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Sunday September 21, 2008
4:00 pm - Saint Thomas Church
Preacher: Fr Mead

Saint Matthew

In the Name of God the Father, God the Son and God the Holy Ghost. Amen.

About twenty years ago my son Matthew, who is now 32 years old with a wife and son of his own, was given a school assignment: to write up a report on the life of some historical person and its significance for him. Matt chose Saint Matthew, the Apostle and Evangelist, whose name is given to the first of the four Gospels and who is also his own “name saint.” Matt’s research and his 12-year-old reflections have permanently affected my own thoughts of Saint Matthew.

Of course, Saint Matthew is famous as having been called by Jesus from, in the words of the old Prayer Book, “the receipt of custom,” to follow Jesus and be an apostle and evangelist. In other words, Matthew was a tax collector. Tax collectors were viewed by Matthew’s fellow Jews as collaborators with the Roman State who made their living by taking money from their own people for the hated overlords and often enriched themselves in so doing. Devout Pharisees refused to marry into a family that had a member who was a tax collector, a “publican.” When Matthew held a dinner party for his fellow publicans and invited Jesus to attend (which he did), the Pharisees sharply criticized Jesus for keeping bad company. Jesus’ reply was that he came not to call the righteous but sinners.

There is frequent mention of tax collectors in Saint Matthew’s Gospel, including a parable about a proud Pharisee and a penitent tax collector at prayer at the Temple. Jesus says the tax collector, who did not congratulate himself in his prayer as did the Pharisee, but rather smote his breast and said, “Lord, be merciful to me, a sinner,” went back to his house justified rather than the Pharisee. I remember my son pointing out that Saint Matthew, a tax collector too, must have appreciated the Lord’s merciful judgment from his own experience. Matt, who is now an Episcopal priest himself, may have been showing early anticipations of his vocation-to-be, and I hope, a ministry of mercy.

The biblical scholars note that Saint Matthew’s Gospel is especially remarkable for its “sayings of Jesus.” While his Gospel, with important differences, largely follows the structure of the Gospels of Mark and Luke, Matthew is especially cherished for his record, among other sayings, of the Sermon on Mount. I was struck by 12-year-old Matt’s remark that this made sense. “Why?” I asked. Because, he said, St. Matthew had been a tax collector and he was good at keeping records. His earlier life came in handy for him, and was good for the Church, in his new life as an apostle and Gospel-writer. No matter what, Jesus redeems our time, talent and treasure when we follow him. Nothing goes to waste in the following.

Matt noted in his research that in the Gospels of Mark and Luke, who also tell the story of Jesus’ call of the tax collector, that in those two stories his name is Levi, but his name is Matthew in Saint Matthew’s Gospel. Jesus had the habit with others among his followers of nicknaming. He called Simon the son of John “Peter,” or “Rock.” He called the sons of Zebedee, the brothers James and John, “Boanerges,” or “the sons of thunder.” The name Matthew means “God’s gift.” Perhaps Matthew was Jesus’ new name for Levi when he left tax collecting and followed the Lord. If so, it makes sense that the new Apostle and Evangelist would have preferred his new name from Christ.

What an extraordinary band Christ assembled around himself! Among the Twelve was the former tax collector as well Simon the Zealot, who would have been a political activist utterly intolerant of such collaborators as Matthew. Yet there they were, gathered around Jesus, and, in due course, sharing the Eucharist, welcoming newcomers such as the righteous Pharisee Saul of Tarsus and venturing their own lives for the spread of the Gospel. There is a wideness in God’s mercy far greater than the measure of the human mind.

Saint Matthew’s Gospel is believed to be rooted and grounded in Judea, but beyond that the traces of the great saint grow faint. Traditions say that, having led many to Christ in Judea, Saint Matthew traveled to the east, to Persia, where he was martyred. Another tradition has him traveling to Ethiopia and being martyred there. He has always been venerated as a martyr for Christ, but the time and circumstances are not known.

In art and iconography, Saint Matthew is represented either as an evangelist or an apostle. As an evangelist, he usually sits at his desk, writing his Gospel with an angel either guiding his hand or holding an inkwell. As an apostle he holds the emblem of his martyrdom (usually a spear or sword) or else a money-box in memory of his former profession. In the later Middle Ages, he sometimes gained spectacles, presumably to help him with those lists of sayings of the Lord, or, in his former life, his account books. And here I see my young son had the spirit of those artists in his linkage of record-keeping and Gospel-writing.

Saint Matthew’s symbol among the four evangelists is a man. [John is the eagle, Luke the ox, and Mark the lion.] According to The Oxford Dictionary of Saints the reason Matthew is a man is his emphasis in his genealogies of the family ties of Christ, the humanity of the Lord. These are the least read parts of his Gospel, but let me clue you into something. The genealogies emphasize certain women at some extraordinary moments in Christ’s lineage. There is Rahab the harlot, Ruth the Moabitess (King David’s great grandmother), Bathsheba whom King David took in adultery, and then, at the climax of this patriarchal descent: “Joseph, the husband of Mary, of whom was born Jesus, who is called Christ.” Well, thank God for Saint Matthew’s noticing that God is full of merciful surprises, all of which culminate in our Lord Jesus Christ. May his Gospel comfort us all our days.

In the Name of God the Father, God the Son and God the Holy Ghost. Amen.