21 September, 2014

Homily for the Feast of St Matthew, Apostle & Evangelist - Tools for disciples


Matthew 9:9-13
Jesus saw ‘a man called Matthew sitting at the tax booth; and he said to him, Follow me.’ (9:9)

Jesus is back in his small home village of Capernaum where he had settled at the beginning of his ministry, and here he goes about healing and making disciples among peoples that probably knew him. Our gospel reading does not say whether or not Matthew was among the number of residents of Capernaum, whether he knew Jesus before this occasion, but we can speculate that in the closely knit community of a small village Matthew would have at least known vaguely about that Jesus who had left the Capernaum, who was rumoured to have miraculously healed many in the region, and was now travelling with a motley crew of disciples, sometimes attracting the wrong kind of people. Matthew may have had an idea about Jesus, but he wasn’t a disciple, that is, until the moment Jesus spotted him and called to him, ‘Follow me’.
This little gospel story outlines the call of Matthew (or the call of Levi as it is referred to in the gospels of Mark and Luke); yet these few verses also express something about our own call, our own vocation to be disciples.

In this passage there are four elements to the call to discipleship that I would like to highlight to you. 
First, being a disciple requires great humility. We read that Jesus says, ‘I have come to call not the righteous but sinners (13)’ so in order to hear and to respond to his call we must acknowledge that we are all sinners and that Jesus alone can change our life for the better. Surely, at the beginning of every Mass we ask God for forgiveness, but that doesn’t necessarily mean that we are ready to acknowledge our problem, our addiction to sin; whatever that may be, however big or small we consider it to be. Self-righteous, needlessly proud, haughty people cannot easily hear Jesus’ call. Yet, if we daily cultivate humility and keep a close look on our conduct of life we would be ever more ready to hear Jesus calling each of us. He says, ‘I have come to call … sinners’; he comes to call us.

Secondly, being a disciple requires a great deal of courage (or fortitude). We read that St Matthew ‘got up and followed Jesus (9)’. For him getting up meant to physically abandon the tax booth at which he had sat for days on end, and to begin to change his life one baby-step at a time right from that very moment.I say courage, because discipleship requires a radical (and daily) change of life; and this is not easy. Becoming a disciple is not like starting a diet, we can’t say, ‘The diet starts next Monday’, but we have to start here and now, afresh every day, when Jesus says ‘Follow me’.
Doing this requires a lot of courage, that virtue that allows to do what is right regardless of the time, of personal circumstances, and of potential losses.
It always makes me giggle how we are so ready to sing hymn lines such as ‘We’ll be turning the whole world upside down’, but we can’t actually be asked to move a single finger in order to reorient our lives towards what really matters, towards religion.

Thirdly, being a disciple requires learning constantly from Jesus. In our reading he says to the Pharisees, ‘Go and learn what this means, “I desire mercy, not sacrifice.”’ (12), but this does not mean that Jesus is inviting only his opposers to do some learning. He invites us all to relearn the meaning of the Scriptures as seen in the light of his blessed presence. 
All too often one hears of so-called Christians who use Bible verses to hurt others, or to put them down. That is not discipleship; in fact, that is not Christianity.
Discipleship means to engage in a lifelong learning enterprise wherein we are taught by Jesus and by the faith of his Church – a learning that is manifested in practice through love, compassion, and encounter with others.

Fourthly being a disciple requires love for community. In our reading we see that Jesus ‘sat at dinner in the house, [where] many tax-collectors and sinners came and were sitting with him and his disciples (10)’; therefore we too must be part of this community of people. We must learn to sit comfortably with many tax-collectors and sinners, because (as mentioned in the first point) we are all sinners and we are all striving to do better and better each day.
The call to be a disciple we receive from Christ is a personal, individual call; but the outworking of this vocation is only possible within the community (the “society”, if you want to use an old-fashioned Anglican word) that is the Church. We cannot be serious about the Christian life if we are obstinate about going it alone, or splintering off when things don’t go our way. Jesus is always surrounded and accompanied by the mixed community of the Church. This community is his own mystical body and he cannot be separated from her, regardless how much people refuse to acknowledge this. If we want to be genuine disciples of Christ we must be part of that group of people, without exalting ourselves above fellow disciples and above other sinners; with love for others, with forbearance, kindness, and words of encouragement for everyone.

Jesus saw ‘a man called Matthew sitting at the tax booth; and he said to him, Follow me.’ (9:9)
How do we respond to these words? Humility? Courage? constant learning? Love for community?
May St Matthew help us with his prayers to follow Jesus ever more closely every day. Amen.

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