Menu Close
8th January 2023


Passage: Matthew 9;9-13


Let’s face it- none of us likes paying taxes. And none of us agree with the way our taxpayers’ money is spent. Which is why “the taxman” has become a mythical enemy figure, along with ‘the mother-in-law” and “the Traffic Warden.”
But Matthew, the tax collector Jesus called to be his disciple, was in a different league altogether.
Socially, he was known to be a fraudster. Romans employed local people of the countries they occupied to collect their taxes and turned a blind eye if these collectors took more than they should and pocketed the difference. Matthew was getting rich by cheating.
Politically, he was hated as a traitor. Rome had taken over the country, rather as Russia is trying to do with Ukraine, and, as an employee of Rome, Matthew was a collaborator.
Even worse, there was a religious dimension. The Jewish people believed that God himself had given them this country and that enemies who tried to take their land were enemies of God. Matthew was a Jew who had fallen away from his faith and was betraying not only his own people but God himself.
In the eyes of Jesus’ disciples, it did not get much worse than that. Matthew was the very lowest of the low. Now, here was Jesus, bringing this man into their group: “This is Matthew everybody. He is going to join us on our travels.” What?

OK, Jesus was all about forgiveness, giving people a second, third, seventy times seventh chance. There was another tax collector, remember, Zacchaeus, the little man who climbed a tree to catch sight of Jesus, and Jesus called him down and went to eat with him? When Jesus was criticised, he made much the same answer- I have come to save the lost. Fair enough. But with Matthew, Jesus was inviting him right into the group of disciples who would work together, travel together, eat together, probably sleep in the same space together. How were those other eleven going to cope with that?

In one of the Just William stories, William is at the church fete, aiming a hard wooden ball at the coconut shy. He misses the coconut and catches the vicar in the face. The vicar took it quite well: ““You should be more careful my little man” he said, smiling a smile which was meant to express Christian forgiveness and geniality. It didn’t at all. It expressed only an excusable desire to smack William’s head, barely held in check by a strong sense of duty and regard for appearances.”

We have seen smiles like that. We have smiled smiles like that: when you are trying to be nice but longing to smack someone.
Most of us agree that reconciliation is the best way forward in a painful situation. Ongoing hatred and revenge achieve nothing but more pain. And we can, with enough strength, force ourselves to smile rather than snarl; to stretch out a hand in kindness rather than smack someone’s face, to hold ourselves back from retaliation when someone has hurt us. We can do it. We just cannot control the way we feel. We cannot stop ourselves from hurting. And some pain goes very deep.

In the novel “The Guernsey Literary and Potato Peel Pie Society,” the people of Guernsey are recovering from the Nazi occupation, when a girl who had been with Elizabeth McKenna in a Concentration Camp arrives. Elizabeth’s friends welcome her and trust that, with the help of their kindness, she will get her life back. But when they are out walking, a lady with a very friendly Alsatian dog comes toward them, and the girl goes to pieces, remembering how these dogs had been deliberately made savage, then set on prisoners in the camps. The friends have to admit that “goodwill is not enough, not nearly enough.”

Some of Jesus’ disciples would have seen friends and family crucified by Romans. They would have lived in terror of saying the wrong thing in front of a collaborator like Matthew and being betrayed to death. The very sight of him might have made them shake, involuntarily, with fear. And Jesus must have known this. Why did he inflict this man upon them?

We don’t know much more about Matthew. He appears to have remained one of the twelve who followed Jesus and he is mentioned in the book of Acts, so presumably he became an active leader in the early church. Clearly some miracle of reconciliation took place amongst those twelve disciples. And we need to know how that happened. Because how many of us have people in our lives or who were once in our lives whom we struggle to forgive? Especially if it was not we ourselves they hurt but someone we love. How do we deal with the pain?

I found a clue in an American clergyman who had worked as his bishop’s trouble-shooter. Basically, he was sent to churches which had become seriously divided and his brief was to try and reconcile them. As he drove to these places he would reflect on how he would encounter two groups of people each believing the other to be “the enemy.” But at some point, he said, they might just unite in considering me “the enemy.”
Not totally encouraging, but he has a point worth considering. When two groups of people who have formerly been divided focus together on something bigger and greater than what divided them, there is hope of even involuntary reconciliation.

Jesus was calling Matthew to follow him. In the same way he called the other eleven to follow him. Their brief was to help him to proclaim the kingdom of God; to bring healing to the sick, comfort to the distressed, acceptance to the outcasts, salvation-saving grace- to those who had lost their way in life. Jesus said nothing at that point about making up their own differences. I am sure that he was well aware of the pain inflicted both on Matthew and the others by drawing them together in one small group. But he trusted that their mutual love for him; their mutual commitment to his mission, plus the continually powerful healing grace flowing from him, day by day, would in the end unite them. It was much further on in his ministry that he spoke of the need for them to love one another.

There will always be a time and a need for us to focus on dealing with our own emotions. Our society today is finally admitting that emotional and mental trauma need to be acknowledged and treated rather than swept under the carpet. And that is good.
But focussing purely on how we ourselves feel is never going to be quite enough to heal us. Because we are not made like that. We are human beings who interact with each other. We are human beings who yearn to belong in the world. And we are human beings with a need to search out God; to look for something more powerful than we are.

Do you notice how often Jesus, when healing someone sick, said “your sins are forgiven?” And this was not because he believed that sickness was some kind of punishment for sin but because he knew that full healing would have a social and a spiritual dimension. Emerging from a long period of ill health or mental trauma can leave you wearing “blinkers,” only able to see life from one very narrow perspective. With Jesus, healing was about bringing people back into family and society; it was about assuring them that they had a place in the kingdom of God; it was about awakening a passion for truth and peace and justice; it was about finding peace with God through following Jesus and receiving his saving grace in their lives day by day. This, I believe, was the process of healing which, against all the odds, finally brought and held those twelve disciples together.

And so, finally, from Matthew to St Paul, writing to the church in Colossae. Paul knew all about the need for reconciliation. He had been the enemy of the Christian church. It had taken a long time for them to trust and accept him and even longer for him to forgive himself for the pain he had inflicted. As he writes to new Christians, struggling in a multi-cultural church with a lot of very old and very deep pain, he gives instructions, yes, about being kind and forgiving. But he directs them above all to Jesus Christ: “Let the peace of Christ rule in your hearts….and be thankful.” It is not about the power in them but about the power in Christ, whom they serve. In the same way, when we are faced with pain or anxiety, anger or doubt that we simply cannot cope with, it is not about the power in us but about the power in Christ Jesus whom we serve.
So in the face of many divisions: between nations; between neighbours; within families; within church communities; even within ourselves, let us look to Jesus Christ who calls us to follow him and trust our lives to the Prince of Peace. Amen.