William Allingham is in the New Forest at Lymington, a small port opposite the Isle of Wight, where he is a senior customs officer. He recorded in his diary on this day in 1868.
Thursday, October 22. — Lymington. Walk to Setley, and find gypsies encamped. Coming back I overtake a little girl carrying with difficulty two bags of sand, and just as I am asking how far she is going, up drives Rev. P. F. in his gig, who offers me a lift. I say, ‘ Help this little girl with her two heavy bags,’ upon which his Reverence reddens and drives off. I carry one of the bags.
Where to start? Of course in 2022 we could be screened from the realities of life for a poor child because we would drive past in a sealed car, and not notice a thing. And we can insulate ourselves in other ways too.
‘Lord, when did we see You hungry, or thirsty, or a stranger, or naked, or sick, or in prison, and did not take care of You?’ Matthew 25:44
I feel that this lectio period is reaching its end. If you are just joining this blog today, I hope you will scroll back three days to the beginning of these posts and catch up with our reflection on Matthew’s call. This post will be asking what Matthew’s response to Jesus’ call teaches.
Matthew has emerged in an entirely new light for me through this lectioexperience. He didn’t have much personality for me before; now I see him as a dynamic man, capable of great insight and of quickly understanding the core truth in a situation. I see that he grasped the fact that this invitation from Jesus was not going to be offered twice. He grasped that the opportunity to associate himself with Jesus was more important than anything else. Matthew saw that to fail to respond to the invitation issued by Jesus would be to consign himself to the deepest misery. It would mean losing Jesus, letting him pass right out of his life. This, Matthew realises instantly, was unthinkable – it would be tragedy. I see that Matthew wants Jesus to lead. He starts off in his discipleship seeing Jesus’ back and he knows he must keep it in view – the metaphor perhaps for all the unknowns which are an integral part of the experience of every disciple of Jesus.
What else has happened here? I turn to my own life and look into my heart. I am struck anew by the fact that it’s important not to play with Jesus. Matthew doesn’t. Jesus’ invitation to Matthew and the way Jesus handles the entire encounter show clearly that when he calls, it is not a game. It is the privilege of a lifetime. Matthew saw this. Jesus will not tolerate shilly-shallying; he is God, and he expects a life-commitment.
As I look at my life now, I realise again that each day my discipleship will be tested. Am I really ready to drop whatever I’m doing, leave whatever Jesus asks me to leave today, and put my whole heart into following him, without looking back? I see that I cannot rest on yesterday’s good deeds (if there were any) or skate along on yesterday’s momentum. Every day I must push off afresh, keeping Jesus’ ‘back’ in view – or, in other words, accepting all the unknowns that exist in my life with him. Every day I must be like Matthew. And the alternative? The alternative is to lose Jesus, to see his back receding into the distance. He moves quickly.
I return to the thought with which I opened this reflection. Matthew was sitting down in the beginning of the story. But now? He is hurrying along the road, following Jesus. He is never pictured in the gospel as sitting down again. And I realise that discipleship is simply not a sit-down job. Not for Matthew, not for me. Oh, sure – we’re talking metaphor now, and not body language. The Lord may ask one to spend time at a desk job working for the kingdom. But on the most fundamental level, the disciple is always rising up from the inertia of the past – even if the past is only yesterday – the true disciple is always moving quickly to obey the Lord, ready to respond to the Lord’s exciting invitation, “Follow me” – today.
Thank you, Sister Johanna! It’s been good to spend these four days with you and Matthew. Thank you especially for encouraging us to listen out for our call, and to be ready to follow Jesus, today!
A hand of welcome or of exclusion – most people reject him, but what is Jesus saying to Matthew? We continue with Sister Johanna’s reflection on the calling of Matthew.
And Jesus said to him, “Follow me.” And Matthew got up and followed him. (See Matthew 9:9).
Jesus’ sure-footedness here takes my breath away. What a thrilling moment in Matthew’s life. I find myself entering into Matthew’s thoughts, seeing him in my imagination. He’s not adding up figures; he is sitting absolutely still. He’s just heard Jesus speak to him. Jesus said, “Follow me.” Matthew suddenly has a huge amount of emotion to process in no time at all. His head’s in a whirl. Matthew, the despised tax collector, finds that Jesus – this radiantly good and kind man – has noticed him, really seen him, even ‘read’ him.
Matthew feels confused and flustered by this affirmation – he’s not used to it. People rarely even look at him, and now this! From a holy man! He doesn’t quite know what to think. He habitually kept his defences up in order to shield himself from the hostility that was directed against him every working day of his life, but now, this Jesus actually wanted Matthew to be around. Most people couldn’t see too little of Matthew, but Jesus had just said, “Follow me.” ‘Follow him where?’ Matthew thinks. ‘Why? To do what? Nothing is adding up,’ Matthew thinks. But then, in an overwhelming flash of insight in which he sees his entire life in an utterly new way, he realises that things don’t have to ‘add up’ anymore – and Jesus was getting away! Jesus was walking down the road. Hurry, Matthew! Matthew rises from his seat, he stands. He walks, he runs – runs right out of his hated tax office and races down the street following Jesus.
And Jesus? Jesus’ methods are always surprising. Here, Jesus actually gives Matthew an instant ‘open door’ into discipleship. Jesus does not coddle, coax, explain or make lavish promises, but he wastes no time in realising his plans. He says ‘Follow me,’ and then he gives Matthew himself to follow. He turns. He walks. What was important for Jesus was to determine whether Matthew could really leave his chains. Any hesitation on Matthew’s part would have signalled an addiction to his sad situation, a perverse liking for its misery and loneliness – perhaps because of the pseudo-importance it conferred. And Matthew comes through the test brilliantly. He was ready. He follows as soon as he can scramble through the doorway. He becomes a disciple. Nowhere in the New Testament is it suggested that Matthew ever looks back.
Tomorrow, we’ll see what conclusions we can draw from these reflections.
The taxman is needed in civil society. These tokens were issued by German cities between the two World Wars. Money had lost its value and something had to be done to allow people to buy and sell and the city councils to provide the services they needed. We continue reading Sister Johanna’s reflection on the calling of Matthew the taxman.
And Jesus said to him, “Follow me.” And Matthew got up and followed him. (See Matthew 9:9).
Something must have been going on in Matthew’s head that day that was different, that prepared him for Jesus’ summons. Maybe he wasn’t as preoccupied as he seemed to be. We’re not told what was in his mind, but I continue to reflect on the short text from Matthew 9:9.
We can assume that tax collectors were part of a crowd that could be generally relied upon to be cynically dismissive of Jesus – this idealistic rabbi who talked about a ‘kingdom’ of his own and travelled around with a group of scruffy, uneducated men. But Matthew was different – or at least, he had the potential to be different, and Jesus saw this. What did Jesus see in Matthew? Looking at Matthew from the outside, as it were, and objectively, anyone might have seen a capable man who was good with numbers. Matthew was, most likely, rather dishonest in the way most tax collectors were dishonest – raising the tax fees in order to skim off the extra for himself. But, with unerring judgement, Jesus intuited that this man, Matthew – Levi, as he was known at the time – wasn’t just a hard-boiled money-grabber. He was inwardly ready for precisely the summons he received. How do we know? We don’t know yet, if we are taking this story step by step. But in a few minutes we will see something astonishing. Let’s wait for it, asking the Holy Spirit to inspire our imagination. Jesus is just coming up to the tax office now.
Jesus knows that Matthew’s professional life did not make a promising statement about Matthew’s personal qualities, but Jesus tells us in precisely this context (see Mt.9:12-13) that he came for people like Matthew – the ‘sick’, who needed the doctor. Jesus also knows the power of his own personality to bring about a change of heart in those who are truly ready to surrender themselves to him. There is no false modesty in Jesus. Again and again Jesus offers himself – he knows who he is, knows that he himself is the pearl of great price. He knows he is the Son, the Son of God and very God. Jesus sees what is good in Matthew.
Let’s come back to Matthew. It’s quite possible that Matthew hated his job. But did he have an exit route? That is highly doubtful. No one liked tax collectors or trusted them Even if he quit his job, who else would have hired him? Matthew was trapped in a trap of his own devising. But is that all? Surely, there were a lot of trapped people around then, just as there are a lot of trapped people around now. Jesus didn’t call them. He called Matthew. Why? Matthew’s unique readiness must have been apparent to Jesus, even though it was almost certainly hidden from everyone else.
I’m beginning to answer my question as to Matthew’s back-story – at least to some extent. Matthew was ready for change, fed up to the back-teeth with his life. But let’s think: don’t we all know people who spend their life complaining about their situation and looking woebegone, but should the opportunity to make a change for the better actually be given to them, suddenly they are eloquent with excuses. In fact, such people love their chains and cannot handle freedom and its responsibilities. Jesus wanted to give Matthew the chance to show that he was emphatically not one of those.
Now, Jesus is standing there in front of Matthew. By the power of his mere presence, he gains Matthew’s attention. Matthew looks up from his task of adding columns of figures. He’s looking at Jesus now, waiting for what Jesus will say. Jesus utters the famous words, “Follow me.” Let’s watch. The text indicates that Jesus, after issuing his invitation to Matthew, does not hang around to chat or talk him into the idea. He is abrupt. (Even Peter had been given a small sales pitch by Jesus: “Follow me and I will make you fishers of men”.) Jesus doesn’t even call Matthew by name. Or not yet. By implication, we can be pretty sure that what Jesus does next is turn and begin to walk, giving Matthew the perfect view of his back.
Let’s leave Matthew here till tomorrow. If you had been in his place, what would you have thought?
We now have a little series of four reflections from Sister Johanna of Minster Abbey, this time on Jesus’ calling of Matthew the tax collector. It is his feastday at the end.
The picture shows two of the tools of the trade. They were brought home by a retiring taxman in England. By the time he retired, IT had replaced flimsy paper and Stationery Office wooden rulers, he dug them out from the bottom of the drawer and brought them home. Over to you, Sister!
And Jesus said to him, “Follow me.” And Matthew got up and followed him. (See Matthew 9:9).
The writers of the synoptic Gospels rarely relate the same episode in the same way. One notable exception is the account of the calling of Matthew. The three synoptic writers, Matthew, Mark and Luke, all tell the story in the briefest way possible. Jesus just turned up at Matthew’s tax office one day, said two words, “Follow me,” (or the Aramaic equivalent) and Matthew did. Immediately.
We know this text so well that its power to astonish us may have worn off. I, in fact, have always found this text a bit skimpy on description, rather un-dramatic and a little flat. I want to know more about the back-story, about Matthew’s state of mind on that day. Consequently, I probably haven’t given the story enough of a chance to talk to me. So I resolve today to slow way down and try to look at this text as though I’ve never seen it before. This is what lectio divina is about: diving down into a text’s deep pool and, through the grace of the Holy Spirit at work, both within the text and within my mind and heart, finding the story’s hidden meaning – and, yes, even its drama. The exercise never disappoints me. I begin, asking for the Holy Spirit’s guidance.
The first thing I notice, then, is that Matthew, the tax collector was “sitting” in the tax office. We don’t usually get descriptions of body-language in the New Testament, but a quick flip through the pages of my New Testament confirms what I suspected: in all three synoptic gospels, Matthew’s physical position is given. It must be important I think, but why? Who cares that Mathew’s sitting down?
As I pray about this seemingly insignificant detail, it occurs to me that a sitting person is not only stationary but apt to be quite engaged on the interior level – more so, anyway, than when charging around busily, focusing on accomplishing tasks. Matthew was sitting because his work usually required it; he’d have been at a desk or table, writing, counting money, adding up columns of figures, absorbed in his intellectual work. He was occupied, even preoccupied – presumably not in the mood for a spiritual event of life-changing proportions. He was also doing things that would have been distasteful to a decent human being. Was he a decent human being? Many of the townspeople would have denied it roundly. He was, after all, taking the tax money from his own people who could ill afford to pay it, pocketing a certain percentage of the proceeds, giving the rest to the Romans, and, even more scandalously, turning the screws on those who did not, or could not, pay. But it was part of the job; he had to do it and he did do it. I see him now, sitting, head down, counting, adding up, writing, not making eye contact with anyone, not smiling, brow furrowed in concentration.
I wonder what this was like for Matthew. Matthew was a Jew in the employment of the Romans – the occupying political power. He, like all the Jews, was in a difficult situation. Matthew, however, had figured out how to manipulate the situation to his financial advantage. But at what emotional and social price? Of what use to him, he may well have wondered, was his financial security when he had no friends? For any friend of the Romans, anyone who voluntarily did their dirty business for them – and particularly, any Jew who did the Romans’ dirty business – was doubly scorned by the other Jews. Matthew was a traitor. No one liked the tax collectors. In Matthew’s case, he was probably intensely hated. But this was a normal working day for Matthew, differing little from every other working day. He was sitting down, adding up figures, getting on with it. Or was it really a normal day for him?
Those who’ve read my posts before know I’m apt to leave certain things dangling for twenty-four hours so that the reader has time to pray over the text and perhaps ask questions of the Holy Spirit. I hope you will come back tomorrow for the continuation of our meditation.
“How like kingdoms without justice are to robberies. Justice being taken away, then, what are kingdoms but great robberies? For what are robberies themselves, but little kingdoms? The band itself is made up of men; it is ruled by the authority of a prince, it is knit together by the pact of the confederacy; the booty is divided by the law agreed on.
“If, by the admittance of abandoned men, this evil increases to such a degree that it holds places, fixes abodes, takes possession of cities, and subdues peoples, it assumes the more plainly the name of a kingdom, because the reality is now manifestly conferred on it, not by the removal of covetousness, but by the addition of impunity.
“Indeed, that was an apt and true reply which was given to Alexander the Great by a pirate who had been seized. For when that king had asked the man what he meant by keeping hostile possession of the sea, he answered with bold pride, “What thou meanest by seizing the whole earth; but because I do it with a petty ship, I am called a robber, whilst thou who dost it with a great fleet art styled emperor.”
City of God by Saint Augustine via Kindle.
Hundreds of years later, France occupied Augustine’s homeland, which we know as Algeria, to get rid of the Barbary pirates, and less officially, to occupy the fertile land ‘by the addition of impunity’. Brute force. Alexander’s pirate was right to say that the Emperor was another hostile pirate, while the French occupation of Algeria would descend into bloody conflict during the 1960s.
Blessed are the poor in Spirit, for theirs is the Kingdom of Heaven. Matthew 5:3.
The Pharisees took counsel how they might entangle him in his talk. And they sent out unto him their disciples with the Herodians, saying, Master, we know that thou art true, and teachest the way of God in truth, neither carest thou for any man: for thou regardest not the person of men. Tell us therefore, What thinkest thou? Is it lawful to give tribute unto Caesar, or not?
But Jesus perceived their wickedness, and said, Why tempt ye me, ye hypocrites? Shew me the tribute money. And they brought unto him a penny. And he saith unto them, Whose is this image and superscription?
They say unto him, Caesar’s. Then saith he unto them, Render therefore unto Caesar the things which are Caesar’s; and unto God the things that are God’s.
When they had heard these words, they marvelled, and left him, and went their way.
This story takes place during Holy Week, the days of preparation for the Passover Feast in Jerusalem. Herod was around, as the Gospels tell us he took part in condemning Jesus. Here Herod is in an unlikely alliance with the Pharisees, collaborators lining up with the upholders of the Jewish Law; opposite views of the basis for civil society. Both groups are corrupt, both are tempted to confuse their own interests with those of God’s people, their authority is shaky and in both cases dependent on the Roman Occupation, for or against it, for their prestige. Does either group want a revolution?
Dr Johnson wrote:
The general story of mankind will evince that lawful and settled authority is very seldom resisted when it is well employed…. Men are easily kept obedient to those who have temporal dominion in their hands, till their veneration is dissipated by such wickedness and folly as can neither be defended nor concealed.
The Rambler, No. 50; in “Life of Johnson, Volume 1 1709-1765” by James Boswell.
Jesus sketches out the fine line we generally have to follow in respecting lawful authority. It requires grown up thinking, not Punch and Judy politics. But how best to resist indefensible wickedness and folly? It was a question of life and death for tomorrow’s saints, John Fisher and Thomas More.
For deeper and satisfying reflection on this passage, we suggest joining Sister Johanna as she eavesdrops on the discussion that Jesus so elegantly sidesteps, in this post from last May.
On this day the Coptic Christian Church celebrates the Flight into Egypt of the Holy Family, but our image is from Amsterdam. This plaque once adorned the side of a house called ‘The Flight into Egypt’. The fact that the home owner could pay for it to be erected suggests an established, prosperous household, not a little family of refugees.
I’m sure Joseph will have conserved carefully the gold Jesus was given. They could walk to Egypt, no need to entrust their fate to traffickers with half-rotten boats. Our Coptic picture shows a companion with them, is it a guardian angel?
Let us continue raising our consciousness this Lent! Our Proverb takes up an idea from yesterday’s prayer from Eastern Vespers.
A false balance is an abomination to the Lord, but a just weight is his delight.” Proverbs 11.1.
This Nineteenth Century kitchen balance was an heirloom from our next-door neighbour, Kay; it would have been interesting to hear the story of how she came to have it! It came with an incomplete set of iron wights, each one marked underneath with a crown and ‘VR’ to tell that they were trustworthy because they had been tested by officials representing Queen Victoria. Grandson Abel and I use them quite often. Abel takes delight in these just weights, because we get good results when we follow a recipe to cook using them – and I take delight in his delight. A false balance is an abomination to society for obvious reasons. You can read here how Channel Island farmers used big stones chipped down to useful weights to measure produce for sale.
Their old French quintal weights would be no use to Abel and me, and nor would the few pounds and ounces that came with the scales, since he will think in grams and kilos – though his mother and auntie speak about their children’s weights in stones!
Just weights are a form of speaking the truth; the different British, Jersey-French and Metric systems may differ, but by carefully comparing them and using them consistently, we can always get delightful results.
And where Bible texts differ, as in the two versions of the Lord’s Prayer,* we can enjoy carefully and prayerfully puzzling out the differences and so take delight in them.
Original photo of Nablus (CC BY-NC-SA 2.0): Dr. Michael Loadenthal
Day 8 “They left for their own country by another road”
Psalm 16– You show me the path of life.
Matthew 11:25-30– Because you have hidden these things from the wise and the intelligent, and have revealed them to infants.
We do not know what the wise men thought – they who were experts in astronomy and navigation – when they were warned to return by another road. They may well have been very confused, but the same light that illumined their journey showed them that there was another road, another possibility. They were called to change direction.
We often find ourselves bound by our familiar ways of doing things and of seeing the world. When these ways or ‘roads’ are closed, we wonder how to proceed and continue the journey. We have to trust that the everlasting One who gave us the light, can always find a way forward when our ways and paths are blocked. A fresh start is always possible when we are willing and open to the work of the Spirit.
As churches we look to the past and find illumination, and we look to the future in search of new ways so that we can continue to shine the light of the Gospel as we journey by another way, together.
when we only know one way and we think we must return to it,
when we think that all roads are blocked, and we fall into despair,
we always find you there, creating a new unexpected path before us.
If we search our maps and find no route,
nonetheless we always find you, who lead us by a yet more excellent way,
trusting that you will always lead us back to you
and forward in unity together. Amen.
Journeying on parallel paths or often in opposite directions
We are called by ‘another way’
to become pilgrim companions,the people of The Way.
Compasses and maps orientated
route finding and navigating together
our backpacks not burdensome, our boots crunching on,
rediscovering ancient paths,
walking humbly together with our God.
Global: What other ways of journeying together could we explore that would lead us into a better future?
Local: What do we take for granted about our daily rhythms? What blessing might someone of another tradition receive from the worship in your church? How might the worship of your church be perceived by someone of another tradition?
Personal: How does it feel when your familiar ways or traditions are challenged?
Global: Find out how communities from all over the world joined in pilgrimage for climate justice in 2021. Plan as churches together to continue the journey to a better future for the planet and for us all. Find out more at christianaid.org.uk/campaigns
Local: Organise a local pilgrimage between the churches in your area, for example, you could walk to each of the church buildings or find your nearest pilgrim route.
Personal: Journey familiar routes by another way, for example walk 50% more slowly on your errands today, what do you notice? How do you see things differently?