Sunday 20 September 2020
Don’t you think it is a peculiar expression – patronal feast. It’s not something that runs off the tongues of most Australians very easily. But it is not an expression that should be totally unfamiliar to we Christians. It has been a long-established tradition of the Church to dedicate church buildings to one or other of the many great saints of the church. And integral to the practice of naming of church buildings after a saint – a patron, is that the congregation that meets regularly in that place will take that particular saint as an exemplar for the living of the Christian life.
So, on this day that we celebrate the feast of St Matthew, the patron saint of this church and consequently of the parish community that meets here, it does us good to investigate the historical person to see what characteristics we can draw upon to inspire and encourage us.
As with most of the early saints of the church, there is a certain amount of conjecture that has grown up around Matthew and we have to be ready to accept that we might have inherited some things which belong to history, some that belong to tradition, and some that belong to legend.
In some ways, we have quite a lot of detail about Matthew. In other ways, we have confusing elements to consider. For example, Matthew is only called by that name in the gospel that bears his name. He is referred to in the other synoptic gospels as Levi. Well, the assumption is made that we are talking about the same person. We need not be too perplexed by this as we have other examples of this such as Simon being called Peter also. It is generally accepted that Matthew is the more familiar name of the individual while Levi is a more formal Hebrew name.
If Levi and Matthew are the same person as I will assume for the moment, then this tells us something very important about him. The name Levi is almost certainly a name that would usually be given to an individual who belonged to that particular tribe of Israel – the tribe of Levi. What we know about the tribe of Levi is that they were the tribe given the task of priests in the Temple in Israel.
We are told in the gospel of Matthew that Matthew (Levi) was a tax collector. So that means that Matthew has strayed a long way from where he should have been according to his tribal heritage. Not only was he not working as priest in the Temple, but he was engaging in an occupation that was reviled by his fellow Jews.
Why were tax collectors so hated by their own? Well for a start, I guess no one is particularly fond of the those who take money from us. But there is more to it than that. Under the Roman occupation of Palestine, the local tax collectors were those who collected tax money from the Jewish people on behalf of the Romans. Anyone who engaged in that occupation was seen by his own people as a collaborator.
Furthermore, the method of collecting taxes was such that there was a lot of potential for tax collectors to profit in the process through unscrupulous practices. When the tax collectors came to John the Baptist to be baptised, he told them: “Collect no more than the amount prescribed for you.” That is a clear inference that usually tax collectors took more than that.
On another occasion, when Jesus went to eat at Zaccheaeus the tax collector’s house, Zacchaeus says: “…if I have defrauded anyone of anything, I will pay back four time as much.”
Tax collectors were seen to be collaborators who were making themselves wealthy out of corrupt practices carried out against their own people. And it is very clear in the gospels that tax collectors were exactly the sort of people that Jesus was seeking out. It was thrown at him as criticism that he ate and drank with tax collectors and sinners.
Matthew’s gospel suggests that Matthew was the tax collector in Capernaum, a town referred to a little earlier to Matthew’s calling as Jesus’ home town. So, we can assume that when Jesus called Matthew, it was not the first time that he had seen him. Jesus had no doubt seen Matthew working at his booth on many occasions, and almost certainly had been working towards the day when he knew he could call Matthew to follow him and Matthew would be ready to give up his lucrative occupation and follow Jesus.
Matthew was no doubt aware of the fact that he was hated by his fellow Jews. But Jesus must have, over time treated him differently to others. Jesus must have been willing to look into Matthew’s heart and see the person loved and cherished by God and to develop a trust with him that would see Matthew ready to take the big step.
I think it is certain that, in Matthew, we have a person who was aware of his great sinfulness, and who was overjoyed at the experience of God’s abounding love and forgiveness in Jesus. I am reminded of the incident in the gospels where Jesus said of the woman anointing his feet: “Therefore, I tell you, her sins, which were many, have been forgiven; hence she has shown great love.”
I think the same must have applied to Matthew, our patron saint. Because he had been such a great sinner as a tax collector, his forgiveness by Jesus and call to follow him, ultimately to be one of his twelve apostles, must have elicited from him an enormous commitment of love towards Jesus.
As we celebrate the feast day of Matthew, let’s pray that God will reveal to us the depth of the sinfulness from which Jesus has saved us and let’s pray that our response to Jesus will be one of heartfelt love for him and the God who is father of all through the power of the Holy Spirit, just like St Matthew.
Archdeacon Allan Paulsen