St Cuthbert, Philbeach Gardens
September 21st 2008

Saint Matthew: the Man


You are built upon the foundation of Apostles and Prophets, Jesus Christ Himself being the keystone.


It’s appropriate that we should be keeping the feast of St Matthew the Apostle today because, as you probably know, St Matthew is the Patron Saint of bankers!

But it’s not about Banking that we shall be thinking today but about Matthew himself and his encounter with Jesus at his place of work – the tax-collectors’ office, or Inland Revenue it would be called nowadays.

There are some people whose jobs tend to make them automatically unpopular. For instance there was a traffic warden in Greenwich who felt himself so excluded from society because of the job he was doing that he committed suicide. Perhaps some of your best friends are traffic wardens in which case they must be glad to have friends like you. And, thank goodness, tax-collectors today ‘ain’t wot they used to be’!

It wasn’t always so. In New Testament times the Tax Collectors were a universally despised group of people. Despised, because they were Jews who were collaborating with the Roman occupying power, whose job was to squeeze tax money out of their fellow-countrymen ‘till the pips squeaked’. So they were traitors and quislings held beneath contempt for their perfidy and ruthlessness.

Such a person was Matthew, whom Jesus called from his work-place with those two words, ‘follow me!’ And, we are told, ‘he got up and followed him’.

Try and imagine the initial reaction, not just of the Pharisees, but of the other Apostles to Jesus’s decision to call Matthew join the ranks of the Apostles. They were respectable fishermen, artisans, perhaps one or two were educated men with the equivalent of an odd A-level. Goodness knows it was difficult enough living the life of a disciple of Jesus with its hand-to-mouth existence, never sure where the next meal or next bed was coming from, dependent upon the hospitality of people like Mary and Martha and John Mark’s mother.

But to be expected to rub shoulders with a Tax Collector! That was going a bit far! And not just one of them but all his friends as well: for the Evangelist says that Matthew’s had invited not only Jesus and His Apostles but ‘many publicans and sinners sat down with Him and His disciples’. It sounds like a thieves’ kitchen!

But Jesus’s choice of Matthew to be an Apostle highlights something important. You and I believe in an apostolic Church that is to say a Church which can trace its ministry back to the Twelve Apostles chosen by Jesus. Every priest who is ordained according to Catholic practice has had hands laid upon him by a bishop who himself was ordained by a bishop with the same credentials and so on back to the earliest days of the Church when, of course, the people ordained by Jesus were the Twelve Apostles.

Now, we don’t know why Jesus chose the particular men that he did to be His Apostles, but it clearly wasn’t only for being likeable – otherwise he’d never have chosen anyone like Matthew. In the Gospels there’s no evidence that the Twelve liked each other 24-hours a day 7-days a week, and plenty to the contrary – which means there’s no reason to expect that all those he calls to be Priests today will be equally likeable.

Perhaps Jesus chose St Matthew for his financial know-how; or perhaps it was because it enabled His ministry to reach people, publicans and sinners particularly, which the Pharisees and Rabbis, and indeed His other Apostles could not reach; or maybe Matthew was the only one Jesus wanted to tell about the Wise Men from the East; perhaps Matthew was the best amongst the Apostles at remembering what the Rabbis’ taught him in Sabbath School about what the Prophets had said concerning the coming Messiah, which enabled him to realise that applied to Jesus Himself: his Gospel uses so many more quotations from the Old Testament than the other three Evangelists. Or maybe Matthew could and understand speak several languages and local dialects.

But undoubtedly there was some reason for Jesus choosing him – just as He chose each of Matthew’s fellow-Apostles for a reason, though a quite different one in every case.

One thing is certain: Jesus didn’t choose any of the Apostles just for their likeability.

That truth easily lost sight of in an Apostolic Church. Some priests will be more immediately ‘likeable’ than others. But we must understand that God doesn’t choose those He ordains to the Apostolic Priesthood primarily in order for them to be liked. He chooses them for an entirely different reason.

Far too many Christians identify ‘vocation’ with ‘likeability’. They’re two completely different things in fact, and vocation should always be given the precedence. Of course if a priest finds it difficult to enjoy socializing, he’s working with a disadvantage, just as he would if he were deaf, blind, or had some disability; but his vocation (or ‘calling’) like St Matthew’s is the important thing. He has to fulfil his vocation with all his shortcomings, and his laity’s vocation to accept him and, incidentally, help him cope with them in order that he may do so.

So what is the hall-mark which distinguishes a good Apostle from a not-so-good one?

Well here is my suggestion. A good priest is one who has got it right about Jesus Christ and His Church, but who recognizes that he may have got it wrong about anything or everything else.

Now that’s a tall order! Some laypeople aren’t really interested in knowing Jesus Christ, but are passionate to find out all they can about their parish priest. Well, getting to know people is a good thing, but if anyone searches for a priest whose only virtue is being likeable, they’re going to feel dreadfully let-down sooner or later. For when the priest himself starts thinking that his job consists chiefly in being likeable, he will cease teaching and preaching those truths which are currently unpopular or unfashionable. Because so many of today’s priests succumb to this temptation the Church is in the mess that it now finds itself.

Just think: being likeable isn’t the chief criterion we apply in deciding whom we are going to turn to for professional help. It’s all very nice if our doctor, or priest, (or bank manager for that matter!), happens to be likeable. But being ‘likeable’ just isn’t what banking, or medicine, or priesthood are about. What we need is someone who knows his job, and who will tell us the truth about ourselves, our souls, our bodies or our current bank-balance, however uncongenial that truth may be.

Saint Matthew wasn’t a very likeable person; but he knew the Lord Jesus. His fellow-Apostles, as they got to know him better probably found that he was a great deal more likeable than they had first supposed. That’s what our shared faith in the Jesus does for us – as we come to love Him more and more westart appreciating the lovability of each other. But it all takes time and practice: always remember the New Commandment which he gave us: ‘Love one another as I have loved you’

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