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20 September: Matthew’s call, III

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.

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19 September: Matthew’s call, Part II.

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?

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9 May: The Jesus Problem, Part II

Sister Johanna from Minster Abbey continues her reflections on God, money, politics and good faith.

The Pharisees went away to work out between them how to trap Jesus in what he said. They sent their disciples to Jesus, together with some Herodians, to say, ‘Master, we know that you are an honest man and teach the way of God in all honesty, and that you are not afraid of anyone, because human rank means nothing to you. Give us your opinion, then. Is it permissible to pay taxes to Caesar or not?’ (Matthew 22:15-16).

Today we’ll continue our lectio reflection on Matthew 22:15-22. If you weren’t here yesterday, I recommend that you scroll back and see what we were thinking about. Today, I’d like us to use our imagination, and try to picture the group Jesus is talking to. These disciples of the Pharisees: what are they like? We need first to acknowledge that they are not the finished product, they are still in training, still students of the Pharisees; they will probably be young men, therefore. This suggests that some of them will still be impressionable, idealistic, and sincerely seeking the truth. As is the case in any group of people, they will not all be made of the same stuff and won’t all have identical mind-sets. Many – even most – will have been completely prejudiced against Jesus by the Pharisees. But some, surely, would be young men with more independence of mind and character. Despite the Pharisees’ attempts to brain-wash them, the young men of this stamp will have retained some willingness to listen to Jesus, and to test not Jesus so much as the Pharisees’ idea of Jesus. They will want to find out for themselves if Jesus really is the strange villain he has been made out to be. You might say that this sub-group within the larger group is ‘on the fence.’

Now, imagine yourself a member of this sub-group. You do not know Jesus first-hand. You don’t quite know what you think of him yet. This is the first time you have even seen Jesus and dealt with him, but you are a little ashamed of the way some of your peers are behaving toward Jesus.

So you try to study Jesus, physically, to see what story his body may tell. Jesus is broad-shouldered and lean. You know he had been a carpenter before. His muscular body shows that he’s no stranger to hard physical labour. Jesus’ face is arresting in the energy it seems to radiate. His colour is high, but his deep-set dark eyes look tired – although they are clear, and they seem to take everything in. He scans the little group of young men now. Is there even one pair of eyes willing to make sympathetic eye-contact with Jesus, you wonder? The Herodians are a lost cause: not one of them will meet Jesus’ gaze. Some of your peers meet his eye with a hard, belligerent stare, particularly the speaker. You’ve seen that look on the face of your fifteen year old cousin when his father tells him something he doesn’t want to hear. Others fold their arms over their chest and, after a brief glance at Jesus, pretend that there is something interesting on the ground to look at.

What do you do? You are struck by Jesus’ posture. It is open. It is vulnerable, yet strong. There is no evasiveness in him – nor any aggression. He is fully present. You can’t help it: you are impressed by Jesus. You sense his goodness, intelligence and integrity. This is no charlatan. But there is something in him you can’t quite understand. A sort of longing. And an indescribable sadness. You meet his gaze. You want to know what he will do next and you find that you are on his side.

Jesus seems to understand you – or you deeply hope he does. You feel a connection with him. He has been silent for several long moments. He is not rushing this. And, surprisingly, no one interrupts this silence. This is unusual; the cut and thrust of debate is what this little group of men loves. Usually, silence in their opponent is interpreted as a win for their side. But no one regards this silence as a win. This Jesus has an uncanny ability to hold a group’s attention. At last he says something odd to the speaker: ‘Show me the money you pay the tax with.’ Now it’s the speaker’s turn to try to hold the crowd’s attention. He decides he’ll take his time, too. He doesn’t react at first. Then he wags his head slightly in mockery, narrows his eyes, smirks, glances to the side, but otherwise doesn’t move. The crowd, though, isn’t with him, and he suddenly realises this. Someone makes an impatient noise from the back, and pushes forward to show Jesus a denarius. That someone is you.

You hold out the coin in your open palm. You feel strangely emotional. Jesus is looking around at all of them again, but he is soon looking straight at you, and says: ‘Whose portrait is this? Whose title?’ Of course, it is Caesar’s. You don’t answer aloud but you continue to look at Jesus, who is now looking at the crowd again. Someone shouts out the obvious answer. Jesus slowly shrugs a bit and says in an off-hand way, ‘Then give to Caesar what belongs to him.’ And here he pauses and looks you fully in the face once more. Your eyes are streaming now. You feel as though he knows you, your past, your present, your hurt, your deep desire for meaning and love. The group is completely silent behind you. No one even moves. Jesus speaks quietly: ‘…and give God what belongs to God.’ He takes your hand that is still stretched out with the coin in it, gently rolls the fingers around the coin, and gives it a firm clasp with both his hands. Then he disengages.

The stunned crowd quietly leaves Jesus. You stay behind. What has just happened to you?

SJC

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8 May: The Jesus Problem, Part I.

Roman city gateway, Lincoln. The Romans came to Britain soon after Jesus’ time.

After Pope Francis’s prayer about money, let’s join Sister Johanna as she eavesdrops on a discussion on the subject that Jesus refuses to get drawn into needlessly, though his answer puts the question back in his questioners’ court.

The Pharisees went away to work out between them how to trap Jesus in what he said. They sent their disciples to Jesus, together with some Herodians, to say, ‘Master, we know that you are an honest man and teach the way of God in all honesty, and that you are not afraid of anyone, because human rank means nothing to you. Give us your opinion, then. Is it permissible to pay taxes to Caesar or not?’ (see Mt. 22:15-16).

I read these lines from the Gospel of Matthew and it hits me: this spokesman for the Pharisees is really laying it on thick. This is an episode that occurs near the end of Jesus’ public ministry, when feeling against him among the Jewish leaders has reached the danger-point. Now, in their efforts to bring Jesus down, the Pharisees enlist the aid of their disciples – Pharisees-in-training, probably – to do some dirty work, which strikes me as being particularly cowardly. And also they have the help of the Herodians – because Herodians, as supporters of the Herodian dynasty, were the most suitable people to report Jesus, if he could be tricked into saying something against Rome. In which case Jesus would be arrested and conveniently removed from the scene. End of the Jesus Problem for the Pharisees. In this passage, the Pharisees’ disciples are attempting to present themselves as the loyal supporters of Rome – although in fact, none of the Jews were happy under the Roman occupation. But the facts are being manipulated now in order to stack the situation against Jesus. I re-read this passage from Matthew, and I feel anger on Jesus’ behalf as I consider the viciousness behind the overblown flattery of the words said to him. I see the speaker flicking conspiratorial glances at his peers while they all feign seriousness. Sickening.

I continue to ponder this scene, seeking a real encounter with the person of Jesus, through the Holy Spirit working in the sacred text. I try to imagine how I would react if I had been in Jesus’ place. Even at this remove, the main feeling continues to be anger – building up and up inside me. This, along with fear, would be overwhelming if I were really there; I see myself trying to suppress these emotions. I see myself acting – or trying to act – as though I don’t notice the group’s malice, while inwardly being so preoccupied by it, and the implied insult to my intelligence, and the threat to my very life, that I cannot actually answer their question with any show of competence. I see myself quickly trying to end the encounter and escape. The bottom line is that I would be way out of my depth if I were in Jesus’ place, and in the end, even if I managed somehow to preserve my dignity, I would be unable to come up with a response that addressed this complex situation or that impressed anyone – not even my best friend.

Jesus, however, is master of the whole situation. And his flatterers were right. Jesus is not afraid of them or of anyone. He will take them on, astute in every word and gesture. How does he handle things? First, he addresses their falsity. He exposes it. He wants their duplicity to be out in the open, obvious to all. ‘You hypocrites!’ he says. ‘Why are you putting me to the test?’ No one needs to explain why – and no one does. It’s perfectly obvious that they are hoping to trap Jesus, make him look like an enemy of The Establishment. In exposing this, Jesus he easily wrong-foots his questioners – and wins a small victory here. Now he has the advantage in the ensuing exchange.

Jesus clearly knows their game. Nonetheless Jesus has a ‘game’ of his own. He has come into the world as saviour. He will never turn away if there is even a remote possibility that someone present may be open to his person and message. He has been asked a question: ‘Is it permissible to pay taxes to Caesar or not?’ Jesus sees that the question is a set-up. But he also sees something they don’t see – he sees that the question can be turned into one that touches the deepest spiritual level of the human being. There may be someone, perhaps only one person in that little group of Pharisees’ disciples, who is reachable. And so, Jesus gives them all a most beautiful answer to their question.

And here we are going to slow this reflection down. We know this story; we know the answer Jesus is going to give. But this is lectio divina. Lectio is about giving the text space to speak in a new way each time we read it, not pre-empting the Holy Spirit by rushing ahead to the end, then dusting off our mental hands, closing the book and dashing away unchanged. So, we’re going to pause this reflection here for today, and return to it tomorrow, perhaps with an even greater degree of openness to the message that Jesus, through his Spirit working in us, may wish to give.

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5 August, Little flowers of Saint Francis LVI: Saint Antony and the fish, 2.

anthony and Francis

What did you expect from a sermon to the fish? They got a brilliant theology of Creation, from Scripture to science without any contradictions. Laudato Si!

The fishes being set in order and array, Saint Antony began solemnly to preach, and so spake: “My brothers the fish, much are ye bounden so far as in ye lies, to give thanks to our Creator, who hath given you so noble an element for your abode; in such sort that as it pleaseth you, ye have sweet waters and salt; and hath given you many a refuge to escape the storms withal; nay more, hath given you a clear, translucent element, and food by the which ye may live.

God, your kind and bountiful Creator, when He created you, gave you commandment to increase and multiply, and poured on you His blessing: then whenas the deluge came and one and all the other beasts all died, you alone did God keep safe from harm. Moreover hath He given you fins that ye may roam where’er ye please.

To you the grace was given, by God’s command, to save the prophet Jonah, and after the third day to throw him safe and whole upon the land. Ye brought the tribute-money to our Lord Jesu Christ, who was so poor, He had not aught to pay.Ye were the food of the eternal King, Jesus Christ, before the Resurrection and thereafter, through a mystery wondrous rare; for all the which things much are ye bound to bless and praise God, who hath given you so many and so great blessings more than to other creatures.”

Antony with some of his fish, alongside Francis. Public Domain via Wikipedia.

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