too we are called to seek to model the acceptance that Jesus showed Matthew by continuing to strive to be a welcoming and accepting church, without being judgemental – living up to our strapline, ‘We are pilgrims on a journey, come and join us’.

I’d like to highlight one other feature of our gospel account. When we’re told how Matthew got up and rose to follow Jesus, the Greek word for ‘rose’ has the same root meaning as ‘resurrection’. This is a new life that Matthew is invited into, a conscious attachment to a new life lived in communion with Jesus. And that new life involved, for Matthew, a dying to his old ways and his old habits.

For Matthew, as today’s collect [allocated prayer] puts it, that involved forsaking ‘the selfish pursuit of gain and the possessive love of riches’ and instead seeking something far more valuable. In responding to the generosity of God revealed in Jesus Christ, Matthew had discovered true wealth, something that gave fresh meaning and purpose to his life – or as our first reading from Proverbs puts it, true wisdom:

Happy are those who find wisdom, and for those who get understanding, for her income is better than silver, and her revenue better than gold.

As we celebrate St Matthew today, so too we give thanks for our own church and parish of St Matthew’s as we seek as a community of faith to live out that call to new life in Christ. We have a good deal to celebrate today, with all the significant initiatives going on at St Matthew’s to enable that building to continue to be fit for purpose for many years to come. Later this morning Peter will be blessing the new lighting which has so transformed the interior; plans are well advanced for the re-roofing of the church, for the re-ordering of the rear of the church to create a small hospitality and meeting space, and also for a much-needed toilet. God willing, these plans will come to fruition next year.

I have spoken about generosity this morning. None of these developments would have been possible without real generosity from many people in giving of their time, skills and, yes, money too. It’s always invidious to mention names, but it’s appropriate this morning that we should again acknowledge with thanksgiving the generosity of Ken and Freda Wilkins – for whom St Matthew’s was so central to their life over so many years – with their substantial legacy, which will have such a transformative effect. We have secured an initial grant from the Heritage Lottery Fund for the roofing project and have hopes that a major grant will follow in due course. Our success here has been due to the careful, sterling work of a small group of people, notably Gary and Dick; while the Friends under Mark’s chairmanship continue to provide invaluable support. Thanks to all concerned, and for the generosity of so many, in getting us to this point.

Our patron, St Matthew, remains a rather elusive character. Other than his call by Jesus we know little for sure about him as a person. But maybe that’s his strength as a patron saint. He can stand for all of us whose pilgrimage through life doesn’t attract great attention or fame. We’re simply part of that great body of all the saints who have gone before us, following Christ with joy on a good day and with a sense of duty on a bad day, playing our part as best we can.

But one thing each of us can be sure of is recorded in the final chapter of the gospel that bears Matthew’s name. In the words of the risen Jesus to his disciples as he appears to them after the resurrection, ‘Remember, I am with you always, to the end of the age’. May we, in our pilgrimage through this life, find alongside us the Christ of the journey as the guarantee of that pilgrimage. Amen.

Caravaggio, The Calling of St Matthew, 1599–1600. Oil on canvas, 3.22 x 3.4 m (10 ft 7 in x 10 ft 10 in). Contarelli Chapel, San Luigi dei Francesi, Rome. Scan by VivaItalia1974. Own work, CC BY-SA 3.0,