The following sermon was preached by Dr John R. Stephenson for the Festival of St Matthew, Evangelist, in the seminary’s Martin Luther Chapel, transferred to Thursday, 19 September 2013.
I can prove from the next chapter of the first Gospel that Matthew the tax collector, a born Jew by the name of Levi who had become a disgrace to Judaism, is identical with Matthew the Apostle (Mt 10:3). But no one has ever produced an airtight sola scriptura argument to establish beyond question that Matthew the Apostle is one and the same with Matthew the Evangelist. And yet from the second century onwards the whole Church has somehow known for sure that today’s Matthew is not only a disciple like all true Christians, not only an Apostle like the rest of the Twelve and certain others besides, but also the writer of the first book of New Testament Scripture.
And in a certain way the five verses we just heard on the dramatic call of Matthew confirm the tradition that he wrote them along with the whole book in which they stand.
Now you have to be more than careful if someone appears out of the blue, looks you in the eye, and issues the command, “Follow me.” There are false messiahs galore out there, and don’t forget the legendary fate of the children of Hamlin when they fell in line behind the Pied Piper. But if this man by the lake has been miraculously conceived to be Immanuel, God with us (Mt 1:23), maybe you should follow Him. While they were still in Galilee, the Twelve heard Jesus claim a unique relationship with the Father that goes beyond time and space; already then they heard Him declare that, “All things have been delivered to Me by My Father” (Mt 11:27). The Resurrection confirmed this claim, and back in Galilee the risen Lord proclaimed that, “All authority in heaven and earth has been given to me” (Mt 28:18). These are momentous, dizzying claims, propositions that go beyond what human common-sense can handle. So the Evangelist reports in disarming honesty that, even on that unnamed mountaintop in Galilee, “some doubted” (Mt 28:17). And yet the incredible was credible, and the impossible was possible, and so Matthew did do the right thing when he got up and followed the Lord, forsaking an evil manner of life and, as Luke reports, leaving everything behind.
Moreover, Matthew’s response to the Lord’s sudden call somehow encapsulates the bottom-line purpose of the entire First Gospel. Matthew and his apostolic brethren and all their successors in the holy ministry are to make disciples of all nations, baptising them and teaching them to keep everything that Jesus has commanded. As he here becomes a disciple and introduces his fellow wrongdoers to our Lord, Matthew himself undergoes the process that, at the end of his Gospel, he commends to all of us.
It’s worth pondering for a moment on Matthew’s relationship to the ancient people of God, so many of whose descendants, who make up Israel according to the flesh, are disinclined to heed the Lord’s command, “Follow Me.”
On the one hand, as he sat at the receipt of custom, bleeding dry the Jews under Roman occupation, carefully separating the monies that had to go to his employers from the funds that enabled him to live high on the hog, Levi who had somehow picked up the Gentile name Matthew was indeed a disgrace to Judaism. The scribes and Pharisees would appreciate this high on the hog metaphor that associates luxurious living with ritual impurity, for by his collaboration with the Romans and his economic dishonesty, which was a form of stealing, Matthew had indeed forfeited his privileges as a member of the people of God. The scribes and Pharisees were not alone in their appraisal of Matthew’s profession. Does he not record Jesus Himself as describing an impenitent sinner excluded from the New Testament Church as equivalent to “a Gentile and a tax collector” (Mt 18:17)?
Yes, when we first meet him in his own Gospel, Matthew was a disgrace to Judaism, not fit to be part of the holy people. But Jesus God with us came to save His people from their sins, and what He told the outraged scribes and Pharisees is a comfort to us all, especially to those of us intending to approach the altar minutes from now: “Those who are well have no need of a physician, but those who are sick. …I came not to call the righteous, but sinners.” So Jesus by His call “Follow Me” brought Matthew back into good standing among the holy people.
And there’s another side to Matthew’s relationship with Judaism and the Scriptures it shares with us. Before Levi went off the rails to become a thieving oppressor of his own people, he must have enjoyed some good religious instruction, and he must have drunk deeply of the wells of Israel’s piety. After all, he has left us the most Jewish of the Gospels, a fact we notice in a tiny detail such as his scrupulous substitution of “Heaven” for “God” and also, supremely, in the grand structure of his writing, which is somehow modelled on the Pentateuch, and which presents Jesus as the Super Moses in His capacity as Deliverer and Governor of the people.
And yet Matthew, the repentant Jew who went on to write the most Jewish of the Gospels, is often regarded by the Jewish people of our time as a hardened enemy of His own kith and kin. A brief chapel homily is not the place to deal at length with a complex and sensitive topic, and as we prepare to approach the altar we should fasten on the doubt and unbelief still in our own hearts rather than on the ongoing refusal of peoples and nations to accept the great claim with which Matthew’s Gospel draws to a close. Before some of us do the teaching and baptising mandated by the risen Lord, we need to ponder what there may be in our own lives that can be compared with Matthew’s wrongful occupation, and we need to consider our own deep response to that ongoing, universal, present-tense imperative, “Follow Me.” Matthew’s writing still persuades Holy Christendom to acknowledge Jesus as God with us, to receive as a gift the reconciliation He accomplished, and to commit ourselves to be instruments of the Great Commission that is only thinkable in view of what a member of our community describes as the Great Promise, spoken in the final verse of the First Gospel, “And behold, I am with you all the days until the consummation of the age.”