Homily delivered on the Solemnity of Saint Matthew, Apostle and Evangelist, 2014 at Saint Paul’s, Riverside, Illinois.
“Jesus saw a man called Matthew sitting at the tax office; and he said to him, ‘Follow me.’ And he rose and followed him.”
Immediately we should ask, “What does it mean to follow Jesus?” And furthermore, because Jesus said, “Follow me,” we should ask, “What does it mean for Jesus to call us?”
Our Collect reads, “We pray that, after Saint Matthew’s example, we may with ready wills and hearts obey the calling of our Lord to follow him.” And so the Collect gathers together the two questions — what does it mean to follow Jesus? and what does it mean for Jesus to call us? — in a neat little package that if taken seriously, has to do with the very core of being Christian today.
So, how do we answer these questions? And how do each of us in our own unique devotional lives come to grips with the implications? One thing is certain: all of us are called in some way; God’s calling is an actuality in our lives, because we are here at Mass. Each of us here has chosen God rather than the alternative. The very act of choosing to be here, of choosing God, means that we are avoiding sin, in that sense “repenting,” because to be separate from God is sin and by being here we all intend therefore not to be separate from God, but to be closer to Him.
So it is not that we should look at Matthew as if what he did in following the call of Jesus is alien to our experience. It is not. Now, our gospel does present Matthew’s response as rather instantaneous and perhaps there is something to be gained in understanding that Jesus’s call to us, whenever it happens, should be not merely heard but obeyed — responded to with active listening. Our Collect also speaks of having ready wills and hearts. Matthew, despite his lifestyle, or perhaps because of it, is shown to have had a ready will and heart. He is an example of discipleship to us.
Blessed Mary, as the Church teaches, is the model disciple, and we can see here that Matthew’s response to Jesus’s call is analogous to Mary’s response to God when he bestowed upon her a vocation to be the Mother of God. Just as Mary’s response was immediate, so was Matthew’s.
I mentioned a moment ago that it may have been because of Matthew’s lifestyle that he had a ready will and heart. I say this because we must always remember the insight that comes from St Thomas Aquinas — that grace does not destroy our nature; rather, grace perfects nature: fulfills our nature. God’s actuality in our lives means that when we become more truly human, truly at home in God’s creation, truly at home in being a creature of God and the humility that requires, more truly in this world — when we accept that God wants us to follow him in this life, in this situation, in this context, with these challenges — this is when we truly cooperate with the grace, the love of God that came before our awareness of it, yet if obeyed, will carry us to the glorified existence in the power of the Holy Spirit through our incorporation into the glorified Body of Jesus the Christ.
So we should not think that Matthew did anything else but respond properly to his situation as Jesus revealed it. And what was his situation? As a tax collector, Matthew worked in a kind of toll-booth. He worked in that tollbooth to collect fees on goods, probably the fish caught nearby. As something of a cog in the government’s financial system, perhaps his relationship with those fishers was one of exploitation. Such people are not “doers;” they take from doers. That is the essence of the relationship, even when done without malice.
Whatever the details of his life, by being a tax collector, in light of the presence of Jesus, Matthew saw himself out of harmony with his surroundings, his life, his context, those fishermen. When we listen to Jesus, really listen by choosing — actively choosing — to open our hearts, the Church teaches that we are brought from disharmony with our surroundings to harmony; from dissonance to consonance; from blurry to focused; from jumbled up and messy to organized and ordered.
It is useful to recall that earlier in Matthew’s Gospel, in chapter 4, Jesus told Peter and Andrew, when he called them, that he would make them “fishers of men.” So we can see that Matthew moved from being a collector of money from the activities of fishermen to being a fisher, to being an apostle of the kingdom of heaven, which is true. Whereas from the hard work of others he once collected money, through being in relationship with Jesus, he was thrust directly into intimate relationship with the very people from whom he probably used to be at arm’s length. Jesus brings us closer to people; our sensitivity to people and their lives increases.
Why? Because of grace. Grace makes us more alive. We need the grace, revealed by Jesus, because without Him our lives are out of harmony; in that sense, sinners; less alive hence more dead; or in the Benedictine sense, out of balance.
Jesus balances, Jesus harmonizes, Jesus makes us more alive because of his grace. As it was then, it is now. But this movement of grace is not abstract, intellectual, or magicial. It is incarnational: it happens through activity. But which activity?
If we distill his activities to their fundamental essence, we see a pattern. The grace of Jesus spread through meals together, dining together, communing against the conventions of the day. This is Eucharist.
The grace of Jesus also spread through his adoration of the Father; his perfect prayer. His Father, and through him, our Father. This is the Office.
And what’s more, the grace of Jesus spread though his life lived with people, healing, teaching, listening, leading, breaking open Scripture in new ways. This is Devotion, the ministry of our baptism.
This pattern of three activities — Office, Eucharist, Devotion — are core practices that Jesus calls us to do. He calls us to them because these are his activities, and we are called to follow him, to be His Body left behind to continue His ministry. Following him means we respond to his call to order our lives around Him, and His grace. Just like Saint Matthew.
It is through these activities, as a pattern called regula, that we deny ourselves, take up our cross, and follow Jesus. Regula is how Jesus taught us to pray, to worship God. And it is through these activities — codified for Anglicans in our Prayer Book — that we are given, by the grace of God who came to us and continues to come to us, a right view of our state before God which, in the words of the late Archbishop Michael Ramsey, enables true vision instead of a vision clouded with unrealities. A true vision of the truth of our vocation.
Saint Matthew, pray for us.