As a child, my understanding of Lutheran theology was informed at least as much by its distance from Roman Catholicism as it was by anything we did in worship itself. I am, after all, the child of a Lutheran mother and a lapsed Roman Catholic father who bowled on Sundays in place of going to church. I’m also the grandchild of a woman who had left the Catholic church for our Lutheran congregation as a teen — though fled might be a more accurate description of her departure.
My grandmother didn’t talk about her early religious life much, but each week we attended services at our Lutheran church. I stood next to her and, as we recited the Apostles Creed, from high above my head (my grandmother stood 6 feet tall before she began to shrink), I would hear her deviate from the text. Instead of “I believe in the holy ‘catholic’ church,” she would firmly substitute ‘Christian.’ In ways big and small, she communicated a certainty that we couldn’t trust Catholic practices (though her two sons were practicing Catholics), and that included any reverence for the Saints. The sense that anything should, or even could, stand between us and our intercessions to God just wouldn’t stand. As an Episcopal adult, though, I’ve come to understand the Saints in a different way, as precisely the sort of role models for faith that my grandmother wanted me to have.
As we celebrate the Feast of Saint Matthew, apostle and evangelist, we turn our attention to a figure who, ultimately, we know very little about. He is an enormously puzzling figure in this way, and sources debate everything from his naming (when he is called Levi, is that meant as a name, or a designation of tribe?) to his manner of death (old age or martyrdom?) to his Gospel’s relationship to that of Saint Mark (did Matthew borrow from Mark or is his Gospel actually the earliest of all?). But really Matthew, like plenty of beloved secular heroes, lacks a consistent back story and legend is as good as anything else when it comes to who we admire and learn from. Amidst it all, the one thing the Gospels and scholarship seem to tell us for certain was that Matthew was a tax collector. It’s not something that would immediately elevate him as a figure to admire, but not unlike the absolute moral turpitude of pre-conversion Paul, it’s very good news for us.
It’s popular in many progressive Christian circles to talk about how Jesus surrounded himself with outsiders of all sorts, that yes, he ate with tax collectors and touched lepers and so on. That’s good news for us on its own, sure, but the better news is that he left those who chose to follow him improved and, ultimately, transformed compared to how he found them. In keeping with teachings like “You cannot serve God and money,” Matthew left his old life behind. He was changed by his encounter with Jesus, so much so that he chose to devote his life to following him.
In traditional veneration practices, Saint Matthew is recognized as the patron saint of bankers, Salerno, Italy where his tomb is located, civil servants, perfumers, and of course, tax collectors. But maybe what we should revere Saint Matthew for is his willingness to change. Few things are harder to confess than having been wrong. And really changing in response to such an admission? That’s even less common. When it comes to our lives as Christians, then, how can we view Saint Matthew as a model for what repentance looks like?
This year, as we mark the Feast of Saint Matthew, how do you desire to be more faithful? It all starts with introspection, then naming that change, and this can look like so many different things. Maybe the change you hope to make isn’t obviously about religious practice, but about faithfulness in your relationships with each other — spending more time together or approaching conflict differently. Or, maybe this is an opportunity to examine your family’s spiritual habit, to adopt a new devotional practice or become more consistent in one you already enjoy. What would my family have discovered if we had taken our suspicion of the Saints and instead learned more about them? Often it’s those places of defensiveness or anxiety that are most in need of some sacred attention.
I wonder how long Saint Matthew desired to change his ways before he stumbled into Jesus’s path? May his feast day be what prods us onto new paths, as Saint Matthew serves as a role model for our faith lives, opening us up to the power of turning from ways of being that no longer serve us or bring us closer to God.
[Image Credit: Steven Zucker via Flickr]