21 September 2009

Saint Matthew: responding to Christ’s call

The Calling of Saint Matthew (Caravaggio)

Patrick Comerford

Monday 21 September 2009 (Saint Matthew), 8.30, Holy Communion: Proverbs 3: 13-18; Psalm 119: 65-72; II Corinthians 4: 1-6; Matthew 9: 9-13


O almighty God,
whose blessed Son called Matthew the tax-collector
to be an apostle and evangelist:
Give us grace to forsake the selfish pursuit of gain
and the possessive love of riches;
that we may follow the way of your Son Jesus Christ,
who is alive and reigns with you and the Holy Spirit,
one God, now and for ever.

May I speak to you in the name of +the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit, Amen.

Matthew the Evangelist (מתי/מתתיהו, Gift of Yahweh; Ματθαίος) is one of the Twelve and is identified with both the author of the first of the four gospels and with Levi the publican or tax collector in the Gospels according to Mark and Luke.

According to tradition, Matthew was the son of Alpheus a publican or a tax collector by profession. He was the Levi in the Gospels according to Mark and Luke, and was called to be a disciple while he was sitting in the tax collectors’ place at Capernaum.

We know little about Matthew’s subsequent career – what we do know is little more than speculation and legend. Saint Irenaeus says Matthew preached the Gospel among the Hebrews, Saint Clement of Alexandria claimed that he did this for 15 years, and Eusebius maintains that, before going into other countries, he gave them his Gospel in his mother tongue.

Some ancient writers say Matthew later worked in Ethiopia to the south of the Caspian Sea – not Ethiopia in Africa; other say he worked in Persia, Parthia, Macedonia or Syria. According to Heracleon, who is quoted by Clement of Alexandria, Matthew did not die a martyr, but other accounts, including the Roman Martyrology, say he died a martyr’s death in Ethiopia.

Like the other evangelists, Matthew is often depicted in Christian art as one of the four living creatures of Revelation (4: 7) – in Matthew’s case the winged man, carrying a lance in his hand. There are three paintings of Matthew by Carravagio in the church of San Luigi del Francesci in Rome. Those three paintings, which are among the landmarks of Western art, Matthew, depict Saint Matthew and the Angel, Matthew being called by Christ, and the Martyrdom of Matthew.

Caravaggio, in depicting the calling of Matthew, shows Levi the tax collector sitting at a table with four assistants, counting the day’s proceeds. This group is lighted from a source at the upper right of the painting. Christ, his eyes veiled, with his halo the only indication of his divinity, enters with Saint Peter. A gesture of Christ’s right hand – all the more powerful and compelling because of its languor – summons Levi.

Surprised by the intrusion and perhaps dazzled by the sudden light from the just-opened door, Levi draws back and gestures toward himself with his left hand as if to say: “Who, me?” His right hand is still on the coin he had been counting before Christ’s entrance.

Today, Matthew is regarded as the patron saint of accountants and bankers. Given the unsaintly performance of our bankers in recent years, I don’t know that I would be particularly happy with the prospect of being the patron saint of bankers being put to me as a good career move in heaven. But then Christ came not to call the righteous but sinners to salvation.

Perhaps Matthew should be the patron saint of those who answer the call to ministry. And welcome back to your final year of being equipped to answer that call. I hope none of us will be worried about how we are remembered, whether people get it right about where we worked in ministry and mission, or whether they even get my name right.

As long as I answered that call when it came, and abandoned everything else, including career prospects and the possibility of wealth, to answer that call faithfully and fully.

And now may all we think, say and do be to the glory of God, + Father, Son and Holy Spirit.

Post Communion Prayer:

God of mercy and compassion,
we have shared the joy of salvation
that Matthew knew when Jesus called him.
Renew our calling to proclaim the one
who came not to call the righteous but sinners to salvation,
your Son Jesus Christ our Lord.

Canon Patrick Comerford is Director of Spiritual Formation, the Church of Ireland Theological Institute. This reflection was shared at the Eucharist in the chapel on 21 September 2009.

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