HOMILY WEEK 24 04 – Year I
Unity, Community and a Spirituality of Letting Go:
Feast of St. Matthew
(Eph 4:1-7, 11-13; Ps 19; Mt 9:9-13)
How have you responded to the words of Jesus, “Come, follow me,” addressed to you?
The readings today, on this feast of St. Matthew, offers us three interrelated suggestions on how to follow Jesus: work for unity, build community and practice a spirituality of “letting go”.
In his letter to the Ephesians, St. Paul is at his usual spiritual and theological best, offering a wealth of advice that needs to be unpacked. First of all, he states we have been given many gifts: humility, gentleness, patience, love, forgiveness and a mature faith, all for a purpose – to work for unity, or as he puts it, “make every effort to maintain the unity of the Spirit in a bond of love, for there is only one body, one Spirit, one love, one faith, one baptism, and one Lord.” So, a first way of following Jesus, for St. Paul, is to work for unity.
He then adds we were given grace and power to live out special roles within this unity, and lists them in order of importance: “apostles, prophets, evangelists, pastors and teachers,” again for a purpose – for the “building up of the Body of Christ, the Church.” We can ask ourselves – which one fits me best? And how am I fulfilling this role within the Body of Christ? So, a second way of following Jesus, for St. Paul, is to build community.
There is an interesting view on these roles. First, Jesus said “follow me” much more than “worship me.” Second, if the role of prophet is listed second right after that of apostle, why is it so overlooked in the life of the church today? Why are there not more prophets, whistleblowers, people who speak truth to power, who are able to critique the institution from within? There are many parishes in the world named “Christ the King” but not one that I know of named “Christ the Prophet!” Very interesting. We love royalty and kings, it seems, but are uncomfortable with prophets and prophecy – as were our ancestors in faith, who rejected and even killed the prophets, and ended up crucifying Jesus, THE great prophet. So perhaps we should strive to be more prophetic ourselves in our service to the church.
In the gospel, we hear those words, “Follow me,” addressed to Matthew – very significant because he was a tax collector and in the eyes of his fellow Israelites, a great sinner and even an enemy collaborating with the hated and oppressive Romans. In his being called, the theme of God’s acceptance of sinners continues. Jesus’ authoritative word, which calms the storm and pronounces forgiveness, also compels human response and creates disciples – they do not volunteer. Here, he calls the rejected. May I suggest God comes not to call the functional, but the dysfunctional. We are all dysfunctional – it is just a matter of degree, so all in need of a savior, and all are called like Matthew.
Matthew is a great example for us of conversion, of repentance, of a spirituality of “letting go.” He went not from the usual “rags to riches,” but from “riches to rags,” in an amazing yet profound leaving of his questionable profession to risk following Jesus. There must have been a deep longing in his heart for more to life than what he was experiencing in his self-serving profession, that opened his heart to those words of Jesus and the hope for a richer, more purposeful life they offered.
When we are insecure, unsure of ourselves, we can be petty, grasping, over-identify with a role or position, become controlling and jealous, and basically incapable of letting go of the known to set out into the greater unknown. We need to pray for a spirituality of “letting go” of anything hindering our following of Jesus with greater inner freedom.
It is interesting that while the main banquet was in Matthew’s heart, he brought along many other friends and associates like him to the meal in his house. According to the New Jerusalem Bible commentary, “sinners” were those whose moral conduct or disreputable profession made them unclean and socially outcast. They were especially suspect for not observing the many culinary laws, hence the problem of eating with them. God prefers the inner quality of genuine compassion over the exact performance of the Law’s external demands.
The kingdom of God is often described as a great feast, so here the dinner party over which Jesus presides has the overtones of the eschatological fellowship of the messianic banquet. Notice – it is the religious and pious Pharisees who protest, but are absent. Thus, the scene likely reflects not only the practice of the historical Jesus in extending table fellowship to those considered outcasts, but also the continuing acceptance of “sinners” into the fellowship of the church. The point here is the mercy of God, extended to all humanity in Christ, takes precedence over all else, so everything in the Law must be understood in this light.
Does this not sound a lot like what Pope Francis has been consistently teaching the church – to be a field hospital for the world, take on the smell of the sheep and go to the peripheries? Tradition holds after the Resurrection, Matthew preached in Ethiopia, where he was martyred. Can we accept this challenge to reach out to the outcasts of today – the poor, minorities, prostitutes, former sexual abusers, the incarcerated, former inmates, women pressured into terminating pregnancies, the addicted, the mentally and physically challenged, those in irregular situations, even those who are just uncomfortably “not like us”? Even if that might mean a sort of martyrdom for us?
The Eucharist is our banquet with the Lord, a hint of that inner banquet Matthew experienced in his heart, and a foretaste of the eternal banquet we will share one day with all the apostles, prophets, evangelists, pastors and teachers who have gone before us.
May our celebration of this feast in honor of St. Matthew, apostle and martyr, empower us to work for unity, build community, and practice, each in our own way, a healthy spirituality of letting go.