From a sermon given at St Stephen's, Richmond.
The Collect for today in A Prayer Book for Australia offers a fairly unsubtle interpretation of Matthew’s call by Jesus. While the old Book of Common Prayer (1549 onwards) version of the prayer for the day said that God called Matthew “from the receipt of custom” – referring simply to the way tax collectors of that era collected tolls at bridges and city gates, like modern customs officers - this modern version translates the old words by laying it on thick: Matthew was called supposedly “from the selfish pursuit of gain”. [The old book also had us praying for grace to forsake “all covetous desires, and inordinate love of riches”, where now Australian Anglicans find ourselves more ambitiously praying to be free from "all greed and love of riches" !]
If you go back and check the Gospel story, we don’t actually know anything about Matthew’s character or his motives for being a tax collector. We do know that this occupation was despised by religious and other worthy people in first-century Palestine, and that part of this negative attitude was a justified reputation for greed and violence. Taxes are rarely popular, but the ancient tax collector was not merely a bureaucrat; he (sic) was a sort of stand-over merchant, often extracting more than the notionally-legal amount.
A pause for thought should remind us that people who are the front line of systems of oppression, corruption and violence are often victims themselves. Bouncers, prostitutes and drug pushers have rarely indulged in a distasteful career choice solely for “selfish greed of gain”. They have often been victims of violence and abuse themselves, and are often in the service of others, more respectable people with far greater resources, who benefit from dubious enterprise without suffering the stigma or risk connected with its public practice.
Matthew was no Mr Big. At his table or booth out in the sticks in Galilee, he is small fry at best, as likely driven by necessity as by greed. If we were looking for a player driven by “selfish pursuit of gain” in the Gospels we might consider Zacchaeus, described as a “chief tax collector” in Jericho. People like Zacchaeus employed people like Matthew actually to sit at the toll booths and do the dirty work.
Jesus is not condemned for eating with former tax collectors. His approach was to associate with such people – the Matthews and the Zacchaeuses alike - rather than moralize about them or condemn them. He associates with wealthy and poor, respectable and outrageous, pious and problematic. All are called to change, but this is the result of following not its precondition.
The Gospel illustrates for us the scope of God’s grace. But the Gospel does not intend us just to marvel at how Jesus somehow deigns to associate with people unlike us. Rather it seeks to reveal to us that he deals with people just like us – as well as others quite unlike us – and that we ourselves have remarkably, graciously, been called to follow him too.
[US Readers won't have used this Collect, but a new one written by Massey Shepherd for the 1979 Book]