On 21 September, the universal Church celebrates the feast of the evangelist St Matthew.
Like many of us, St Matthew was a little bit reluctant to follow Jesus and his demanding call to give up everything.
St Matthew hesitated and just wasn’t quite ready to take the risk!
That temptation to indecision is, of course, deep down inside all of us. It is captured wonderfully in the painting The calling of St Matthew by Caravaggio, in the church of St Louis in Rome.
In this haunting portrait we see the finger of Jesus pointing at Matthew the tax collector, calling him to a new life.
And we see Matthew almost furtively looking away from Jesus, holding on to his money as if to say, ‘No, not me! No, this money is mine’.
Indeed, our Holy Father Pope Francis has made no secret of his affinity for the story of the calling of St Matthew (Matthew 9:9–13). This is a gospel story that is at the very heart of his papal ministry to us.
Pope Francis’ papal motto itself is from a homily on the call of Matthew, and it was on the Feast of St Matthew, sixty years ago today, that Francis had a religious experience that led him to the priesthood.
On the Feast of St Matthew in 1953, 17-year-old Jorge Bergoglio experienced in a very special way the loving presence of God in his life. Following confession, he felt his heart touched and he sensed the descent of the Mercy of God, who with a gaze of tender love, called him to religious life, following the example of St Ignatius of Loyola.
No wonder then that Pope Francis took the motto Miserando atque eligendo (by having mercy and by choosing him).
How powerful is that simple sentence where Jesus calls Matthew: ‘Jesus saw a publican, and since he looked at him with feelings of love and chose him, he said to him, “Follow me”.’
Pope Francis comments:
Matthew is no longer the same; he is changed inside. The encounter with Jesus and his loving mercy transformed him. His table, his money, his exclusion, were all left behind. Before, he had sat waiting to collect his taxes, to take from others; now, with Jesus he must get up and give, give himself to others. Jesus looks at him and Matthew encounters the joy of service. For Matthew and for all who have felt the gaze of Jesus, other people are no longer to be ‘lived off’, used and abused. The gaze of Jesus gives rise to missionary activity, service, self-giving.
On the Feast day of St Matthew in 2017 (the 21st of this month) let’s all pray that the love of Jesus heals our short-sightedness and pushes us beyond being satisfied with appearances or with what is politically correct.
Maybe few of us are great sinners, but certainly all of us like Matthew have areas of our life where we refuse to let Jesus into. Like Matthew we can all too often become self obsessed and concerned with protecting our privileges.
Like St Matthew we are all wounded sinners with plenty of limitations. However, let’s not stay in our ‘comfort zones’. Let’s not be paralysed and afraid because of our failures.
Instead, may we share the tenderness and mercy of Jesus with the sick, prisoners, the elderly and all those in need.
That’s the best possible way to celebrate the courage and witness of the Apostle St Matthew.
† Denis J Hart
Archbishop of Melbourne