Tomorrow is the day we remember St Matthew and our lectionary encourages us to start celebrating him with evening prayer today. The collect, with its prayer that we ‘forsake the selfish love of gain and the possessive love of riches’, reflects Matthew the tax collector’s willingness to leave his lucrative, but corrupt, job and follow Jesus. Matthew, Levi, Zacchaeus were all caught up in the economics of running the Roman empire. They were recruited as tax collectors, and the way they earned their wages was by commission, if you like – collecting what was demanded by the Romans, but adding extra to cover their living expenses. It was open to abuse.
We probably feel fairly complacent thinking about Matthew. After all, none of us are tax collectors and we’re probably not too bound up in ‘the selfish love of gain or possessive love of riches’. Nevertheless, like Matthew, we are caught up in an economic system, not necessarily of our choosing, that favours accumulating wealth at the expense, not only of those struggling financially in our own country and even more so in poor countries, but also at the expense of the earth as we relentlessly deplete its resources in order to fuel the way of life to which we have become accustomed. And it’s a way of life that feeds on worry about whether there will be enough – a point Jesus makes here.
Once you become accustomed to something you can stop seeing it clearly. It becomes the norm. It affects the way you vote, the way you shop, the way you travel and perhaps most damagingly, how you view people who don’t seem to fit that norm, who are outside the norm. I think this may what Jesus is getting at when he speaks about the eyes in this reading – if your eyes are good, your whole body will be full of light (v22). You start to see more clearly; to see things differently.
In this season of creation tide we are being challenged to open our eyes to how our way of life may be damaging our planet and so many of God’s people. Because we are part of the system we can feel helpless. Matthew, Zacchaeus, Levi, all offer hope. They all found themselves exposed to a different set of values from the ones they had learnt to accept as the norm in Roman Palestine. Almost certainly they would have heard Jesus’ teaching, seen how he was with his disciples, seen his followers dancing to a different drum, as it were, from the one which they had to follow. They were faced with a new story, a different narrative, and it attracted them. With all 3 men the result was movement. They were sitting, but now they get up (or get down from the tree – Zacchaeus!) and they move. Matthew moves from his solitary seat in the tax booth, he stands (thus becoming more visible, like Zacchaeus) and joins the community of those following Jesus and, like the others, so importantly, practises generosity – he has a party, sharing his food and home. Zacchaeus of course says he will pay back double what he has taken dishonestly. They have moved way outside their comfort zones.
We too can hear a different narrative from the one that drives our current western lifestyle. We can be exposed to what the writer of Matthew’s gospel might have called kingdom values. And we can respond by doing what Matthew does- joining with a group of like minded people, those disciples following Jesus. We are part of a church that seeks to live differently, that upholds values that may be at odds with our current economic system. Look out for some of the things this church is doing and join in, whether it’s through a walk round the parish with eyes open, or monitoring our use of plastic or energy, or joining in national protests, tackling investments in fossil fuel…. We can no longer continue living as though the poor don’t matter. It’s costing us the earth.