A sermon for the Feast of St Matthew.
“Follow me”, said the teacher to the tax collector sitting in the office. And Matthew got up and followed. Perhaps Matthew never know why Jesus called him. Matthew ate with Jesus, laughed with Jesus, cried with Jesus. Matthew became one of the Twelve. He ran away when Jesus was arrested. He hid when Jesus was executed. He met Jesus when he rose again. He was filled with the Spirit on Pentecost. He wrote the Gospel that tells us of his call. “Follow me”, said the teacher to the tax collector sitting in the office. And Matthew got up and followed.
About a third of the way through the Gospel that bears his name, Matthew records the day that Jesus called him. He records it in the middle of stories of healing. From the middle of Chapter 8 to the end of chapter 9, Matthew records all kinds of miraculous healings. Two violent demoniacs in the Gentile country of the Gadarenes are healed and brought to peace; a paralysed man is forgiven and then walks; the daughter of the leader of the synagogue is raised from the dead; a woman suffering from haemorrhages is cured and restored to life in the community; two blind men are given their sight; and a demoniac mute is brought to gentle speech. And Matthew is called. Miracle among miracles, he tells us, Jesus called me to follow him. Miracle among miracles, he tells us, I got up and followed.
Matthew’s call is carefully positioned amidst stories of healing. It is as if Matthew is telling us that when he followed Jesus he was brought to peace, forgiven, given life, restored to the community, enabled to see, and given the power of speech. “Follow me”, said the teacher to the tax collector sitting in the office. And Matthew got up and followed. All this is emphasised by the way in which Matthew got up, or more literally ‘arose’. Matthew’s call to follow Jesus is Matthew’s resurrection.
Matthew’s call is something new. All these stories, all these metaphors, all these healings, bring peace, forgiveness, life, community, sight and speech – all these, Matthew says, is what it was like when Jesus called me. This is life in all its fullness; this is life for those who only now realise that they are alive. Jesus’ life, the life that death cannot hold, the life of the one who made the universe, this life is given to Matthew.
But there is another feature common to all of the healings surrounding Matthew’s call. All of them feature opposition to Jesus. Jesus is begged to leave the country of the Gadarenes after healing the demoniacs; Jesus is accused of blasphemy when he forgives the sins of the paralytic; Jesus is laughed at when he tells the mourners that the girl is only sleeping; Jesus is accused of being in league with the ruler of demons when he gives speech to the mute. Having called Matthew, Jesus is sneered at for eating with tax collectors and sinners.
The Pharisees are those who tried really hard to live according to the Law, according to the Bible. They were good, upright people, trying to do what was right. They would go to church each week, be kind to their neighbours, give to charity, say their prayers, pay their dues, and do a great deal of voluntary work. They were good people. But they had got it spectacularly wrong. Somehow, they could only see all the good things that were happening as bad; they could not see these healings were good, could not see that the tax collectors and the sinners were people worthy of attention. The Pharisees thought that they themselves were well and healthy; it turns out, says Jesus, that thinking this way was the nature of their illness.
“Follow me”, said the teacher to the tax collector sitting in the office. And Matthew got up and followed. Like Matthew, Jesus calls us to follow him. He doesn’t tell us where we are going, what we will need, or how we are going to get there. He simply calls us to follow. If we get up and follow, there is healing, forgiveness, life, community, sight and speech for us.
But we will only follow if we know that these are things that we need. Do we know that we need healing? Do we know that we need forgiveness? Do we know that we need life? It is the sick that need a doctor. If we think that we are well, then we won’t go to see one.
There are many things that we can use to give us the illusion of being well. One of them is religion. I go to church, I say my prayers, I give to charity, I spend hours volunteering. I must be well. And so I don’t need the doctor.
Where do our illusions of health come from? Religion? Money? Status? Jesus calls Matthew and he gets up and follows. Matthew knows he is ill and needs the doctor. Do I? In a poem called ‘The Kingdom’, R.S. Thomas urges us to “present yourself with/ Your need only and the simple offering/ Of your faith, green as a leaf.”
If I were to set homework from the pulpit, it would be this. Take time in the coming week to discover your need, and present it to God. This is a matter of overcoming our illusions of health, and seeking to find the truth of our neediness. It is only the sick that have need of the doctor.
This is what St Paul is talking about when he says “we have renounced the shameful things that one hides; we refuse to practice cunning … but by the open statement of the truth we commend ourselves to the conscience of everyone in the sight of God”. What do I need to renounce? How am I practising cunning? What is the truth I need to be open to? It is only the sick that have need of the doctor.
“Follow me”, said the teacher to the tax collector sitting in the office. And Matthew got up and followed. “Follow me,” says the doctor to you and to me. “Follow me”.
First given at Derby Cathedral, 21.9.14.