Wednesday 21 September 2022

It takes all sorts to make the Church

Saint Matthew, whose feast we are keeping today, is a welcome reminder that it takes all sorts to make a church. He was a ‘publican’, a local semi-official, whose job it was to help the Romans keep their Empire running smoothly. Collecting taxes was one of the tasks farmed out to these pen-pushers, who were, quite understandably, very unpopular with their fellow countrymen, who saw them as little more than collaborators. The Evangelists themselves lumped tax-collectors in together with prostitutes and sinners for, to add insult to injury, these men would pay the full sum upfront to the Romans and then recoup their money by adding on a significant increase in what they charged the people. It was a racket by which the publicans made themselves very rich.

Such was Matthew or Levi, a rich man and not much loved by his own people, hardly the sort of person the Lord would call to follow him, let alone make an apostle, you might think. But that is the strange thing about the Lord. He frequently does the last thing anyone would expect. There were surely more deserving characters and more fit to do the work and to enjoy the Lord’s favour. Yet it was Matthew he called. You can picture him sitting ‘at the receipt of custom’, wringing out the last shekel from the poorest and even, perhaps, threatening some farmer, unable to pay the full amount, with the loss of half his flock. This might have gone on for years, had not our Lord passed by that day. What was it that made Matthew get up and and go after him? As one preacher put it: “‘Follow me,’ says Jesus, and at once Matthew was out of the office, without even stopping to switch his computer off.” This brings out the sense of immediacy of this man’s conversion.

St John Chrysostom suggests: ‘We see by the prompt and complete obedience of Matthew, who left all his worldly possessions in an instant, that the Lord had called him at just the right moment.’ What had Jesus seen in Matthew that he could use in his mission to bring about the Kingdom? His shrewdness and single-mindedness? Who can say? We should more easily be able to say what it was that Matthew saw in Jesus, since we too have found ourselves attracted by him and chosen to get up and follow him ourselves. Haven’t we? Maybe our discipleship is sometimes a little half-hearted, or perhaps, with a little self-examination, we can discern that we have grown a little lukewarm in our faith and our love for the Lord. It may be that, if we are honest, we can recognise that, had we been sitting in Matthew’s booth that day, we might not have heard the Lord’s kind but firm invitation to follow him, so intent we might have been on the business of making money. Perhaps we might have said, ‘Not today, Lord. Tomorrow, maybe,’ not seeing that this might be the one and only invitation we may be offered as the Lord passes by?

St Augustine highlights the urgency with which we should respond to the Lord’s call: ‘I fear Jesus may pass by and not come back.’ It’s a terrifying thought. And yet, ‘He chose us before the foundation of the world.’ If the calling of Matthew seems odd to us, consider that His choosing us is not any the less strange. Think how it must have seemed so to the other disciples, men who worked long hours in order to pay those hated taxes. How strange that this office-worker, who had very likely defrauded them, was to to be counted as one of their number, how this outsider should be invited to join the inner circle! To such as Peter, it can’t have felt right. And yet, Jesus sees us not only as we are, but as we can be. He sees the potential in each one, if only we give ourselves over to his tutelage and care. To be a disciple is simply to be one who learns. As we learn, we grow and change. Matthew did, and we have reason to be truly thankful that he did so, because he left behind something of tremendous value to us: a Gospel. Matthew’s life as a publican shows what his life was like and might have remained had Christ not passed by that day. His life as an Apostle and Evangelist reveals what a meeting with Jesus could mean and what he might do with even the most unlikely candidate. It takes all sorts to make the Church.

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