“He saw a man called Matthew sitting at the tax booth; and he said to him, ‘Follow me.’ And he got up and followed him”. Matthew 9:9
It is odd to think that it is twenty years since Carol died.
Carol and her family were our neighbours for seven years. They were always a close and caring family and they were the best neighbours one might have. Carol had developed Lupus, a horrible illness that eats away at tissue. At the age of 47, she had died.
It was an Ulster country funeral, a huge gathering at the house, the coffin carried in relays down the road, a church service where there were around 200 inside the church and as many again outside. It was a sombre and sobering occasion.
The only way to have coped that afternoon in a way that was at all positive was in the belief that Jesus was in charge of things, that on the last day senseless things will have meaning, that all pain and tears will be gone, that there was a promise of a life to come.
The belief that Jesus is the one that makes sense of things and that he is the one that offers life beyond our imagination was the driving force of the church in the early days. When we recall the story of Matthew this morning, we do well to remember what would have attracted Matthew.
Matthew wasn’t attracted by the idea of being religious. There were plenty of religious groups around if he had wanted to be religious. Far from suddenly being a potential convert for the devout Jews, Matthew was despised by them. The Pharisees looked on Matthew as being amongst the worst in their society.
Matthew wasn’t attracted by any material thing that Jesus might have to offer. To start with Jesus had no material wealth to offer anyone, but Matthew wasn’t interested in such things anyway, he had tried money and wealth and he had found they had left his life empty.
What Jesus offered people was not religion, nor was it wealth or success, what he offered was a life with meaning, a life with a purpose, a life that was going somewhere.
Matthew throws over his former life because he believes that in Jesus he has found true life. He believes that, no matter what might happen to him, there can be nothing in the world more important than following this man from Galilee.
The simplest of decisions, to realize that no matter how much he accumulates, in the end it counts for nothing, in the end his wealth and his power are worthless. The simplest of decisions and also the hardest of decisions. Wealth and success wheedle their way into our affections, they make us believe that they are the most important, that we cannot be happy without them. Matthew realized he had been deceived, money had not bought happiness or love.
We live in a society full of people like Matthew, looking for meaning and purpose, and like Matthew they too often look at the church and see not followers of Jesus, but people who more often resemble the Pharisees with rules and regulations and a suspicion of anyone who does not conform. When it comes to the crunch point in life, rules and regulations are of no more use than money and power. At the sharp moments, the painful moments, the moments when life seems utterly barren and devoid of meaning, the only one who offers anything is the man from Nazareth.
Paul writes that we possess nothing, yet if we have Jesus we have everything. Matthew would have been the most hard-·hearted of men and yet he realized all that he had nothing, so he threw aside his wealth and power in order to have everything. Standing in the graveyard that afternoon would have been an experience of entire desolation and bleakness if there had not been a confidence that this was not the end. There was a quiet unspoken trust that in Jesus it would all one day make sense, that the person whom Matthew left his money to follow would make sense of it all.
I remember before leaving, going back to the graveyard. Five members of one of the most extended families in the area, stood around the grave, two were completing the task of filling it in, the other three, still in suits, looked on.
One of them looked up from the grave. ‘Hey, Ian’, he said, ‘haven’t you got a grave here somewhere?’
‘I paid for one’. I replied. ‘I don’t know where it is’.
‘I do’, said one, ‘It’s beside our sister’s’.
With which he paced out about four grave widths and pointed to the ground with his toe. ‘There you are, Ian. There’s your patch’.
We all laughed. One day the young fellows standing at the grave would be burying their former rector and there would be laughter at memories and they would complain at the number of times he had told them off.
Yet all that had gone before would not count for anything. To be with Jesus, that’s all that would matter. That’s all that ever matters.