Dear friends in Christ, grace and peace to you from God our Father and our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ. Amen.
Throughout the summer, I have been preaching on the lessons and the legends of Jesus’ 12 disciples and those who were sent by the early church to proclaim the good news. As important as the disciples were, there are few churchgoers today who know their names much less know their stories. Thus far, we have meditated on Jesus’ first two disciples, Andrew, and his brother Simon-Peter, as well as two overlooked disciples, Philip and James the Less. We have reflected on the most misunderstood disciple, Thomas the Twin, and another who is simply known by his last name Bartholomew. Over the last two weeks, we have turned to another set of brothers and fishermen. John, was longest living apostle who died in old age, while his brother James the Elder, was the first of Jesus’ chosen 12 to become a martyr. Today, we will consider the most unlikely of ancient professionals to follow Jesus, a tax collector named Levi, who would come be known as Matthew.
The call to ministry, whether as a pastor, priest or missionary is never easy primarily due to the exhaustion of the long hours. You arrive first and leave last- turning off the lights as you go. And when you leave, you always wonder whether your words touched the hearts of those listening. Oh, yes, thankfully, there are those serendipitous moments of joy and laughter. Perhaps, it was the Sunday School teacher who asked the children just before she dismissed them to return to worship, “And why is it necessary to be quiet in church?” To which one little girl replied, “Because all the people are sleeping.” No doubt, she was the same child who thought the men and women standing at the doors were called hushers. Or perhaps it was that Children’s Sermon when the Pastor asked why Joseph and Mary took Jesus with them to Jerusalem, and the small child replied: “They couldn’t get a baby-sitter.” I am not sure that Levi understood what was ahead of him as one of Jesus’ called disciples, but there would certainly be joyous, serendipitous moments.
Neither scripture nor legend tells us much about Levi’s early life, but Jesus’ calling him to be a disciple is one of the most astounding choices in the Bible. According to St. Mark’s gospel, Levi was the son of Alphaeus- just as James the Less was the son of Alphaeus, but they are never described brothers as brothers. St. Matthew simply refers to himself as Matthew. We only know that Levi was a tax-collector and that he was working in Capernaum on the Sea of Galilee. In the King James Translation of the Bible, he was a publican- one who collected public revenue.
Few people, regardless of their nationality, enjoy paying taxes. As Will Rogers once quipped, “Income tax has made more liars out of the American people than golf has.” But the people of ancient Israel despised their tax collectors. Jewish law barred them from entering the synagogue. In the Book of Leviticus, tax-collectors were portrayed as unclean animals. It wasn’t simply that they were corrupt and notoriously dishonest. But the tax collectors were the men who had sold out to the Roman authorities. They were traitors in the eyes of faithful Jews who worshipped God as the only true authority in Israel. Therefore, the fact that these tax collectors were hated and considered the worst sinners by most of the population and the Pharisees in particular, made the optics of Jesus’ calling Levi to be a disciple a matter of moral judgment and character.
The Pharisees hated the tax collectors and sinners, so they naturally thought that as a rabbi, Jesus should hate them too. Frankly, we do the same today- especially in religious communities. We believe that other Christians should be in complete agreement with our way of thinking- on all things. We assume that my enemies ought to be your enemies. That those who differ from us, should be despised by other as well. How disarming Jesus’ teaching was, “Love your enemies, do good to those who hate you, bless those who curse you, pray for those who mistreat you.” The fact that Jesus sat and ate with those who were considered the dregs of society was an act of grace that the Pharisees could not comprehend. Jesus showed mercy to the tax collector and sinners and he would always welcome and receive them because that was why he came. As he answered, when questioned, “For I have come to call not the righteous but sinners.”
The great Italian Baroque artist Caravaggio painted a triptych dedicated to Levi- for the Church of St. Louis of the French in Rome. The image of the central paining is on the cover of today’s bulletin and depicts the Angel as an inspiration for Matthew’s gospel. The three paintings guaranteed Caravaggio’s esteem as an artist and future commissions. In the church in Rome, to the right is the portrayal of Matthew’s martyrdom, and to the left is a painting of the Calling of St. Matthew. Pope Frances has stated that this is his favorite painting and captures his own sense of vocation as Roman Catholics priests refer to the Call of Ministry. On the right side of the composition, Jesus and Peter are seen entering the darkened customs house where Levi is working together with other tax collectors in a pool of light. Jesus looks directly at a seated Levi with an open hand, so similar to Michelangelo’s extended hand of God giving life to Adam in the scene of creation on the ceiling of the Sistine Chapel. Levi clutches the last coins as a tax-collector, and points to himself, as it if to say, “Jesus, are you calling me?” That day, Jesus offered Levi a new life. No wonder, after that day he would call himself Matthehu which means “Gift of the Lord.” Caravaggio’s painting of that scene is so poignant and transforming, that it is not surprising, that the humble Pope Francis would find strength in its work. Like the call to ministry, it does what it should do- change lives.
My friends, the calling of Matthew teaches us, that God’s infinite grace and mercy shows no partiality. God uses us just as we are- our talents and our foibles and creates something new. Consider the transformation that occurred in that town of Capernaum. On the day that Jesus said to the tax-collector Levi, “Follow me,” Levi lost a comfortable job, but he gained a new destiny. He lost stature and a steady income, but he gained honor. The former tax-collector lost his easy security, but he gained a spirit of adventure that he had never imagined. On that day, Levi freely abandoned his tax-collectors table, but he took from it one thing- his pen. It’s unlikely that many of the other disciples knew how to write. Fishermen and carpenters were not known for that skill set. But Jesus called Levi to use his skills and talents- and according to church tradition, he used these gifts to pen the words to the Gospel of St. Matthew.
It is interesting that Levi was assigned the work of the secretary for the disciples instead of the treasurer. If we had someone join the church with his financial acumen, we would find a place for him on the church council. After all, as a tax-collector, he had plenty of experience collecting and spending money. But perhaps that task was too obvious and tempting, and too compromising. According to St. John, the role of holding the disciples’ money, the collective purse, went to Judas Iscariot, the one who would betray Jesus.
Matthew’s story teaches us another profound lesson as well that must have shocked the Pharisees. Everyone, regardless of their past, has a place at the Lord’s Table-if they will welcome him. In the ancient world, sharing a meal together was a sign that one desired to establish a bond between people. That is what God wants and is seeking from you.
After Jesus’ resurrection and ascension, Matthew remained with the other disciples in Judea, but in time he went forth as an apostle to the neighboring regions. Surprisingly, as an evangelist and gospel writer, Matthew remained the most true and faithful to the Jewish heritage of his youth. Indeed, the earliest title for the Matthew’s gospel was the Gospel according to the Hebrews or sometimes as the Gospel of the Apostles. The superscription “according to Matthew” was only added sometime in the second century. Still, many scholars today believe that the gospel was written by an anonymous follower of Matthew. Regardless, the apostle emphasized that the Jewish traditions should not be lost in a church that was increasingly becoming Gentile. The city of Jerusalem had already been destroyed by Rome in 70 AD, and there were emerging struggles and conflicts over unity and conformity. The scribes and Pharisees were particularly aggressive against dissenters declaring that one could not claim to be Jewish if they were followers of the Christian Way. Matthew, more than any other evangelist, addressed this challenge, publicly criticizing the Pharisees in his writing and encouraging the Jewish community around the Mediterranean Sea, to trust that they could be both Jewish and Christian.
According to the Golden Legend, a medieval collection of stories about the many saints and heroes of the Church, Matthew, after leaving Jerusalem, travelled in Africa where his story is closely bound to Princess Ephigenia of Ethiopia. Inspired by his words, and the raising of her brother from the dead, she converted to the Christian faith and dedicated herself to God. She came to lead a group of 200 women. When the new King Hirtacus took the throne, he saw the princess and desired her to be his spouse. When she refused, the King sought the Apostle Matthew to persuade her. In response, the Apostle told Hirtacus to attend worship the next day. The King assumed that Matthew would entreat Ephigenia to marry him there. Matthew, indeed, opened his sermon with a long defense of the nobility of marriage, but at the end, he stated that to lure someone away from their bonds to God, was like stealing another person’s spouse. King Hirtacus was so enraged at this rebuttal, that he left sanctuary in a fury and ordering his swordsman to slay the man who defied him, and so, while standing at his own altar, Matthew was martyred by the King’s swordman. His relics were later transferred to Salerno, Italy, where they rest to this day.
The Call to Ordained Ministry may not be for everyone, but my friends, in the waters of baptism God calls everyone to share the good of Jesus with those they meet. Yes, surprisingly, amazingly, and graciously Jesus enters in and invites the most unlikely of candidates to be his disciples. No, you may not see yourself as a contemporary Levi, but still you hear your voice echoing the words of Levi, “Jesus, are you calling me?” Yes, God has a place in his mission field for even the greatest of sinners like you and me. Amen.
May the peace of God which passes all understanding keep your hearts and minds in Christ Jesus. Amen.