St Matthew

Richard Hollingdale
Sunday 21st September, 2014

I don’t know about you, but I’m always fascinated by those lists that appear in the papers every year or two: most and least respected professions. Once upon a time it was estate agents and double glazing salesmen who were at the bottom of the pile, but things have changed. I was looking at three surveys produced by reputable organisations over the last couple of years, which all came up with the same names for the least respected professions, and in the same order, though the figures were slightly different. Guess what they were….at 3rd from bottom, bankers; at 2nd, journalists, and right at the bottom, politicians. For example, an Ipsos Mori survey in 2013 put bankers and journalists together at 21% and politicians at 18%. Incidentally, they all put the same professions at the top. The same survey had clergymen scoring a creditable 66%, teachers (I’m personally very pleased to say!) at no. 2 with 86% and doctors the winners with 89%.

Things were not much different in New Testament times, I suspect, and I’m sure that a similar survey then would have shown people who worked in the financial sector – moneylenders and tax collectors – right near the bottom, just as today.

In fact tax collectors were amongst the most hated people. One commentator has described them as being like flies – numerous, unavoidable and detested! They gathered in large numbers in towns and cities and were hated for three main reasons: the taxes they collected went to far-off Rome to pay to support a foreign regime; the system was open to abuse as officials were able to vary the amount charged on a whim, even though there was supposed to be a fixed scale of charges; and the tax collectors earned a living by charging people extra for collecting their tax. The collectors would pay a lump sum upfront to the authorities on behalf of their clients and then levy a handling charge when their clients reimbursed them. Some have described them not as tax collectors but as tax farmers.

Which leads me to St Matthew, Apostle and Evangelist. As we are celebrating him today, I think I’d better talk about him. So, who was Matthew, and what does his story have to tell us today?

Actually, we don’t know very much at all about Matthew. We know from Mark’s and Luke’s gospels that he was also known as Levi, so perhaps he had two names – rather like Simon was also known as Cephas or Peter – or perhaps Levi was some sort of family name. We also know that he was a tax collector. There were three types of tax in those days – land tax, head tax and customs tax. Matthew’s job involved collecting customs tax from commercial traffic passing through the area of Capernaum. This was levied at ports and city gates and charged at between 2% and 5% of the value of the goods being transported. It doesn’t seem a lot, though for a small trader it could represent a week or two’s income. The problem with this type of tax was that it was levied every time a trader went through a toll, so the same goods could be taxed multiple times on one journey.

As a tax collector Matthew may not have been very popular, but he would have been literate and experienced at recording details accurately. Working in Galilee and amongst traders, he would have known Aramaic and Greek, so it is quite possible that he could have been the writer of the gospel that bears his name. Certainly the church has thought so since the 2nd century, but there is no conclusive evidence either way.

And that is all we know about Matthew. Yet his name, and his legacy in the form of this gospel, have survived, and are celebrated. Why should this be so?

I think it is because of the ways in which Matthew shows a different slant and emphasis from the other gospels. He is keen to show the Christians in the communities which formed the fledgling church how to behave. He is interested in the moral dimension to life. He clearly shows us what God wants from us. “I desire mercy, not sacrifice” says Jesus, quoting the prophet Hosea, a quote not reported in any of the other gospels. God is not interested in rituals and the externals of religion, the burnt offerings of the priests. God no longer wants sacrifice, if indeed God ever did, and in any case the whole concept of sacrifice was soon to be rendered redundant for ever by the ultimate sacrifice, that of Jesus on the cross. What God wants is for us to act with mercy – or as expressed in the original Hebrew version of Hosea’s saying, with steadfast love. The Greek version of that same word when Jesus quotes it carries with it shades of compassion and kindness. God wants us to act with love.

I think it is important regularly to remind ourselves of that, and to proclaim it loudly to people with little or no understanding of Christianity, who often criticise religion for being all about keeping complicated and difficult rules and ticking boxes. No, it isn’t: as Matthew says, it is all about love. The Pharisees’ priority was obedience to regulations, but for Jesus it is all about people.

Also important is that Matthew shows how God values everyone and wants all sorts of people to contribute to his mission. Earlier I mentioned how tax collectors were universally despised in Jesus’s time. For the Jewish population, with a strong sense of unrealised nationhood, there was also a sense of almost betrayal, that one of their own community was prepared to collect taxes for a foreign power which occupied their land. How unpatriotic! Some Jews also regarded tax collectors as ritually unclean because of their association with people who were unbelievers and with a system that was built around extortion.

Yet Jesus not only asked Matthew to join him in his work but immediately went on to have dinner with him at his home. A meal is a sign of intimacy and Jesus shows here, as well as in other places in the gospels, that he is happy to identify himself with those who were viewed as undesirables by wider society. That meant not just tax collectors but prostitutes, heretics – and Gentiles. The Pharisees must have been scandalised! They thought of themselves as righteous, worthy of being called not just to this special meal but also to the heavenly banquet which they thought awaited them. Jesus is effectively challenging the adequacy of what they considered righteous. Maybe Jesus is suggesting that it is the sinners who hunger and thirst after righteousness who are closer to true righteousness than the self-satisfied – which should give us pause for thought. Who are the righteous today?

I don’t know which is more extraordinary: that Jesus called someone like Matthew, or that Matthew accepted. He was in a secure job and well off – after all, people would always have to pay their taxes – yet he chose to follow Jesus, probably making himself even less popular than he was already. Reflecting on his actions should encourage us to reassess our true values; to look for the wisdom that is more precious than jewels and which gives us much more than any silver and gold, as it says in our reading from Proverbs. Matthew became less wealthy, but in time he found that by following Jesus he became so much richer. We too need to learn to leave behind things of little lasting value.

But if there is one point above all I would like us to take away today, it is this: Jesus believed in Matthew, despite his social status, and he trusted him enough to invite him to be a central part of his mission. God often calls unlikely and unexpected people – including you and me. We may be riddled with doubt, we may feel unworthy, we may lack confidence in our abilities, we may not even particularly like the person we are, but these things do not matter to God. What matters is that we follow Jesus and serve him in building his kingdom. We may not believe in ourselves, but God believes in us. All of us have our part to play. There are so many opportunities to do that; in our daily lives at home and work; here in our church family. Let us allow ourselves to listen carefully to that call, because I’m sure that God has something special in mind for each and every one of us!

I should like to close today with a prayer.

Lord, thank you for loving Matthew enough to believe in him
and call him out the chaos and corruption of tax-collecting
into life with you.
Open our eyes to see that you believe in us too,
and give us grace to receive the freedom you offer
when you say, ‘Follow me.’

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