The Rev’d Matthew David Larsen
Christ Church, New Haven, Connecticut
The 20th of September, Anno Domini 2015
A Homily on the Feast of St. Matthew
Today we celebrate the feast of St. Matthew. Hi, I’m Matthew.
It was at a tender age in Sunday school that I learned about St. Matthew, the former tax collector turned apostle and evangelist. I can still see the felt board figurine. Matthew was once a rich, greedy tax collector who took money from poor people. He had become buddy-buddy with the bad-guy Romans and it was therefore his prerogative to strong arm and extort his own Jewish people, both of the taxes they owed Rome and a little extra something-something for himself. He was a ravenous Benedict Arnold.
He probably had his feet up on his desk in his tax collector office and was smoking an expensive cigar when Jesus said those famous words, those arresting words to him: Follow me. Become my disciple, my apostle. It stopped him dead in his tracks. And, although he had never met this Jesus fellow before, he left everything, became an apostle, and went on to write one of the most important books of all time—the Gospel according to St. Matthew.
From Holy Scripture, however, we know very little about Matthew. The first Gospel, which bears his name, was originally anonymous and its title was affixed to it sometime in the second century. Apart from today’s Gospel reading, the only other place the name Matthew appears is in the list of twelve apostles. And Mark’s and Luke’s version of today’s Gospel reading talk about a tax collector named Levi, not Matthew.
What’s more, even today’s Gospel reading, when read closely and honestly, may allow to reimage Matthew as a figure other than a fat, rich, and greedy traitor who gets rich by turning his own people upside and shaking all the money out of their pockets, but who then turned to Jesus and left it all behind.
First, we need to understand how Roman taxation worked. It was Marx who pointed out that when Rome collected taxes from a province and then turned around and purchased their goods from them, this was functionally no different from just stealing their goods. They would often contract out the collection of taxes to some local entrepreneur, who had the means to pay the taxes upfront, who would then get a bunch of underlings to sit in the booths and rack in tax money on the goods that came through the region. It was a high risk, high reward kind of “business” in which the local entrepreneur could often get rich by taking more than he needed, but the underlings were not getting rich. The local entrepreneur was called a chief tax collector; the underlings just tax collectors.
The Gospel reading suggests Matthew was one of these underlings, not the chief tax collector. Zaccheus, that wee little man in Luke 19, was called the chief tax collector. Here Matthew is only called a tax collector. Zaccheus, being the rich local entrepreneur, gives away half his possesses to the poor and only then does salvation come to his house. Matthew is not told to give anything away. In fact, the story doesn’t even say that Matthew stopped being a tax collector, and we know he keeps hanging out with his fellow underlings tax collectors.
Yes, but Fr. Matthew, he must have been filthy rich because he had a house big enough to host a huge party, right? Well, actually the text doesn’t make clear whose house it was and the most obvious explanation to me seems to be that they are in the same house as they were in the previous story, a house in Capernaum in which Jesus had based his ministry. When he says, “follow me,” we might hear him simply saying to an exploited exploiter, “let’s go, come on, wrap this up, let’s go get some dinner.”
So maybe we should not picture Matthew the tax collector as some rich, sleazy Quisling but as some underling barely surviving on the bottom of the economic food chain of one of the most despised “industries” in the ancient world. If the saying, “[*You know what*] rolls down hill,” is true, then Matthew the underling tax farmer would have been buried in it. Economics, ethnicity, and exploitation, in our Gospel reading as in today, all hang together.
What can we learn from such a reimagination of Matthew? Matthew’s position was a messy one—both exploiter and exploited. Yes, he likely took more money than was necessary, but he likely didn’t keep the extra profits. The surplus value would have been passed up the ladder to the chief tax collector. Many tax collectors would have had a hard time finding a means of income elsewhere. They were stuck between a rock and a hard place. The moral, the lines between right and wrong are much more blurred in that scenario, and it is into that mess of a situation that Jesus speaks.
Some people can’t live with the grayness, demanding black and white. In the story, some people come to Jesus’ followers (notice not to Jesus, even though their issue is with Jesus) and ask him to clarify what he has confused black for white. They like the socially constructed lines that cleanly separate the good guys from the bad guys. Yet Jesus is comfortable with the mess. He sees no need to protect the lines that protect the haves’ from the have nots’. And when pushed, Jesus always sides with the poor and with the exploited. Every single time.
Jesus steps in and with prophetic fire in his eyes answers those who like the lines. “Go learn what this means: I prefer loving-kindness to sacrifice!” True to his persona of being someone you don’t invite to a dinner party.
Jesus is not being nice; he really crosses the line.
I want to distinguish between nice and kind. Nice is not wanting to hurt people’s feelings, and that’s different from being kind, which is actively acting in the best interests of others, especially those whose voices are silenced. Here we see that God is not nice, but God is kind. Yes, Jesus is not being nice. He’s being kind. Yes, Jesus crosses the line. God crosses and even sullies the line separating the Us from Them.
Really we should translate it, “God delights is loving-kindness to the powerless and the voice more than sacrifices.” God likes when we come to worship and perform the liturgy. But he loves it when stand in solidarity with the Other. God likes it when he participate in the mass and receive the sacrament. But God loves it when we become the sacrament of Christ’s living body, offering our selves, our souls and bodies, for the life of the world and actively seek to implement the Christ’s cross, the reconciliation of racial and economic dividing lines.
 Bruce J. Malina and Richard L. Rohrbaugh, Social-Science Commentary on the Synoptic Gospels (Minneapolis, Fortress, 2003), 415.