St Matthew's Day Matthew 9:9-13
Today is our Patronal feast day where we celebrate our namesake the apostle Matthew.
When we read the Bible, the New Testament begins with Matthew. We see him as a good guy, the first gospeller because of his place in the New Testament but wait on – as we discover in life – all is not what it seems.
Matthew was a tax collector - an outcast, reviled and loathed – a Jew working for the Romans – collecting money for the oppressors of his people. These tax collectors were usually rich because they charged far more in tax than the law required and they had the Roman legions to act as heavies if people protested or reneged on payments. Thus these tax collectors were hated by the Jews because of their cheating and their support of Rome.
There he is, according to the story, in his tax booth – and Jesus comes by and beckons – he says something like ‘come on man – come follow me.’ Matthew immediately responds and follows Jesus. It reminds me a bit of those old B grade movies where an alien would invade a human body or it would be taken over by some mysterious force and at the right signal – would walk robot like to wherever it was led. But that is as far from the truth as we can imagine.
Something happened that gave Matthew such hope- that responded to a longing we can only guess at – for him to cast aside a lucrative position for no tangible reward or future. Maybe he was sick of being reviled and spat at. Maybe he was sick of ripping off his own people. May he was sick inside at what he had become. We don’t know – but we do know that he walked away from a life that traded in betrayal, misery and greed to a life of hope. To a life that took no count of money or possessions, that rested in the possibility that there was another way for him to live – for him to believe in.
Later in the evening, as we hear in our gospel reading, Matthew invites fellow tax collectors and his seedy lowlife mates along to have dinner with Jesus and his disciples. The Pharisees, the epitome of correctness and adherence to the Law, are horrified. ‘Why does your teacher eat with such scum?’ they ask the disciples.
It is an interesting question. Our understanding is that we mix with decent people – that we are, to an extent, defined by those we are friends with. Mostly we like to be associated with good people and it’s always good for business to know the in-crowd – those who have reputations and power. We associate with people who are like us generally – we don’t go out of our way to make our lives difficult or invite unwanted guests into our homes.
This is where the teachings of Jesus get hard. Jesus replies to the Pharisees question and says – ‘hey dudes, your life is OK. Why should I hang out with you when there’s a heap of people whose lives are bad news – who are doing it all wrong – who need to see that there is another way to live – who need to feel OK too.
As I said – it is a hard call. We all live good lives I think – we espouse the right attitudes and beliefs – in truth and justice, in freedom and love. Even in mercy and compassion. But in our society and I am sure, in most societies, we cleave, we congregate together in our small packs of securities and similarities. We don’t hang out with the unwanted underbelly of our city.
It’s totally understandable and I am mostly no different. We see that underbelly, for example, as people from the City Mission and we can drop off our food, we can pray and we can smile and give a dollar or two for a habit maybe. We know that to effect any real change in these lives is a task that takes more expertise and knowledge than we own.
But what about the modern day tax collectors, the rip off merchants, people who trade in money big time and therefore trade in death. I am coming to the conclusion that in our deeply interconnected world that there is no possibility of being super rich without being part of death – that the more and more accumulation that riches bring means starvation, prostitution, disease, death somewhere in our world. There is no rule that says that money continues to grow of itself – it is the result of production somewhere – of work – of resources………..That is the fallacy that the latest crash and recession have shown us. And yet those with the most continue to blatantly harvest the most, and death and disease and pain and suffering ensue endlessly. There is no gain without cost and the super rich feed upon the flesh of their fellow human beings.
So what and how do we read the message of Jesus today in this light. Revolutionaries would want to blast them into the stratosphere, to annihilate the perpetuators of rottenness and systems that advantage those who already have it all. Again, we understand this.
But what does Jesus say. To my reading he says they are sick and that they need compassion and mercy in their sickness. While that sounds wonderful and true it is a bitter pill to swallow if you have lost everything, if you are dying painfully because you can’t afford health care, if laws and shonky lawyers prop up the rich because they can afford them, and therefore they can get even more. These are scenarios that we are all familiar with.
When I was reading around this subject I read the story of the Jim and Tammy Faye Bakker.
They had an extensive PTL ministry – supposedly “Praise the Lord” but the press called it ‘pass the loot.’ In 1986 their income was $129 million and they had all sorts of major assets- theme parks and TV channels begging for funds for ‘the Lord’s work.’ It was a scam and Jim Bakker was convicted for fraud and went to jail. He was deserted by everybody. Billy Graham came and visited and remained his friend and took him to church when he was released. And did he do it all again but differently I wonder?
In the same manner many big corporations in New Zealand in the 1980’s and in the US just recently scammed enormous amounts of money from people who could never recover it – whose lives were devastated by these fraudsters – only to have them pop up later with the same lifestyle with riches and possesions galore. We wonder frustratedly – where is the justice and we become cynical and a sense of hopelessness begins to creep in.
Jesus rebukes the Pharisees because they are hardhearted – they have lost their sense of mercy and compassion. That mercy and compassion are not just for the physically wounded, the voiceless, the poor, hungry and disenfranchised but for all people.
And here is the hardest call for me – to have compassion on the limited senses of these mega rich titans of our world, to be aware of their impoverishment as they actively gorge upon the flesh of their fellow humans, as they condone every vile atrocity in their greed for more and yet more. That the lust for power, for prominence, for accumulation are most dangerous traits of all – that it in their wake they threaten the destruction of life – Jesus asks us to feel compassion and mercy for the sickness that invades dark souls such as these.
And it is right that we do – it does not mean that we have no voice to protest, no arm to write – but to keep our own humanity we must, and to realize that we too are imperfect and forgiven and that we are called to live the immeasurable grace that is God amongst us. That if we do not we too become like the Pharisees – hardhearted and lacking in mercy for the sick and the blind such as these.