Return to Index or Sermons

St Matthew’s Day, 21.9.97, St Mark’s, Londonderry
Proverbs 3.9-18: find Wisdom – more precious than jewels
2 Cor 4.1-6: We proclaim Jesus as Christ and Lord, and ourselves as your servants for Jesus’ sake
Matt 9.9-13: calling of Matthew at tax office (2185 words)

Summary: Matthew witnesses to Jesus' and our humanity in terms of the wise-powerful-wellborn model.

We celebrate today St Matthew as both an apostle and an evangelist, and the Gospel passage we hear from the Gospel according to Matthew is about Jesus calling a tax collector named Matthew to follow him. In all probability we are celebrating two saints today rather than one: one is the apostle named Matthew and the other is the author of the Gospel that now bears the name of Matthew. When you stop to think about it, none of our Gospels actually names its author. From our manuscript evidence, it would appear that the names we attach to our four Gospels of Matthew, Mark, Luke and John arose in the second century AD when local churches began to exchange copies of their own particular gospel with other churches, so that each church soon had more than one gospel. These names are no more than what we might call educated guesses, probably based on local traditions. The ascriptions to Luke and John are probably correct, but we have no way of knowing for sure about Mark and Matthew.

As for Matthew the Apostle, apart from today’s story and the listing of Matthew as one of the Twelve in Matthew, Mark and Luke, and that the Book of Acts names him as being present on the Day of Pentecost, we know nothing further about him.

But Matthew the Evangelist, by the way he writes his gospel, tells us a great deal about the impact that Jesus had on him and his community. It is something of that which I would like to share with you this morning.

Matthew is probably describing himself when he has Jesus say: "Every scribe who has been trained for the kingdom of heaven is like the master of a household who brings out of his treasure what is new and what is old" (13.52). That is, Matthew is one of the scribes, those who know the scriptures well, and he brings forth from the treasury of the Scriptures, the Law and the Prophets, things old and things new as witnessing to God’s doings in Jesus, which is why he repeatedly says, "This was done to fulfil that which was spoken by the prophet" – and then proceeds to quote what he takes to be the relevant passage.

Around the year 75 to 80 AD Matthew sets himself the task of writing a Gospel, and he has in front of him the Gospel according to Mark. But now Matthew’s community faces a changing situation, which is why he feels the need for writing what we might call a longer and updated version of Mark.

Matthew’s community of Christians is probably a reasonably well-to-do group in a fairly quiet town in northern Syria, with it being, from Matthew’s standpoint, the Pharisaic leaders and scribes of the continuing Jewish synagogue across the street, so to speak, who are keeping all those good Jews from becoming followers of Jesus. Hence, his great antagonism against the scribes and Pharisees as hypocrites, who call for quantitatively more obedience of tithing garden herbs like dill, mint and cumin, while neglecting the qualitatively deeper obedience of justice, mercy and faith that the Law really calls for. In Mark the good ground in the interpretation of the parable of the sower yields thirty-fold, sixty-fold, a hundred-fold. But in Matthew it yields a hundred-fold, sixty-fold, thirty-fold, a decreasing amount, since the heady days of large-scale conversions are past, and it is striking that most of the imperatives, the commands, in Matthew are in the second-person singular. That is, they are addressed to the individual. Matthew calls each of us, individually, to follow Jesus. And he even uses the verb akolouthein, meaning "to follow" so that it invariably refers to following Jesus. At the same time Matthew shows deep concern for the Christian fellowship. His church apparently has some rather puritanical members, for Matthew adds the parable of the wheat and the tares, with its warning that if the tares are ripped out before the final harvest good young wheat will be ruined as well. M At the same time he ends the parable with the strong note of judgement that at harvest-time the tares will be taken out and burnt. In a similar vein, to combat complacency, at the end of each of the five teaching discourses Matthew tacks on a watch-and-be-ready type of parable, such as the familiar ones of the wise and foolish virgins, the house built on sand, etc.

Matthew’s overall intention is to help those for whom he writes to be better disciples of Jesus. Since you and I, too, have been called by God to be followers of Jesus, let us see what we can learn from Matthew that will guide us in our discipleship.

Matthew’s opening words sum up in a nutshell all that he wants us to know of Jesus. "The Book of the generations of Jesus, Christ, Son of David, Son of Abraham" (1.1). Matthew’s opening phrase, "The book of the generations", are the words that begin the fifth chapter of Genesis: "The book of the generations of Adam", so when Matthew says, "The book of the generations of Jesus" he is proclaiming that Jesus is the true Adam, the true human being.

Throughout the Old Testament, from the story of Joseph in Egypt onwards, writer after writer and prophet after prophet talks of the marks of a true human being or a true human community as being those of wisdom, strength and wellbeing, with all of these coming only through total dependence upon God and obedience to him. It is this pattern that St Paul, for example, is echoing when he says to the Corinthians that when they were called, "Not many of you were wise, not many powerful, not many well-born" (1 Cor 1.26). And this three-part pattern of the divinely intended humanity is summed up in Micah 6.6: "What does the Lord your God require of you but to do justice, to love mercy and to walk humbly with your God?" In chapter 23 Matthew picks this up when he says that the deep things of the Law are justice, mercy and faith (23.23).

Matthew proclaims the nature of this God-intended humanity by giving Jesus the three titles: Christ, Son of David, Son of Abraham. Of these three titles, Christ stands for the power of justice, Son of David for the wisdom of mercy, and Son of Abraham for the wellbeing that comes through faith. And Matthew writes the rest of his gospel accordingly.

We often treat "Christ" as though it were simply a surname, Jesus’ surname, like Jim Gibbs or Mark Santer. But in all the writings of the New Testament it is never a name; it is always a title; The Christ, that is, the Messiah, the Anointed One, the chosen one whom God has anointed with his spirit. If Son of David and Son of Abraham look back to great figures in Israel’s past, then Christ expresses Israel’s messianic hope for the future. Matthew spells this out in chapter 12 when he quotes from the Book of the Prophet Isaiah as now being fulfilled in Jesus:

Here is my servant whom I have chosen,
my beloved with whom my soul is well pleased.

I will put my Spirit upon him,

And he will proclaim justice to the Gentiles.

He will not wrangle nor cry aloud,

Nor will anyone hear his voice in the streets.

He will not break a bruised reed

Or quench a smouldering wick

Until he brings justice

And in his name the Gentiles will hope (Mt 12.18-21; Isa 42.1-4)

So in Jesus as the Christ, Matthew says, we have the hope of the victory of justice for all people, and the passage points forward to the passion as being where justice is brought to victory.

When we come to Davis, we are looking at someone who had been an adulterer with Bathsheba, and who plotted the death of Bathsheba’s husband, Uriah the Hittite. But despite this, in Jewish tradition the ideal shepherd king who was to come would be the Son of David who would rule with mercy. And in Matthew’s Gospel repeatedly people in need call out to Jesus, "Son of David, have mercy on us". It is striking that St Matthew is the only writer in the New Testament to quote, and he does it twice, the great passage from Hosea: "I desire mercy and not sacrifice" (Mt 9.13; 12.7; Hos 6.6). The first time Jesus tells the Pharisees to go learn what this means, and the second time he links it top David taking the shewbread from the temple for food as justifying his disciples taking a handful of grain on the Sabbath.

Matthew spells out the depth of the Hosea passage when, in the Sermon on the Mount (5.24), he emphasizes the need to be reconciled to one’s brother before bringing a gift to the altar. Further on in the Sermon this is intensified by the emphasis on loving one’s enemies and rejecting "an eye for an eye and a tooth for a tooth".

With Abraham we obviously have the great figure of faith, the one who put his total trust in God. In Jewish tradition he is viewed as the Rock God looked for on which to found the world, so that in Matthew it is the Abraham-type faith of Peter’s confession at Caesarea Philippi that brings the response that "You are Peter - the name itself means rock – and upon this rock I will build my church" (16.18). Abraham is not only the great exemplar of faith, but he is the one who by faith acquired both worlds: this world and the next. And he is the one who was ready to die for the hallowing of God’s name. He was also a proselyte and the maker of proselytes – that is, a convert and a maker of converts.

Matthew goes on to structure his whole gospel around these three elements of Abrahamic wellbeing that comes only through faith, the Davidic wisdom of mercy, and the Messianic justice of the power of the Cross, of Christ crucified. These elements structure the three stages of the temptation narrative; they structure the nine beatitudes and the whole of the Sermon on the Mount. They lie behind Jesus’ total trust in God at his Baptism, God’s proclaiming Jesus as the wise one to be heeded at the Transfiguration as superceding the Law and the Prophets represented by Moses and Elijah and the confession of Jesus as God’s Son by the representatives of Roman power and might, the Centurion and his companions at the Cross. And if we were to study Matthew’s Gospel at some length, I would gladly show you all this and more. But what is really important is how all this bears on our following Jesus.

And the pattern of how we are to follow is simply the prayer that we use every time we gather for worship, namely, the Lord’s Prayer, which we always say in the form that is found in Matthew’s Gospel. For this is the prayer of following Jesus in the pattern of the God-intended humanity. Let us go through it.

Our Father in heaven, hallowed be your name. May we so live our lives in trust in God like Abraham that we may cause others to hallow God’s name.

Your kingdom come. May we so live in the wisdom of God’s mercy that his reign may come.

Your will be done. Here is the enfleshing of God’s will into deed, as Jesus has done in the Cross, and as we are to do as we follow him.

The first half of the prayer has asked that our faith, our mercy, and our concern for justice may be to God’s glory. In the second half we in effect throw ourselves wholly upon God and ask God for our own needs.

Give us this day our daily bread. Here we ask God for what we need for our wellbeing.

Forgive us as we forgive. Here we ask for mercy as we show mercy.

Bring us not to the time of trial – that is the final accounting, for if by ourselves we are weighed in the balance we will be found wanting.

But deliver us from evil – for you. O God, are the only one who can and the one who will deliver us.

In Jesus, as children of Abraham: hallowed be your name;

As children of David: Your kingdom come;

As followers of the Christ: Your will be done.

With Abraham: give us bread;

With David: forgive us as we forgive;

With Christ on the cross: bring us not to the trial of the end-time, but deliver us from evil.

Matthew’s witness to Jesus is this: you and I, in following Jesus, are called to total obedient trust in God, we are called to show mercy and forgiveness, and we are to work for justice for all. Only thus can we be true followers of Jesus, the Christ, the Son of David, the Son of Abraham.