Sermon given at Matins on Sunday 4th May 2014
4 May 2014 at 10:00 am
The Reverend David Stanton, Canon in Residence
My sermons at Matins this month will concentrate in turn upon art and the evangelists: Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John. As we journey through this Easter season, what better focus could be taken than to look afresh at the primary evangelists of our Lord’s life and death and resurrection? I hope that through looking afresh at their lives and writings (in painting and word) we may be inspired to engage more deeply with our Lord’s teaching, and be moved to live lives ever closer to God.
This morning I begin with St Matthew. You will have been given a copy of Caravaggio’s master painting, The Calling of Saint Matthew. The picture captures an encounter between God and man. It reveals a dramatic moment in which two persons meet and two separate worlds converge. Matthew, absorbed in his world of money and friends, is caught off-guard. A ray of light illuminates the features of his surprised face. He points towards himself to inquire if he is really the one being addressed by Christ. He leans away from Jesus, but his legs seem poised to get up and move towards him. We see tension and surprise before an unexpected and radical invitation.
At this moment Matthew’s life teeters between two possibilities. He must make a decision either to continue clinging to his money or to follow Jesus. He’s a tax collector, and a coin is stuck conspicuously in his hat, symbolizing the privileged place that money holds in his thoughts. With his right hand, he reaches for coins. If Matthew decides to heed the call of the austerely dressed Christ, he is going to have to give up something that seems to have become central to his very identity.
There is another element in his life opposed to the possibility of him following Christ: his friends. They surround him and even lean on him, almost protectively, forming a barrier between him and the uninvited visitor. The young man with the sword is about to get up from his stool, leaning towards Peter in a mildly aggressive manner. To follow Christ, Matthew will have to extricate himself not only from his internal attachment to money, but also from the external pressure of his friends. Christ and Peter stand in stark contrast to Matthew and his companions. If Matthew follows Christ, it will not be easy. He will have to leave behind his luxurious lifestyle and stable income if he is going to be counted among the disciples.
In addition to the personal call of Matthew, this painting has a still deeper meaning. It illustrates, through this particular Gospel scene, the new relationship between God and man made possible by Jesus Christ. This masterpiece is an iconic depiction of the human–divine encounter that is played out at some point in the lives of all individuals. When the divine reaches out to the human, there is always a moment of decision such as this. God unexpectedly breaks into our lives, calling us to a closer relationship with himself. In Matthew’s case we know what happens: he left everything and followed Christ. Although relatively little is known about the life of St Matthew, the account he wrote of Christ’s ministry—traditionally considered to be the first of the four Gospels—is of incredible value to the Church.
Jesus most likely first encountered Matthew near the house of Peter, in Capernaum near the Sea of Galilee. The meeting of the two was dramatic, as Matthew's third-person account in his Gospel captured: ‘As Jesus was walking along,’ the ninth chapter recounts, ‘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.’
Matthew’s calling into Jesus’s inner circle was a dramatic gesture of the Messiah’s universal message and mission, causing some religious authorities of the Jewish community to wonder: ‘Why does your teacher eat with tax collectors and sinners?’ Jesus’s significant response indicated a central purpose of his ministry: ‘I did not come to call the righteous but sinners.’ A witness to Christ’s resurrection after death (as well as his ascension into heaven and the events of Pentecost), Matthew also recorded Jesus’s instruction for the apostles to ‘go, therefore, and make disciples of all nations, baptising them in the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the holy Spirit, teaching them to observe all that I have commanded you.’
Like eleven of the twelve apostles, St Matthew is traditionally thought to have died as a martyr while preaching the Gospel. As I mentioned earlier, both the saint himself and his Gospel writings have inspired important works of religious art, ranging from the three famous paintings of Caravaggio depicting St Matthew’s calling, inspiration, and martyrdom, to the ornate illuminated pages of the Book of Kells in the ninth century, and to the Saint Matthew Passion of J S Bach.
As Canon Treasurer it is personally interesting for me to reflect upon the miracle of St Matthew’s life-changing calling: from the pursuit of financial gain to the heights of holiness and divine inspiration. To a greater or lesser extent we are all called to grapple with this: the emphasis we place on money, how we want it, how we use it, how it influences our lives, and how bound we are to it.
Bishop Peter Selby uses a contemporary image of the national lottery to reflect on this: how as a nation most of us have half an eye on the lotto draws: how the event is rather like attending a holy ritual for the celebration of money, where the random outcome of spinning balls has the miraculous capacity to change people’s lives in exactly the sort of way that we associate with miracles, even the miracle of St Matthew’s own life. This ritual of juggling balls offers us all a modern extravaganza, when the pursuit of gain often seems to top everything else, rather like the moment when on budget day the chancellor holds up his red box as a sacramental sign of his stewardship of money and his power to enrich or impoverish.
I finish with some words spoken by Pope Benedict back in 2006: ‘in the figure of Matthew, the Gospels present to us a true and proper paradox: those who seem to be the farthest from holiness can even become a model of the acceptance of God’s mercy and offer a glimpse of its marvellous effects in their own lives.’