Today is the Feast of St Matthew. We read about the day Jesus called this disciple to follow him, in Matthew 9:9-13. Matthew was a tax collector, who served Herod Antipas, the tetrarch of Galilee (Herod’s father, Herod the Great, had been installed as client king over Judea; but after his death his territory was divided between his heirs, none of whom were granted the title king). Herod’s tax centre was Capernaum, and therefore there were a community of tax collectors based there.
Jesus comes to Matthew and calls him to stop serving a false king, and instead enter into the service of the true king. We know that Matthew sees Jesus as such because the Gospel that bears his name begins with a genealogy tracing Jesus as a descendent of King David, a rightful heir to his throne.
The devout observers knew very well that Herod Antipas was not a true, Davidic, king. He was an imposter; and those who served him were unworthy. The irony was that, as those who knew Herod was a false king, they failed to recognise the true king standing in their midst. He did not match their expectation of a true king, befriending those who served a false king instead of condemning them, loving his enemies. Their own king was also false...in that they placed too great a weight on their incomplete image of God. God is Invisible. Yes, but now Revealed. God is Set Apart. Yes, but also moves in close, in Compassion. It wasn’t that they were wrong so much as they were sure that their partial understanding was greater than it was, and as such they weren’t open to it being expanded by paradox. Devout people haven’t changed. Rejoice in what you have been given, but don’t fall into the trap of turning gift into an idol.
There is a cost, to leaving behind and following after.
No-one gets to see God’s face and live. So God told Moses, whom he hid in a cleft in the rock, covering his eyes with a divine hand until he had passed by, allowing a glimpse of his back as he moved on his way. Why? Not because our body could not take it – we were made for this; Matthew and his companions did - but because those who have not seen God’s face cannot bear the glory reflected in the face of one who has. Jesus came among us, revealing the Unseen; and tradition tells us that every one of his first disciples were put to death. No-one gets to see God’s face and live. And so people will go to extraordinary lengths to not see God’s face, in a desperate bid to continue existing for as long as possible...
This quote seems appropriate for today:
“We will have to take risks, to chance failure, to be willing to walk away from the familiar paths that have brought us to this point. It is clear that simply opting for more of the same is not going to resolve our problems. We must be willing to dream again, to innovate, and to risk rejection of peers who think that the status quo is sufficient to the task.” (Frost and Hirsch, Faith of Leap)
What false king do I need to leave behind today?
Am I willing to pay the price?
Who, in my community, am I bringing along with me?
Whose disapproval has my decision won? (If no-one speaks ill of me, have I seen God’s face at all?)