Lord Jesus, you called Matthew from collecting taxes to become your apostle and evangelist: Grant us the grace to forsake all covetous desires and inordinate love of riches, that we may follow you as he did and proclaim to the world around us the good news of your salvation; for with the Father and the Holy Spirit you live and reign, one God, now and for ever. Amen.
In the Name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit. Amen.
Nina Totenberg is the legal affairs correspondent for National Public Radio (NPR); I’ve enjoyed listening to her segments for many years, particularly her coverage of the Supreme Court. She has just released a book, Dinners With Ruth: A Memoir on the Power of Friendships, which Amazon describes this way:
Celebrated NPR correspondent Nina Totenberg delivers an extraordinary memoir of her personal successes, struggles, and life-affirming relationships, including her beautiful friendship of nearly fifty years with Supreme Court Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg.
I have not yet read the book, but both an interview I heard with Totenberg and Terry Gross on NPR and the book description on Amazon make this much clear: the memoir is about Totenberg’s experiences with important people like Justice Ginsburg. That means that Totenberg is a participant in the story and not just a reporter of it; it means that the book will be as much about her as it is about those people she has encountered through the years. And, that is, to some extent, the nature of a modern memoir.
But, it is not the nature of a Gospel. I heard about Totenberg’s book and I listened to the NPR interview just as I had begun working on this homily for the Feast of St. Matthew the Evangelist. As I listened and thought, it struck me just how different a Gospel is from a modern memoir. In a memoir, the author is front and center as a character in the book; in a Gospel, the human author is almost entirely absent, a reporter only and not often present as a participant. That is certainly true in St. Matthew’s Gospel. This is essentially Matthew’s only appearance in his “memoir” of Jesus:
Matthew 9:9–13 (ESV): 9 As Jesus passed on from there, he saw a man called Matthew sitting at the tax booth, and he said to him, “Follow me.” And he rose and followed him.
10 And as Jesus reclined at table in the house, behold, many tax collectors and sinners came and were reclining with Jesus and his disciples. 11 And when the Pharisees saw this, they said to his disciples, “Why does your teacher eat with tax collectors and sinners?” 12 But when he heard it, he said, “Those who are well have no need of a physician, but those who are sick. 13 Go and learn what this means: ‘I desire mercy, and not sacrifice.’ For I came not to call the righteous, but sinners.”
Matthew even writes of himself in the third person: a man called Matthew. This man called Matthew was sitting at a tax booth by the sea in Capernaum (Mk 2:1, 13-14) when Jesus passed by, so we assume that Matthew was a tax collector, though the text doesn’t actually say that. Irenaeus (c. 175-185), Origen (c. 210) as quoted by Eusebius in the 3rd century, and Jerome (382) all attest that Matthew was, indeed, a tax collector; that is the witness of the Church Fathers, and I am happy to accept it; but, they don’t know that from the text. Jesus called him to follow and he did. Some time afterward, Matthew hosted a meal in his house for Jesus and his disciples and also for various tax collectors and sinners in Matthew’s social circle. We know a bit about tax collectors, but who were these sinners invited to the gathering? It seems unlikely that Matthew was consorting with brigands and prostitutes. Amy Jill-Levine, a professor of New Testament and Jewish Studies at Vanderbilt Divinity School, makes the case that sinners as used in the Gospels likely refers to unscrupulous rich people who neglected the poor and failed to meet the reasonable needs and expectations of their community. They are rich, yes, but they are not benefactors. Think of an obscenely wealthy owner or CEO of a modern company — we won’t name names — who pays his employees less than minimum wage or who places them in very poor and even dangerous working conditions or who subcontracts out manufacturing to foreign sweatshops that use child labor.
Put all this together: who were the tax collectors and sinners? It seems likely that they were the movers-and-shakers, the wealthy power brokers, and the mid-to-upper level bureaucrats in the Roman counterculture who preyed upon the general Jewish populace. These are the people who knew where true power lay: with Rome and with mammon. Fittingly then, Matthew’s Gospel has a distinctive emphasis on power and authority. Though he was once in that circle of tax collectors and sinners, he is a disciple of Jesus now, and that has turned his notions of power and authority upside down or really right side up. St. Matthew’s Gospel is all about the Kingship of Jesus, all about the Kingdom of God breaking into the present moment in Jesus’ person and ministry. It is also about the coming of his Kingdom in its fullness on the last day. In this sense, it is about the locus of real power and authority.
If this reading of the context is indeed correct, it provides some helpful background for understanding Matthew’s “memoir.” Opening lines of books, opening paragraphs are important; they can either capture or lose a reader immediately. Matthew’s opening is not very promising to a modern reader — a genealogy. But the structure of that genealogy is important; Matthew uses it to stake a claim about power. It begins with a bold proclamation:
Matthew 1:1 (ESV): 1 The book of the genealogy of Jesus Christ, the son of David, the son of Abraham.
If Matthew wrote originally in Hebrew as some early church historians assert, then he would not have used the Greek word “Christ” to describe Jesus, but rather its Hebrew equivalent “Messiah.” So, from the very beginning, he announces to his Jewish readers that Jesus is the anointed one of Israel, the fulfillment of the hopes of Israel, specifically the hopes for the restoration of the Davidic monarchy — the King — and the fulfillment of the Abrahamic covenant to make Israel a kingdom of priests to God: king and kingdom front and center.
Even the way Matthew structures his genealogy supports his emphasis on Jesus as King and on Jesus’ movement — his followers — as kingdom. Matthew intentionally divides the generations from Abraham to Jesus into three sets of fourteen generations. Much has been made of the number fourteen, and much of the number forty-two — three times fourteen. After all, academic papers must be written and dissertations published, to quote Fr. Stephen DeYoung. Whatever these numbers may mean, the three divisions themselves clearly speak of king and kingdom. The first division of fourteen generations ends with David, the great king of Israel, and thus with the establishment of the Kingdom. The second division ends with Jechoniah, the penultimate king of Judah captured and deported to Babylon by Nebuchadnezzar, the apparent end of the Davidic monarchy and the destruction of the kingdom. The third division ends with Jesus, who is called the Christ/Messiah, whom Matthew will unveil in his Gospel as the true and final Davidic king and as the one who will establish God’s true and eternal kingdom on earth as it is in heaven. Matthew is clear from the beginning: his Gospel is the annals of the great King and the establishment of his kingdom. This — not with Rome — is where true power lies.
And then to double down on that theme, Matthew moves quickly to the account of the Magi.
Matthew 2:1–2 (ESV): 2 Now after Jesus was born in Bethlehem of Judea in the days of Herod the king, behold, wise men from the east came to Jerusalem, 2 saying, “Where is he who has been born king of the Jews? For we saw his star when it rose and have come to worship him.”
What do the magi seek; whom do they seek? The king of Israel. There is something almost comedic about this passage. A new king has been born in Israel, but only foreign, pagan astrologers and sages seem to know anything about it: not the titular king, Herod, and not the religious authorities, the chief priests and scribes. Something is happening outside the existing power structures. God is judging the existing power structures, and so God announces that judgment and the new king and kingdom first to foreigners and pagans. And when at last the magi find the true king in Bethlehem, they bow down to him, worship him, and bring him kingly treasures. In the persons of these three or twelve or some other number of wisemen, the nations bow down before the true king opening the way for all the kingdoms of the world to become part of God’s eternal kingdom: power and kingdom once again.
We could follow this thread further throughout the Gospel, and I encourage you to do so. But, I want to turn to one more aspect of king and kingdom in Matthew’s Gospel: the kingdom agenda. Every politician has a “stump speech” in which he/she sketches out his/her vision of human flourishing, of what life in the body politic will be during his/her administration. England is experiencing this right now: the second Elizabethan Age has ended and a new Caroline age has begun; the prime ministership of Boris Johnson has ended and the administration of Liz Truss has begun. What will life in England and the Commonwealth look like? Here in the States we are preparing for mid-term elections, and the parties have very different agendas. What will this election mean for us?
In the opening chapters of his Gospel, Matthew presents Jesus as the true king of Israel unto whom the nations will also bow down. Then Matthew moves rather quickly to an expression of Jesus’ kingdom agenda; he gives us Jesus’ stump speech, the Sermon on the Mount. This is what it means to be a citizen of the the Kingdom of God, under the authority of Messiah Jesus. This is what it means for humans to flourish in the Kingdom of God. The Sermon on the Mount is, among many other things, an attack on prevailing notions of power and privilege, a re-definition of true power and authority.
Who are the powerful, who are those in authority, who are the ones who get ahead in most every culture? The haughty in spirit (the self-assured), the privileged and successful, the strong and dominant, the ones who play fast and loose with the rules, the ones who never forget and who always exact revenge, the duplicitous and the schemers, those who always bring a gun to a knife fight, those who always defend their rights and them some. But not in Jesus’ kingdom. No, in his kingdom the blessed ones are the poor in spirit, those who mourn, the meek, the ones longing for righteousness, the merciful, the pure in heart, the peacemakers, and those who are persecuted for being that way.
In Jesus’ kingdom there will be no violence because there will be no anger, there will be no sexual abuse because there will be no lust, there will be no fraud because yes will mean yes and no will mean no, there will be no poverty because there will be no greed, there will be no retaliation because there will be forgiveness, there will be no anxiety because we will all be seeking first the kingdom of God and his righteousness, there will be no lives destroyed by winds and waves of evil because all lives will be founded on the rock of Christ. This is the king and the kingdom that Matthew proclaims in his Gospel, all throughout his Gospel, even as it nears its end.
Matthew 27:11 (ESV): 11 Now Jesus stood before [Pilate] the governor, and the governor asked him, “Are you the King of the Jews?” Jesus said, “You have said so.”
The Jewish authorities have accused Jesus of claiming to be King of the Jews. They “get it;” they understand what Jesus is doing and saying and just what is at stake for them. Pilate asks Jesus if it is true, if he is King of the Jews. Don’t be fooled by the idiom: “You have said so,” means yes in no uncertain terms. Pilate gets it; that’s why — speaking more prophetically than he knew — he had the titulus crucis inscribed, “This is Jesus, the King of the Jews.” It is significant that the inscription was in three languages — Aramaic, Latin, and Greek — a royal proclamation not just to the Jews, but to the nations; this is the magi come full circle. “We seek the King of the Jews,” the magi had said. Well, here he is, enthroned on a cross; see his crown of thorns and his subjects — one thief on either side. And on the cross we see another distinctive — perhaps the distinctive — between this King and his Kingdom and the kings of this world and theirs. Earthly kings throughout history have sacrificed the people for the nation and its higher good; they have sacrificed the people for their own, royal self-interest. But this King, Jesus, sacrifices himself for the good of the people and the world — sacrifices himself for his enemies and for those who nailed him to the cross. That is a different kind of king and kingdom; it is the king and kingdom that Matthew proclaims in his Gospel.
And we dare not miss the ending of that Gospel, after the resurrection, right before Jesus’ ascension to the right hand of the Father and his accession to the throne:
Matthew 28:16–20 (ESV): 16 Now the eleven disciples went to Galilee, to the mountain to which Jesus had directed them. 17 And when they saw him they worshiped him, but some doubted. 18 And Jesus came and said to them, “All authority in heaven and on earth has been given to me. 19 Go therefore and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, 20 teaching them to observe all that I have commanded you. And behold, I am with you always, to the end of the age.”
All authority in heaven and on earth unto the end of the age. That’s Matthew’s King and that’s his kingdom. That’s our King and his kingdom.
So, as the Gospel ends, we know nothing more about its author than we did: a man called Matthew, probably a tax collector called to be a disciple. But we know everything Matthew wanted us to know because he’s told us about Jesus. Amen.