Saint Matthew The Apostle


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(September 21) 

O Almighty God, who by Thy blessed Son didst call Matthew from the receipt of custom to be an Apostle and Evangelist…
2 Corinthians 4:1-6
Matthew 9:9-113

Saint Matthew, traditionally identified with Levi (Mark 2:1-22; Luke 5:27-30) is, as the Collect notes, traditionally celebrated as both an Apostle and an Evangelist; both traditions are almost certainly unfounded. The Gospel of Matthew was traditionally thought to have been written before 70 AD but it now seems more likely that it was written between 70 and 90. It was aimed at a Jewish audience and the highly contentious style reflects the struggle by the early church to make a clear distinction between new Christians and traditional Jews. That style, particularly in depicting the murderous role of the Jewish people in the Crucifixion, made it a primary anti Semitic source text (cf The Sunday Next before Easter). For centuries its authority as the most cited Gospel lay in the false belief that it was the source for, rather than the outgrowth of, Mark (cf Saint Mark’s Day). There are no established traditions with reference to Matthew the Apostle. Matthew is the ‘Gospel of the Church’ and the only one to use the term Ekklesia (16:18; 18:17).

The Epistle and Gospel seem uncomfortably at odds. Jesus, sitting at table in Matthew’s house after he has been called away from his extortionate life, turns away a criticism of the Pharisees by saying that those who are well do not need a physician, that he has not come to call the righteous but sinners. Paul, on the other hand, says that if the Gospel is hidden, it is hidden from those who are lost. This, however, turns out to be an example of Paul’s clumsy word play; the preceding sentence says that in preaching, Paul and his colleagues have given up any kind of under-handedness and preach the Gospel courageously, not timidly. Nonetheless, the assertion that the “god of this world” can so blind that it excludes the glory of God is a more forbidding prospect than that which Jesus allows. Further, for all his humility with respect to the origin of his personal gifts, one cannot imagine Paul sitting down with sinners for a meal; the drive of the convert clearly made it difficult for him simply to enjoy the time of day with those who might take comfort from his presence.

In spite of its liberal attitude to imprisonment, the contemporary Church shows few signs of a willingness to share time with sinners and tends to take the Pauline view that people must either repent or be ostracised which raises questions about our attitude to sin and sinners. The conventional wisdom is that we should hate the sin but love the sinner but how often do we conflate the two, only seeing the sin in the sinner? Equally pertinent, how often do we judge the sin on the basis of an external act without thinking about provocation and motive? Thirdly, how often do we slip into the easy bifurcation between ourselves on the one hand and sinners on the other? There is certainly strong evidence that poor people are both more likely to commit crime and to be victims of it than rich people but the answer is surely to reduce the poverty rather than simply condemning the crime. Over recent years, as rich and poor have moved further apart in the work places and into their exclusive housing ghettos, we are in danger of equating sin with poverty, stigmatising ‘feral’ children and substance abusers and taking an altogether more lenient line with ‘white collar’ crime, no matter how outrageous.

On the other hand, it could be argued that the Church is taking a renewed interest in the unchurched—and ostensibly sinful—poor through its ‘fresh expressions’ initiative which raises the much more difficult issue of the relationship between Evangelisation and poverty. On the one hand, there are some who say that we should not “take advantage” of vulnerable people by preaching to them in their misery or that indeed we cannot do so because misery closes minds; on the other hand there are those who say that the poor are in particular need of the Good News. One way of looking at this dilemma is that the Good News which Jesus brings is not a doctrine of judgment and punishment but a promise of social justice and so we might start there. We can prove our worth as ministers of the Word by being ministers of justice and compassion; in other words, the Good News in doctrinal form is not a substitute for social justice.

Because the Pauline view has largely prevailed it is vital that we re-imagine our world through the eyes and actions of Jesus. Rowan Williams in Christ on Trial characterises Matthew’s Gospel as the assertion of divine, dynamic wisdom against human, static nostrums; this is why there are so many passages attacking the Pharisees. Much of what passes for religious assertion, he says, is nearer to nostrum than wisdom. Looked at through the eyes of Jesus the sinner is there to be saved because we are all to be saved; it will, in a catastrophic reversal of human nostrums, simply be more difficult for the rich and virtuous than for the poor and sinful. Perhaps in the rational 21st Century where, in spite of postmodernist ‘playfulness’, most people seem to be dogmatically sure of what they stand for, we need a generous presence of fools of the sort that accompanied kings and great statesmen in the Middle ages. In his better moments Paul recognises this and, in being careful when he goes ‘off message’, so must we.

Starting Points for Sermons and Discussions:

  1. Trace the history of anti Semitism from Matthew to Hitler
  2. Describe changing views of the dating of the Gospels in the 20th Century
  3. In what ways is Matthew the ‘Gospel of the Church’?
  4. What are the links between Old Testament Wisdom Literature and Jesus?
  5. Reflect on the Fool in King Lear.

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