Homily for the readings of Sept. 21, Feast of St. Matthew the Evangelist
I was unable to write this homily down before Mass yesterday, because I was on a long trip to visit an elderly friend of mine who is dying from cancer. However, I really like St Matthew’s conversion (for obvious reasons) so I’m going to go ahead and post a rehash of my off-the-cuff homily, even if it is a day late.
The readings for today’s feast give us a quick lesson in conversion of heart.
Matthew pre-conversion was a sinner and outcast from polite society, by choice. He was a tax collector, working for the Romans, which made him very unpopular with the other Jews. As they saw it, extorted money from his fellow countrymen and coreligionists for the pagan forces occupying Palestine and for his own personal enrichment. He was considered a traitor to his faith and his country. As a result, he consorted with other social pariahs – those who shared his profession, as well as prostitutes and other public sinners. We don’t know why he chose this career, but the fact is that he was probably living a life of sin and he knew it.
What makes Matthew, the public sinner, become St. Matthew, Evangelist and Martyr? He meets the Lord. Jesus comes by and calls him: “Follow me!” Matthew drops what he is doing and immediately complies.
It’s interesting to contrast how Matthew and the Pharisees react to Jesus: Matthew converts and leaves everything; the Pharisees reject Christ and his message and work for his destruction. Why this difference? They had profoundly different attitudes. Matthew knew he was a sinner; when he met Jesus, he recognized his own unworthiness, and was grateful for the love and implicit forgiveness in Christ’s words. He discovered that the Lord, the Messiah, knew him and valued him despite his sinfulness, and lovingly challenged him to live up to a higher standard.
The Pharisees, on the contrary, were proud and vain, considering themselves righteous and not in need of forgiveness. They were seeking a kind of affirmation that not due to them and were deaf to the call for conversion. They were too attached to themselves and to their honors and image to receive the Good News.
As St Paul says in the first reading, there is a unique role for everyone in the Church. Each and every one of us is called to conversion and to follow Christ. We may not be big-time public sinners like St Matthew, but due to original sin we all tend towards sin, and need to turn our hearts to Jesus daily, and discover God’s plan for us. Like St Matthew, there are two essential elements for that conversion: an encounter with Christ, and humble recognition of our own sins and our need for God. We can encounter Christ in prayer, the Scriptures, and the Sacraments. We can also cultivate humility by frequent examination of our conscience and the sacrament of Reconciliation.
It is not enough, though, for us to work on our own conversion. We also need to try to help others. We cannot force anyone to convert, nor can we force them to have the right internal dispositions. We can only pray for them to be open to God’s grace. However, we can help them to encounter Christ; we are Christians, and we need to be like Him whose name we bear. We can make Jesus present to others through our words and actions, helping them to feel that love and respect that so touched St Matthew’s heart, as well as the challenge to follow Jesus that motivated him to leave the things of the world to follow in Christ’s footsteps.