Daily Reflection
September 21st, 2007

Eileen Burke-Sullivan

Theology Department
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The name of St. Matthew celebrates as least two important persons in the formation of the early Church, and today’s liturgy seems to honor both of them, and what they stand for, in the texts selected for our formation and contemplation.

The Gospel reveals little about the Apostle that Jesus called in the midst of his work as a tax collector, except that as a collaborator with the Romans he was an outcast from Jewish religious practice (the Law), and as one who made his living by collecting taxes, he was generally despised by everyone except other tax collectors or law breakers. As a hereditary Jew within his own world, Matthew presumably would have been marginalized – alienated from communal relationships, and divided from his roots and family life by the work that he did in collaboration with a hated political oppressor. Even raised a Jew, such a person in the first century would have had little opportunity, or even desire, to know and ponder the intricacies of the Law of Moses and its implications for relationship with God. But in the context of his work and associations Jesus calls him into a new kind of family – one that will be united in the Grace of God’s own Spirit – united in companionship with Jesus in service to the Father. A family that will need and honor his gifts, diverse though they may be.

The Gospel of Matthew has, by tradition been accredited to this disreputable early companion of Jesus but Scripture scholarship has pointed out that the author of Matthew was most likely a well educated Jew – probably a Pharisee and even a Rabbi from Antioch – the second greatest center of Judaism in the First Century AD after Jerusalem. No other Evangelist seems to know and love the Hebrew Scriptures as well as the author of the Matthean Gospel, certainly no other evangelist quotes them so often. Furthermore, no other ecclesial community seems to have been as wracked by the conflicts and quarrels both within and with the larger culture that Matthew’s Gospel hints at.

The actual relationship between the Matthew called by Jesus and the Matthew who authored the text toward the end of the first Century AD is now lost in unrecorded historical mist. We can speculate, however, that after Jesus’ Ascension to the Father the tax-collector turned preaching-witness conveyed to a young Rabbi the careful details of his account of Jesus’ sayings and deeds as they worked together to hold the quarrelsome Antiochian Church from flying apart.

Matthew’s Gospel challenges us to forgive over and over, whether friend or enemy, to go the extra mile, to be generous about observing custom so that you don’t cause scandal. The Matthean community saw the importance – the absolute necessity – for choosing unity even in the midst of very real ideological differences. Don’t be quick to cut off or alienate those who don’t observe the law your way, work for the unity of the body through love as Jesus did, the Matthean voice (duet?) calls to us.

By placing the text from Ephesians 4 in the liturgy of this feast, the Church seems to be hammering home this same point. We are united by our relationship to One God and our absolute faith in him that is revealed by relationship to Jesus. We are united by the life of Baptism and its accompanying presence of God’s own unified life within each member. We have diverse gifts, diverse responsibilities, and diverse insights. We come from diverse – perhaps even warring backgrounds – but once we are in Christ’s Body the power of God’s Spirit invites us to labor on behalf of the good of the whole Church, not just our corner of it or our idea of it.

What more important message could our utterly fragmented world consider this beautiful September day than the witness of an unforced, freely chosen unity of compassionate love and real cooperation, even (especially?) with those we consider least among our associates. Now that is a message that needs to “go out through all the earth!”(Ps 19.5)

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