Sermon preached on the Fourteenth Sunday after Trinity (21 September 2014) by The Reverend Canon Michael Hampel, Precentor
The Reverend Canon Michael Hampel, reveals his favourite Bible story - about the evil tax collector Zacchaeus - and discusses how Matthew the Apostle had also been a 'wicked' tax collector.
Matthew, Apostle and Evangelist
2 Corinthians 4: 1-6 Matthew 9: 9-13
My favourite Bible story is the one about Zacchaeus, the tax collector, who, when Jesus is passing through his neighbourhood, ventures out to see what all the fuss is about. He’s not very tall so, in order to get a better view, he climbs up into a nearby sycamore tree. Jesus spots him and announces that he is going to visit Zacchaeus’s house that day so Zacchaeus hurries down and welcomes him.
Like all tax collectors, Zacchaeus is a wicked tax collector – otherwise the story wouldn’t be as compelling as it is – and the sense of anticipation in the scene is heightened by the grumbles of the watching crowd: grumbles which, it should be noted, are aimed against Jesus for being so naive as to mistake this sinner for a suitable candidate for a special visit.
I have great empathy with Zacchaeus. I well remember a visit by the Queen to my home town of Stratford-upon-Avon during her Silver Jubilee year when I was nine years old. Rather like Zacchaeus, I was short in stature and found myself at the back of the crowds who were lining the street. Unlike Zacchaeus, I had no access to a sycamore tree and Shakespeare’s willows that grow aslant the brook were too far away to be of any use. All I saw was the top of her hat and she was therefore unable to invite herself to my house for lunch.
Being a rather precocious nine year old (I said it first), I wrote to the Queen to explain my predicament and I still have the letter from her Lady in Waiting expressing the Queen’s regret that I was unable to see her. So that was alright!
Perhaps, in all my precocity that day, I was able to content myself that at least Jesus knew I was there – or do I mean ‘in all my piety’? Surely not...
But, of course, that’s the point. Because in both the story about Zacchaeus and in this morning’s gospel lesson about Matthew, Jesus recognises the worth of the person despite everything. You see, although the front of our order of service tells us that Matthew was an Apostle and an Evangelist – an impressive CV if ever there was one, it doesn’t tell you that, like Zacchaeus, he was a tax collector and therefore a wicked person.
And there he was one day, minding his own business – which was quite a lucrative one because, like most tax collectors of the time, he would charge more than Rome required and pocket the difference, regardless of the person’s ability to pay.
And Jesus makes him a disciple.
And then the grumbles start up again. This time it’s the Pharisees: ‘Why does your teacher eat with tax collectors and sinners?’
It’s interesting that the phrasing of the gospel passage as we have it suggests that it’s Matthew’s house into which Jesus goes and dines – which is exactly what happens with Zacchaeus. And there’s a sense then that the table fellowship is redemptive. It’s after sharing a meal with Jesus that Zacchaeus makes his declaration that he will redeem his criminal activity by repaying what he has extorted from his victims four times over.
Matthew pays with his life – run through with a sword on the orders of the King of Ethiopia. That great artist Caravaggio – definitively more sinner than saint – captures the moment brilliantly in his vast canvas that hangs in the Contarelli Chapel in Rome: a painting in which he makes the dramatic move from mannerism to baroque by removing the crowds and the architecture and depicting the awful and awesome moment of martyrdom in a veil of darkness but with brilliant light on the subject as if it has been caught in a flash of lightning.
Matthew’s right hand is held out before him – at first sight perhaps in self defence against the onslaught of his attacker but, look up, and you see that instead he is reaching calmly and resolutely for the palm branch of martyrdom which is being handed to him by an angel on high.
It is said that Matthew was martyred while celebrating the Eucharist – while sharing table fellowship with the faithful. As he stands on the cusp of triumph, does his mind create another flash of lightning and does he see once more in his mind’s eye that dinner in the house with many tax collectors and sinners when he has just been called from dissipation to expiation, from doing wrong to making amends. And then another flash of lightning and he is once more in the upper room huddled round a table with his friends, with sin at the door but with love at the feast. But then we’re back all too quickly to Caravaggio’s scene – the meal on the altar unfinished but with salvation within his grasp.
Matthew the wicked tax collector – but no more nor less a sinner than we are who too will in a moment reach out our hands, not to grasp the palm branch of martyrdom but to share the bread and wine of a feast which we share with Our Lord and through which we too receive salvation. And yet, in doing so, we cannot forget that we share table fellowship – albeit spiritually – with fellow Christians whose grasp of the consecrated wafer will actually lead them to the sword and to martyrdom this very day.
So that, however often we come forward and hold out our hands to receive these holy things in table fellowship with Our Lord, we must never forget that it is always a life-changing moment – as it was for Zacchaeus and for Matthew and for you and for me.