Reading Matthew 6: 19-end
Preacher Revd Neil Summers
It’s been said you can tell quite a lot about a person by the company they keep. In a world that is at once increasingly global and networked, and YET more fragmented and diverse, most of us have more options about where we locate our sense of belonging than ever before. New groups spring up, from the malevolent alliances of the Islamic State or renewed Nazism in Europe, to the humanitarian coalitions formed to respond to international disasters. Then there are the more specialised, quirky and obscure: there are groups for everything from beekeepers to lovers of crochet to fans of Dr Who.
And we’re in danger of seeing the Church through a similar lens: as a collection of like-minded individuals who gather together around a common interest. The trouble is, such a view prevents the Church from truly being the Church: to see ourselves as a group of like-minded individuals means that we tend to perpetuate, often unintentionally, the idea that the Church is for people ‘like us’. It flattens out difference, and creates often invisible barriers which mean that people who are unlike us feel that there is no place for them. That might show itself, for example, in churches in which everything is oriented towards the family and which can exclude those who don’t fit into the conventional mould of what that looks like. It can be seen in churches which pride themselves on a certain sort of intellectual engagement with the faith, which leaves little room for those whose approach to faith is different, and whose insights and experience are therefore missed. It applies too in terms of ethnicity, gender, sexuality, age, disability, class and all the other ways in which we reinforce a sense of belonging or exclusion.
Matthew’s feast day challenges all that. Matthew is a tax collector. The account of his call is sparing in details: ‘As Jesus was walking along, he saw a man called Matthew sitting at the tax booth; and he said to him, “Follow me.” And he got up and followed him.’ That’s it. We hear nothing about motive, conversation, past history. Matthew simply gets up from his tax booth and follows Jesus. He walks straight out of one way of life and into another. We can, though, fill out a bit more detail from what we know of Matthew’s way of life. Bluntly, tax collectors were among the scum of the day: the hated minions of a corrupt imperial system. For the local population, taxes were a reminder of occupation and subjugation; the taxes levied by Rome kept most of the people in a state of poverty. Tax collectors, who often siphoned off money to line their own pockets, were despised. And their contact with the currency of the empire made them ritually unclean, and so cut off from the religious life of Israel. They had chosen corruption and collaboration over the sense of belonging to God’s people, and so made themselves outsiders to both covenant and community.
This is the sort of person Matthew was. Which is why Jesus’ call of him scandalised the Pharisees, those upright, uptight guardians of religious morality. They know, or they think they do, what sort of people belong; what type of behaviour is expected of those who are members of God’s people Israel, and tax collectors are not it. Holy people, God’s people, don’t mix with that sort, and God certainly doesn’t mix with them. You can tell a lot about a person by the company they keep, and the company the Pharisees keep is meant to tell us how righteous they are.
But Matthew’s outsider status doesn’t seem to bother Jesus, who seems less concerned with an ability to obey the minutiae of the law than he does with the willingness to be his disciple. ‘Why does your teacher eat with tax-collectors and sinners?’ the Pharisees ask. A respectable rabbi should keep his distance from such tainted company. It’s a reasonable question for those who are concerned with what it means to be holy, as both Jesus and the Pharisees are. But it turns on what we think are the grounds for holiness. For the Pharisees, holiness was seen in fidelity to their interpretation of the Jewish law, which required separation from all that was considered unclean. But for Jesus, holiness is grounded not in separation, but in mercy.
And mercy is what Jesus offers to Matthew and to others like him who are used to being shunned. And notice the difference in the two approaches: the Pharisees’ desire for separation leaves the tax collectors and sinners apart, their outsider status confirmed by the fact that the holy won’t mix with them. Because there is no point of overlap, they are left isolated in their sin. Jesus, though, goes and has dinner with them, and calls Matthew to be his disciple. And the effect of that is that Matthew gets up from his tax booth to follow Jesus. Jesus’ willingness to accept hospitality from sinners and to share his life with them might earn him a sniffy reaction from the Pharisees, but it completely changes Matthew’s life, so much so that tomorrow we honour that same tax collector as a saint, one of the foundation stones of the Church.
It is mercy that compels Matthew to get up from his seat in the tax booth, and the experience of being shown mercy and responding to it that changes his life. Jesus doesn’t say to the tax collectors and sinners, ‘repent of your sin and offer the requisite sacrifices for your purification, and then I’ll come and eat with you.’ He goes and eats with them, accepts hospitality from them and, from that encounter, repentance and conversion follow.
And so from Matthew we might learn something of what it means to respond wholeheartedly to mercy. Most of us are not stigmatised in the way that Matthew was, though some among us will have experience of being made to feel excluded and unwanted, in society or the Church. For most of us, our need of mercy is more hidden: it’s the shame or the guilt or the brokenness we bear privately, or share only sparingly. But on each of us, as on Matthew, Jesus looks with mercy and says, ‘Follow me’.
And responding to Christ’s mercy makes us more merciful. It’s much harder to judge others harshly when we remember the mercy and grace God has shown us. The sort of holiness Jesus shows us is not about separation, but rather a holiness that requires us to get our hands dirty, to mix with the wrong sort, to learn to receive the sort of disreputable hospitality that sets respectable tongues wagging. Too often in the Church we practise the holiness of the Pharisees, hedging God’s love about with rules and regulations, forming tidy communities of the like-minded. But if even tax collectors and prostitutes are suitable company for our Lord, we might perhaps be a bit less picky about the company we keep. For the Church to be authentically the Church of Jesus, it should be gloriously, even scandalously, diverse; a haven for sinners as well as a school for saints; a place where all are shown mercy because all have received mercy.