As I write, today is St. Matthew’s Day. As with a number of the apostles of our Lord, St. Matthew did not have the best of resumes: in the expressions of the time the term “tax-collectors and sinners” was a common put-down. Matthew, or Levi as he was also called, made a living by being a tax-collector. Indeed, perhaps he operated a syndicate of tax-collectors. When he began to associate with Jesus, the Lord brought not only him but a circle of his associates into His company: as onlookers were prone to say about Jesus, He did not decline to “eat with tax-collectors and sinners.”
We should remember though that the put-down term “tax-collectors and sinners” was not a purely moral put-down. This is because in the days of Jesus it was not the authorities of an independent Israel that were taxing their own people. In the Old Testament days of the kings, there was an understanding from the very beginning that the kings would tax and make slaves of a portion of their people. That’s what the kings of the nations did, and that, the prophet Samuel had warned, would be what their own kings would do too. But because this was thought to be normal, one does not find any great objection to the system in the pages of the Old Testament, except when, as in the later days of King Solomon, the people saw such powers being used very excessively.
In Jesus’ days in Judaea and Galilee and the rest of the lands that were occupied by the Roman authority, tax-collectors were not only hated because they were prone to use their powers excessively and arbitrarily to enrich themselves, but also because of the formation of a victim mentality: the Gentile Romans were the occupiers and the natives were the victims. The tax-collectors of the class of Matthew were hated therefore because they were seen as agents of an occupying power. (We also see evidence of the collection of a “temple tax” which would not have been viewed in the same way.)
In any event, the Lord saw Matthew through a different lens than did many of this man’s detractors. Perhaps the existence of the first Gospel of the New Testament indicates to us something of what someone so familiar with being put down by society can achieve when the the Lord has brought him to Himself.
The Collect for the Seventeenth Sunday after Trinity is
Lord, we pray thee that thy grace may always prevent and follow us, and make us continually to be given to all good works; through Jesus Christ our Lord. Amen.
The word “prevent” means here “go before”, not to stop but to form a guiding pattern. We can visualise Matthew the tax-collector being given a fresh guiding pattern by the grace of our Lord Jesus Christ. May we also examine the patterns of our lives with the light and grace of Christ and conform them to His intention. May we be aware of His presence with us, before us, following us and all around us. It is not a confining presence, as some are prone to imagine, but a presence that liberates us into being “given to all good works”.
For directions about the services this Sunday the 26th September the Seventeenth Sunday after Trinity, please see the website www.TruthWithLanguage.com . Please also note the “red-letter day” on Wednesday (S. Michael and All Angels’ Day).
In reliance upon the mighty power of the Triune God to keep us faithful to and in all truth, I am in your service
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