St Matthews Day
Prov. 3 13-18, Ps 119, 65-72, 2 Cor, 4 1-6, Matt 9 9-13.
We’re a small gathering here and, as common in much of Europe and despite the actively Christian who are following services, we live among people who are resolutely uninterested in and often ignorant of any religion, or are actively Muslim, Jewish, Buddhist. Nevertheless the greater part are vaguely Christian, more clearly so in their ethical approach to life than many realise, even if practice is reduced to enjoying Christmas carols and Easter bunnies, and perhaps preferring a pastor’s presence at their funeral. We tend to see this variation as extraordinary, new, disconcerting and even disastrous.
The spread of available options may well be wider than in past times and many present places, and the social acceptability of opting out totally from collective ritual action greater, but it is an odd and rather elitist assumption that we here are the first dissenting, uninterested, rejecting people, all others past and present being ritual robots! The lands in which Jesus and Matthew lived were very varied, with degrees of religious interest: observant Jews, whether Pharisees or ordinary people; generically Jewish not too fussed over food or ritual; and all the Gentiles – Samaritans, Canaanites, Ugarites, Roman occupiers and legion others – each following their often multiple–god traditions.
How in that social and ethnic mix did Jesus’ Word, and word of Jesus, get around? By chance witnesses, people whom Jesus visited, who saw, understood – as cited in Proverbs and the words the children just sang about hearing and following – and then intentionally spoke to others. Other witnesses followed him round, such as Joanna, who bankrolled the mission, Susannah and Mary, and many other women who, like the male disciples, moved back and forth between mission and home. Another group were the first batch of fishermen-Simon Peter and Andrew, James and John – followed later by Philip and his mate Nathanial, also from Bethesda, and Thomas, and by the social outsider Matthew, whom we honour today, and many unnamed male followers. Several of those almost chance witnesses who heard and understood have figured in stories over the last few weeks, which are crucial not only to the spread of Jesus’ word at the time but the relevance of the faith to all in this building and beyond today.
Let me skim over a few examples before coming to Matthew, as placing his acceptance by Jesus in that context is important. We had arguably the key story in mid-August, the Canaanite woman at the well. As a woman, she was polluting to Jesus, a Jew: as a Gentile, even more so. Initially he refused to help her, on the above grounds. Thankfully she insisted, he changed his mind – acknowledging her case over his- and from then on, his ministry was to all in that region. Without which move, would our faith have ‘taken off’? We can of course say, God would have found someone else to give that jolt, as the paired Isaiah reading for that week presaged, just as we easily hope will ‘someone else’ please witness! But it was her faith, her trust, her insistence, which was the catalyst. And in the discussion on forgiveness later in that same chapter which we heard a couple of weeks ago, Jesus, still thinking in ‘normal local categories’ – brains convert more slowly than hearts- still says that if after prayerful discussion one believer refuses to forgive or accept their wrong-doing, they should be shunned ‘like a Gentile or a tax-collector.’
So Matthew, the first male disciple with a job other than the ‘subsistence plus’ of fishing with some farming, was from a category Jesus recognised as despicable. The paying of collective dues is commonplace throughout the world, albeit in varied form. But an occupying power such as Rome depended on taxation to maintain their power over, and for many of the governed power against, the mass of the people: tax agents enabled colonisation, and were thus the ultimate middle-men. By choosing this near-outcast in his tax and customs booth, Jesus confirmed for the ‘virtuous’ that he had little capacity as a teacher much less discernment as a prophet.
And that’s the simple lesson of the choosing of Matthew: all are called to wisdom, all are called to hear, all are called to live in the love of Christ with the respect of fellow believers, a respect due to all and from all: from and to the person putting the little toe in the water seeking understanding and perhaps acceptance as much as the fragile in faith and the firmly faithful. All of us are called to witness, as were all those noted above: the woman at the well, who changed the lives of all her village with her acclamation of the Messiah, the paralysed man, the named and unnamed male followers and the named and unnamed female followers, the tax-collector. No category of person is to be excluded, no person treated as ‘just part of a category,’ an insult to personhood which can be deadly. That’s why Bishop Patterson of Melanesia, remembered this week, was murdered in the late 19th century. White Queenslanders regularly captured and essentially enslaved black Melanesians to work their Australian plantations: because they were black. Patterson, a fluent speaker of a dozen languages, came to a new island who had lost many people to those white pirates and was immediately killed, because he was white, exemplifying the Queenslanders’ sin of treating people like things, a sin which Patterson had hoped to wipe clean.
But if this is one message of the choosing of Matthew, that we all count, no person is to be reduced to and treated as a category, what about our witness, given that the message, the Word, gets around only by witness?
Apart from the witness of martyrdom, the original meaning of that word, how do we witness? There is the witness by action within a group of followers of Christ which can take people through times of suffering, whether through illness, the actions of others or our own actions. As David says in today’s psalm, he grew in faith through suffering the loss of a child- though as this doesn’t mention Bathsheba’s suffering rape at his hands, or her husband being killed through his orders, that is not an exemplary path to wisdom! This congregation quietly witnesses the love of Christ to me in the late 1990s, when life here was grim. True, difficulty firmed my faith, enabling me to get through it and out, and ultimately to be here. But without that witness of freely given loving care from people here, I would not be here today: I’m sure that goes for others. And there is witness by action beyond the congregation, to neighbours, people on the tram, to rich or poor who are in need.
But perhaps the hardest witnessing in this rather secular context is simple witness to the fact of God as Parent, Child and Support in our lives and the life of the world. Rather than hiding the light of understanding and knowing under a jar and risk dowsing it, we need to do our part in shining the Light of Christ.
May we have sufficient conviction, armed with courage, to shine that light in our lives.
St Matthews Day, 2014.
St Matthew’s day, 2014