St Matthew’s Patronal Festival
May I speak in the name of the Holy & Blessed Trinity, One God in three persons.
A man was travelling the back roads between Bendigo and Warracknabeal when he realised that he had become hopelessly lost. The paddocks stretched on for miles around him and he had absolutely no mobile phone signal. Eventually, he saw a man driving a tractor. He pulled over and waved at the man to get his attention. The farmer stopped and the man asked him how to get to Warracknabeal. The farmer looked at him for a while, took off his hat, scratched his head and said, “Well if I was going to Warracknabeal, I wouldn’t start from here”.
In today’s Gospel passage, something similar is going on between Jesus and the Pharisees. First, Jesus calls Matthew, a despised tax-collector, and Matthew follows him, then Jesus sits down to dinner with other assorted undesirables. The pharisees do not think this is the way to bring about God’s kingdom on earth, effectively saying, ‘If that’s where you want to go, you shouldn’t start from here.’
For the Pharisees, and for many people today, there is a clear path to God. If you want to be close to God, you must live in accordance with the rules. Those rules have changed over time, but people are just as good today at deciding who is righteous and therefore worthy of God’s love, and who is a sinner. For the Pharisees, there is a clear path to God; follow the law. Those who don’t are sinners, to be shunned by righteous, law-abiding people.
It is easy to look down on the Pharisees. We know that, in the Gospel, they are the ones wearing the black hats! But in reality, we need to be mindful not to judge them too harshly. Inside many of us is a Pharisee, brimming with righteous indignation if the right topic arises; immigration, human sexuality and gender, climate change, Covid-19 vaccinations, education, ethical eating, add your soapbox of choice and take up your stand, for or against!
No, I can’t judge the Pharisees. I recognise myself in their number far too many times for comfort!
And in some ways, they are right. God is holy, so we seek to bring our best to God. That is the only appropriate response to make to the Almighty God of the universe. But! At the same time, we must never forget that there is absolutely nothing we can do to earn God’s love. Nothing. And, perhaps even more importantly, there is absolutely nothing we can do to lose God’s love. Absolutely nothing. Our very best is not enough to make God love us, and our very worst is not enough to make God stop loving us. It is a glimpse of this extraordinary truth that underpins our lives. We are beloved of God!
Seeking to love God with all our heart, soul, mind, and strength is the only right response to make to God, and many of our scriptures emphasise this.
Today’s reading from Proverbs for instance says, ‘My child, do not forget my teaching, but let your heart keep my commandments; for length of days and years of life and abundant welfare they will give you’ (Prov 3.1-2).
And St Paul, writing to the church in Ephesus says, ‘I therefore, the prisoner in the Lord, beg you to lead a life worthy of the calling to which you have been called, with all humility and gentleness, with patience, bearing with one another in love, making every effort to maintain the unity of the Spirit in the bond of peace’ (Eph 4.1-3).
Knowing that our hearts, souls, minds, and strength will fail again and again is the reality of being human. Despite our best efforts and our best intentions, we will damage our own integrity, we will break our relationships with others, and we will separate ourselves from the love that God offers us. This is what sin is. This is why we need the mercy of God. Our scriptures also remind us of our need for this mercy.
Today’s reading from Proverbs says, ‘Trust in the Lord with all your heart, and do not rely on your own insight. In all your ways acknowledge him, and he will make straight your paths’ (Prov 3.5-6).
There are many, many ways, to try to earn our way to God. Lots of them involve putting ourselves in the right so that we can judge the actions of others, but it is in God that we should trust, not our own, limited human understanding. The path to follow is to be found as we acknowledge God each step of every day. As we do this, God will show us the next place to put our feet, and the next, and the next.
If we could see the path ourselves, we would not need to trust. Ironically, this is often what happens when we rely too much on rules. We think we have everything worked out and we stop acknowledging the leading of God. And sadly, human insights often lack the mercy of God, so it is possible to follow the rules very well and stray a long way from God’s heart.
The failure of human judgement and the need for divine mercy is at the heart of today’s Gospel reading. Tax-collectors, like St Matthew, were hated outsiders. They worked for the Romans and were therefore considered to be traitors to their people. They were not paid a wage but were expected to make money for themselves by collecting extra taxes and many of them did so greedily.
If you were planning to begin a church, tax collectors would not make the list of people to choose to help! But when Matthew heard Jesus call him, he got up and followed. Unlike the tractor driver in rural Victoria, God doesn’t ever say, ‘Well, if you want to come to me, I wouldn’t start from where you are now!’ God’s mercy doesn’t wait until circumstances are perfect, God’s mercy starts here, where we are, each one of us, right in this moment.
It was that divine mercy that made Matthew, the despised outcast, whole, and enabled him to follow Jesus and grow into becoming one of the four evangelists and the patron of our parish.
So, what does it mean for us to be people named for St Matthew?
Firstly, we are named after an outsider, an outcast, someone who knows what it is like to be sidelined and rejected. We are therefore called to stand with those who are outsiders, to be a place of welcome for anyone who is an outcast. People are still very good at deciding what makes others worthy to be loved. Anyone who is rejected by the Pharisees of this world, anyone who is shamed because of who they are, those people should receive a warm welcome in any church that dares to claim the name of St Matthew.
Secondly, we are named after someone who, when he was called, did not hesitate but followed immediately. Matthew was sitting in his tax booth when Jesus called him, so he knew that Jesus knew exactly who he was. It must have taken great courage and trust to get up and go. We too are called to courage and to trust. These are not easy days for the church, but the example of St Matthew can encourage us to trust that Jesus knows exactly who we are, and he calls us anyway. As we follow, truthfully acknowledging our own need for healing, we will find that in God we are made whole and can offer that authenticity of life to those around us.
Finally, St Matthew was called through God’s mercy. Mercy does not pretend that human failings don’t exist. It doesn’t pretend that all is lovely in the world. Instead, mercy looks straight at the brokenness of the world and loves it, loves it enough to hold it accountable, enough to tell it the truth, enough to forgive it and call it from death into life. God’s merciful love, which transformed St Matthew, and in which we put our trust, is love that is stronger than death.
‘As Jesus was walking along, he saw a man called Matthew sitting at the tax booth; and he said to him, “Follow me.” And he got up and followed him’ (Matt 9.9). How do we get to God’s kingdom? We start from right here.
The Lord be with you.