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Archbishop Anthony Fisher OP: Called into the light

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The Calling of Saint Matthew by Caravaggio, c. 1599-1600. Photo: Wikimedia Commons/ Public Domain
The Calling of Saint Matthew by Caravaggio, c. 1599-1600. Photo: Wikimedia Commons/ Public Domain

This is the edited text of the homily given by Archbishop Anthony Fisher OP for the Feast of St Matthew, Apostle and Evangelist and Mass for Consecrated Life at St Mary’s Cathedral, Sydney, 21 September 2023

Last week the Governance Institute of Australia released their eighth annual Ethics Index which charts popular perceptions of how ethical is the conduct of those in particular professions and sectors.[i] The 2023 results indicate that, as a nation, we expect more in terms of integrity, professionalism and honesty in public and business life. Media interest in the annual index gravitates to the ‘league tables’ of sectors and occupations from most to least ethical in the public eyes. Unsurprisingly, the health, education and charity sectors were considered the most trustworthy; and the most ethical professions were thought to be firies and ambos, health professionals, teachers and carers. Ranked as the least ethical were the media, banking, finance and insurance sectors and other big corporations; and the least ethical jobs said to be lawyers, corporate leaders, funds managers, politicians and, at bottom, real estate agents.

There was no such index in first-century Roman-occupied Judea, but if the New Testament is anything to go by, rabbis and teachers, farmers, merchants and craftsmen were well-regarded,[ii] whereas slaves and shepherds were unreliable nobodies, the Roman authorities were despised, but at the very bottom of the heap were tax collectors. If it wasn’t bad enough to be doing the dirty work of the Romans in gathering taxes, they were known to extort more than a little extra to line their own pockets and so were doubly contemptible. In the eyes of their fellows, they were as greedy, corrupt and treacherous. So, in the New Testament tax-collectors are often paired with sinners, prostitutes or excommunicates (Mt 9:10-11; 11:19; 18:17; 21:31-32; Mk 2:15; Lk 5:30; 7:34; 15:1) or identified as the most disreputable of people (e.g. Mt 5:46; Lk 3:12; 7:29; 18:9ff). All of this makes the call of Matthew into Jesus’ inner sanctum a deeply subversive act.

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In Caravaggio’s famous depiction of the call, painted around 1600 for the Contarelli Chapel in the church of San Luigi dei Francesi in Rome, Christ enters with Peter and a burst of light into the dark counting room of Levi-Matthew and his four assistants. Christ and Peter are dressed as ordinary ancients; the tax-collectors in the pomp and circumstance of the wealthy people of Caravaggio’s day. There’s money on the table. A languid gesture of Jesus right-hand, echoing that of Michelangelo’s Adam in the Sistina, summons Matthew. Dazzled by the light and the intruder, he draws back and points to himself with a “Who, me?” gesture, his other hand still on the money. Two of the counters are so entranced by their coins as not to notice. But two others are more attentive: a boy leans on Matthew as if for protection, while an older lad reaches for his weapon, but is warned by Peter, who is also armed, to remain calm. There is nothing to fear: they are not robbers.

Matthew himself wrote our Gospel account of his call (Mt 9:9-13). In head-hunting him for a new line of work, Jesus invites rather than rebukes him. In our painting Christ’s feet are already turning to leave, so “Follow me” is in the air. It is the moment of decision, and Matthew, we know, will rise up, leaving behind his wealth, profession, former life.

But people were slow to forgive and forget. At dinner that night at Matthew’s place (cf. Mk 2:15), the holier-than-thou Pharisees question Jesus’ associating with such people. Tax-collectors, prostitutes, excommunicates, the lowest of the low: if these are his favoured company, you could presume the worst. Yet ironically, these complainants are themselves at dinner in Matthew’s house, and Jesus manages to praise and reprove them at the same time, “I came to call sinners, not the virtuous” (Mt 9:13).    

What was going through Matthew’s mind through all this, I wonder. The “Who me?” gesture no doubt long continued. He knew perfectly well how the world regarded him. He was used to judgment and scorn. Perhaps he’d developed a thick skin. Perhaps he was willing to pay the social cost for the sake of wealth and comfort. Perhaps he had gradually dulled his conscience to all he was doing wrong. But then a light entered his dark counting room and his dark soul. His heart was pierced by Christ’s gaze and call, His interest in him despite his sinfulness, the summons to something greater from One with real authority, One from the most ethical of all sectors, heaven. Matthew felt he had to follow this light, even if it meant poverty, chastity and obedience. He had to let go of former greed, lust, wilfulness. He would renounce himself to find a better self in company with the Carpenter and His troop.

As one of the Twelve, Matthew learnt from Jesus at His feet, or as He taught crowds in the hills, or as He walked along the way. He witnessed His miracles of healing and transformation—including his own. He experienced first-hand the cosmos-altering week of Jesus’ Passion, fleeing the scene with the other guys, being devastated by the news of His conviction and execution, being bewildered by His empty tomb, celebrating the ineffable glory of His resurrection. And so, Matthew traded in his dodgy Roman ledger, complete with bogus entries and fudged numbers, for a different type of documentation: for writing the first Gospel of the New Testament.

Matthew’s writing would testify to Jesus’ genealogy and infancy, His Jewishness and fulfilment of the Law, His messiahship and kingship, His false trial, crucifixion and rising. And of all the New Testament writers it is Matthew who records for us the Great Commission given by Christ at His Ascension to “Go make disciples of all nations, baptising them in the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit, and teaching them to obey all I have commanded you. And know that I am with you always, to the end of time.”

Christ called others after Matthew, others like yourselves, to come into His light, to leave all else and follow Him. He called you into the noblest of all caring sectors. To take His Gospel to all nations, even as far as Australia, and make His love known to all the world. To teach others His saving plan and so form the most ethical of all professions. To sacramentalise in the names of the Blessed Trinity and confirm people’s confidence in His presence with them to the end. Your religious life is evangelical in its poverty, chastity and obedience, evangelical in being a radical living of the Gospel, evangelical in being a generous witness to Christ. Some of you have given that witness for 50 or 60 years or more now. As Matthew and the other first disciples followed Jesus, and you followed after Matthew and the others, may others follow after you in evangelical witness to radical and generous love. Thanks be to God for you!

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