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St Matthews Church Oxhey Hertfordshire

Fr David's Sermon

21st September 2003

Fr David Shepherd

Trinity 14 St Matthew's Patronal Festival

'And as he sat at dinner in the house, many tax-collectors and sinners came and were sitting with him and his disciples.'

We all hate filling in our tax returns, an increasingly complex and time consuming task. We don't much like paying tax either. We may dislike Revenue staff in the abstract but if we know them personally we don't usually treat them any differently from anyone else. Although I heard it said that Tax Officers feel unloved and have a higher than average suicide rate. But however we feel about tax and tax collectors we are unlikely to be scandalised by the presence of tax collectors at a respectable dinner party.

Our Patron, St. Matthew, whose feast we celebrate today was a tax collector and as such the Pharisees for particular disapproval singled him out. Of all the many types of sinner why were tax collectors chosen for a special mention?

There were several reasons. Tax collectors like Matthew sat in the customs house exacting tax at various internal frontiers within the Roman Empire. They collected tax for the enemy, for Caesar and were thus often quislings and collaborators.

If that was bad enough they also tended towards corruption and extortion. They would over charge or take bribes in lieu of tax. They tended to grow rich at the expense of others and damaged the livelihood of others. Thus they were hated. Caravans would have spread tales of the worst. Who knows, perhaps Matthew was a bad case?

But of Matthew himself, what was he like? The danger is that we only see the job, the role, not the whole person. Matthew may have been rich but he was deeply unhappy, isolated and unloved, slowly being consumed by his own corruption, one sick in need of a physician, in need of mercy and forgiveness.

Jesus, of whom Matthew no doubt would already of heard, saw straight to the heart. When he called Matthew to follow, him those words must have penetrated to his very core. For the first time he was able to see a way out, an end to his isolation, the possibility of receiving and giving love in relationship with Jesus.

So he followed and joined the party with other tax collectors and sinners, from districts where today at night policeman would walk in pairs and girls alone. The Pharisees by their self-righteousness excluded themselves.

We know the rest of the story; Matthew the tax collector became an apostle and evangelist, a gospel writer, patron of this and many other churches.

So what of us who with Matthew have heard the call of Jesus Christ? What does Matthew teach us?

  1. There is something more precious than jewels. Proverbs describes Wisdom in such terms, more precious than gold and silver and precious jewels. Ours is a very materialistic age. We can all too easily define others and ourselves by what we have. As St Paul puts it the Gospel remains hidden. A materialistic life can all too easily be lived on the surface; underneath there can be a shallow emptiness.
  2. Knowing our sickness, our disease. Jesus is a physician of the soul. In his light we can see in our darkness and find inner healing. At he root of what the collect describes as the selfish pursuit of gain and the possessive love of riches lies something that needs to be healed by God. Our relationships are broken by Sin; they need to be restored, healed and forgiven.
  3. Seeing others (& ourselves) as Christ sees them. It is always revealing to ask who we identify with, where we stand in a Gospel scene. Part of us no doubt will want to stand with the Pharisees enjoying our self-righteous disapproval of tax collectors and sinners. But if we do we will be excluded as well as excluding Throughout the Gospel Jesus portrays the Kingdom of Heaven as a banquet or feast. Whether or not we accept his invitation to be present depends less on what we have or have not done but more on our willingness to see others and ourselves as Christ does with an accepting love. We can either be in with Matthew or without with the Pharisees. In the end the choice is ours, both as a Christian Community and as individuals.


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Last updated 20/09/2003 18:00 Author: Fr David Shepherd