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The Calling of Matthew – The Feast of St. Matthew
20 September 2015
He saw a man sitting at the receipt of custom: and he saith unto him, Follow me. And he arose and followed him.
The great Renaissance painter, Caravaggio, immortalized this snippet of verse in his painting The Calling of Matthew. And I have included a reprint of it in the bulletins this morning as a sort of visual aid. In the painting we see Jesus, at the right of the painting identified by a faint halo above his head, pointing a long finger at Matthew seated at a table counting money with his clerks. Matthew, looking directly at Jesus, points to himself in a gesture that seems to ask the question – Who?me? So Caravaggio is telling us in his painting that Matthew was surprised to hear Christ’s call to follow him. Yet his response to the call was to get up and follow – to leave his cushy tax collection business (for such it was) to follow a homeless Jewish faith healer and teacher. Why in the world would he do such a thing?
Well, that is not explained in the Bible. We only have the stark account of the call and immediate response. So biblical scholars have come up with an explanation of sorts and you can read it in many Bible commentaries. It goes like this: Levi, as he was called before he became Matthew, must have had a previous encounter with Jesus that softened him up, so to speak, to accept the call when it came. The problem with that line of reasoning is that there is not a hint anywhere in scripture that such an encounter took place. This attempt to explain away Matthew’s response to the call was something that irked the great theologian and martyr Dietrich Bonhoeffer. He thought that it missed the point entirely. The point being that the response of the disciples was a response of obedience not faith. Bonhoeffer writes: This encounter is a testimony to the absolute, direct, and unaccountable authority of Jesus. Jesus summons men to follow him not as a teacher or a pattern of the good life, but as the Christ, the Son of God.
Now Bonhoeffer’s thesis leads to a very interesting question. Does faith lead to obedience or obedience to faith? Clearly, Matthew couldn’t have been a faithful disciple of Jesus that day when Jesus came into his house and summoned him. But Jesus’ “unaccountable authority” made obedience to his call the only option. Obedience is a somewhat archaic concept in our society. Blind obedience to secular authority has led to some horrific outcomes, notably genocide, in modern times. So obedience is not held up as a virtue much these days. But, obedience to Jesus’ call is something very different, very liberating, and, ultimately, very joyous. The gospel of Matthew is stirring testimony to that. So, the first thing we might take away from the calling of Matthew is that perhaps obedience to Jesus’ call leads to faith as opposed to the other way round.
In reading about Matthew, I came across a short meditation by John Henry Newman, one of the founders of the Oxford Movement and, later, a Cardinal in the Roman church. He focuses on what Matthew left behind to follow Jesus – he left behind not only material wealth (what is called mammon in the Bible) but also, significantly, the pursuit of wealth. Newman writes, the danger of desiring and pursuing riches is that an object of this world is thus set before us as the aim and end of life. Newman’s words call to mind the Parable of the Sower, specifically the seeds sown among thorns: As for what was sown among thorns, this is the one who hears the word, but the cares of the world and the lure of wealth choke the word, and it yields nothing. Matthew’s obedience to Jesus’ call relegated the cares of the world and the lure of wealth to nonentity status in his life. What mattered to him was following Jesus.
Now let’s be practical. Is the lesson here that we each must take a vow of poverty, as some very devout people do, in order to follow Jesus? Well, I doubt it. And if that is the lesson, then I am one rotten disciple. Having said that however, can we agree with Cardinal Newman that there is an important and unequivocal lesson in the calling of Matthew? And I think that that lesson might be this: the pursuit of wealth, beyond what is needed to meet the legitimate needs of life, can be and often is a barrier to discipleship and is, essentially, disobedient. And, of course, we are all disobedient to some degree or other. So what are we to do? Here is Cardinal Newman’s practical and cheerful advice: The pattern of St. Matthew is our consolation; for it suggests that we may use great freedom of speech, and state unreservedly the peril of wealth and gain, without harshness or uncharitableness toward those who are exposed to it.
Doesn’t that sound right? We need to be vocal about the soul destroying potential of wealth and the pursuit of it without being judgmental.
Now, I don’t know about you but I need to be vigilant every day about this sin. I need to repent of it every day. I need to look at the decisions I make and see what they tell me. (My checkbook is a great analytical tool in this regard.) I need to imagine that I am Matthew and that the long finger of Jesus is pointing at me and saying, “follow me”. What worldly cares and pursuits will keep me from getting up and following him? How do I relegate those cares and pursuits to their proper place? This needs to be a very intentional and specific exercise – part of my spiritual discipline. And I neglect it at my own peril.
Let me close with the words of a very simple poem I found in a devotional guide that I read. It talks about the Calling of Matthew and is what my high school English teacher would have called doggerel but I think it fits this Feast of St. Matthew.
He sat to watch o’er customs paid,
A man of scorned and hardening trade;
Alike the symbol and the tool
Of foreign masters’ hated rule.
But grace within his breast had stirred;
There needed but the timely word;
It came, true Lord of souls, from thee
That royal summons, “Follow me.”
Enough, when thou were passing by,
To hear thy voice, to meet thine eye:
He rose responsive to the call,
And left his task, his gains, his all.
Who keep thy gifts, O bid them claim
The steward’s, not the owner’s name;
Who yield up all for thy dear sake,
Let them of Matthew’s wealth partake.