||Site access||Mobile apps||Resources||Site map|
|Contents|||||Changing roles Psalm 42|
Tonight’s New Testament reading describes for us the calling of Matthew from his former employment as a tax collector. I expect we all know that in those days, being a tax collector was a profession that was lucrative for sure, but also despised by the population at large. This was for several reasons: for one thing one of the great common features of human society is that there is a pretty-much universal dislike for tax collectors! In this particular place and time, they were also seen as collaborators with the occupying Roman force, and their income was substantially increased by rather irregular additions to whatever figures had actually been set by the authorities. An unscrupulous person could get seriously rich at the expense of his compatriots, with no real recourse available from the legal system. Of course there were honest tax-collectors, who took only what they required for a living from the takings, but as a profession they were regarded with distrust and dislike. I think we can presume that Matthew was one of the honest ones, since unlike Luke’s account of Zacchaeus there is never any hint that Matthew had to offer public repentance for misconduct.
Now, the four gospels record for us not only the calling of Matthew, but also that of several of the other disciples – each gospel writer gives us a different selection and records different details, but the fact of being called is clearly very important. Where something was considered sufficiently important for each of our four authors to include it, we should certainly take notice. It was a big thing in that culture – indeed a big thing in any culture – to voluntarily leave behind one’s means of support. This meant reckoning not just on the personal financial impact, but also on the ability to support a family (both youngsters and elderly dependants), your reputation within your wider family, and your status in society. Following a rabbi for reasons of religious devotion was a perfectly acceptable choice in 1st century Jewish society – it wasn’t like someone today running off to join a commune – but it was a big choice and ordinarily I think a person would take time to think it over before committing themselves. Indeed, we know that for some of the disciples there had been a period of getting to know Jesus before finally committing to this way of life. But we know pretty much nothing about Matthew before this snapshot picture in which, sitting at the tax collection booth he suddenly stands to follow Jesus.
In fact we know almost nothing about Matthew – also called Levi – as a person. We don’t know if he was married, although to be a single man in that age would have been noteworthy. We have only a few rather contradictory early traditions about what he did and where he went in the years of the early church. Most of these traditions say that he remained in Israel for some years, preaching to his own countrymen and probably at that time writing the gospel that carries his name. He seems to have left Israel and travelled east to Persia – today’s Iran – and the region south of the Black Sea, and he probably went to Ethiopia. He is also said to have gone to Syria and Macedonia at different times. He was martyred – but one account says that this took place in Egypt and another that it happened in Persia. Now for sure some of these stories may be in error, but it does seem that like Paul, he believed in the value of missionary journeys to spread the gospel. It is of course his gospel that closes with the words we call “The Great Commission”, where Jesus gives the church the responsibility of taking his message to the whole world. My guess is that these words had sunk very deeply into his mind and heart, and after a time teaching and building up the church in Israel he passed that job onto another and set off on a journey. This seems to be one of the hallmarks of the early Christians – they were happy to take on new roles, move on to new situations and responsibilities as time went by. We know that Paul was quite happy to accept changes to his plans and his destinations. Peter cheerfully went off to the house of the gentile Cornelius despite the enormous mental readjustment he had to make in order to enter that place. And not just the apostles – new converts took on the work of keeping the churches functioning in a world that could be quite hostile to them, and as Paul and the others went about they had to select very rapidly those who were suitable to become elders, deacons, teachers, helpers, and so forth.
Of course this is not just a thing of the past – all of us who are part of churches find our roles and responsibilities changing. When we lived back in Dorset, I used to be very active in children’s work, both on Sunday mornings and at a midweek youth club. All that has gone now – different tasks now take my time! I expect many of us here could tell similar stories, as changes in circumstance, changes in age, and changes in experience all move us from one role to another.
I want to come back to this in a few minutes, but first let’s talk a little bit about Psalm 42. Many commentators, and some Bibles, in fact join psalms 42 and 43 together into a single poem, noticing that there is a sort of chorus that repeats almost the same words twice in Psalm 42 (verse 5 and 11) and once at the end of 43. The NIV in fact makes them all identical, though in the original Hebrew there are subtle differences. It presents a kind of debate between the poet and his soul – a style that we find in literature from all around the ancient world, and one which we practice ourselves quite often. You know the sort of thing: “Come on Richard, only one week until you go on holiday”, or “don’t give up now, you’ve nearly finished” and so forth. We tend to talk to ourselves like this when we’re flagging in some task that we know has to be finished, and give ourselves a sort of pep talk in order to motivate ourselves for the final stretch. There’s this sense that we can hold this conversation between this part that is flagging under the pressure of circumstances, and some other more conscious, more long-suffering part that can offer encouragement and support. I do sometimes wonder if Adam and Eve held this kind of inner debate before their Fall. Did they perhaps also have this sense of talking to themselves – “Come on now, only another 14 bushes to tend before we can stop for fruit” – or is that something that has entered human consciousness along with sin?
Anyway, the Psalmist tries to encourage his soul in several different ways. He tries questions: “why so downcast?”, “why disturbed?”. He tries commands: “put your hope in God”. He tries promises: “I will yet praise him”. He sets himself a definite course of action – to remember God in every circumstance of life. He describes this, as Biblical writers so often do, in terms of geography, from the lowest depths of the land in the Jordan Valley, to the highest height, Mount Hermon, which is also the place where the springs of Jordan arise. He commits himself to remembering God from beginning to end, from height to depth. He sees both his inner life and his outward situation as though they were landscapes stretched out, and by doing this he can use the world of his senses as a kind of teaching aid for his weary soul. Again, we still do this today – we talk about something being an uphill struggle, or wading through treacle, when we really mean that we have to deal with a difficult relationship or carry out some arduous task. The link between soul and body is so strong we use bodily language to talk about inward experiences.
Now, what emerges from the psalm is that there are several things that have caused his soul to despair. One of them is the antagonism of others – they criticise him, they taunt his efforts, they deride his faith in the unseen God. Another is the changed situation of his life. He used to be publicly honoured, he used to have a place of being recognised, he used to play a key part in the religious festivals. Maybe he was what nowadays we might call a worship leader. Evidently all that had gone, and there are allusions to personal catastrophe as well as he talks of these giant, heaped up waves that have passed over him like a storm. If we were to include Psalm 43 in the reading, we would see him continue from oppression through pilgrimage into praise. However, the last verse repeats the dialogue with his soul which is still unmoved by all of these efforts. We are left wondering how things will turn out, with the situation not yet resolved.
It’s an odd psalm in several ways, and I expect by now you have seen that the common link between this psalm and the New Testament description of Matthew’s calling to be an apostle is that of changing roles. The psalmist is struggling with huge changes of lifestyle and religious duties, and he writes this odd, rather limping poem so that we can share in his feelings. Matthew’s gospel, on the other hand, tells us of his own enormous life-changing choice as a kind of brief diary entry. We have no clue as to whether Matthew ever struggled with feelings of crisis or anxiety about his choice, whether sometimes he lay awake at night wondering if he’d done the right thing. The various New Testament writers, by and large, were so motivated to record for us the words and deeds of our Lord Jesus, that recollections of their own feelings and reactions are usually omitted.
Indeed, the only hint we get of regret or doubt crossing the minds of those first apostles is with Peter, and even this is quite indirect. John 21 tells how some of the disciples including Peter and the fishing brothers James and John, had gone back to Galilee, their home territory, and Peter had led the others back out onto the lake. “I’m off to fish” he says, and there’s a sense here of them trying to get back into their old lives, as though maybe the last three years or so had just been some kind of dream. But of course Jesus does not leave them in that state; he causes a miraculous catch of fish so they’d be sure to recognise him, and then reinstates Peter both in his inner peace of mind and his public role regarding the Christian community at large.
This is of course why as Christians we keep both Testaments. The New Testament writers were committed to recording those things that were necessary and useful to the new Christian community – and through them us as spiritual offspring – the life of Christ, a summary of the spread of the early church, and a selection of practical advice concerning church operations. They were writing about a fairly short span of time, and had time to go into only a few of the pastoral complexities of actually living the Christian life. But most, perhaps all, of the New Testament writers were Jews who had come to faith in Jesus as Messiah, and so were well acquainted with the richness of the Hebrew Scriptures in dealing with the puzzles and challenges of life. In that book, which we call the Old Testament, there was space and time to try to plumb the depths of the human soul while humankind waited for the Son of God to come, to record for our benefit how human community served or failed its members. This is why the Book of Psalms has been such a treasure for the Christian church ever since, since it grapples with the human feelings of uncertainty, loss and struggle that frequently arise when we try to follow God’s directions.
So here, the gospel accounts tell us in a few words about the calling of Matthew, or Peter, or James and John, and so on. They don’t tell us everything – not about the emotional temperature, or later repercussions, for example – they leave us to explore the episode with the help of other parts of Scripture. So here, we are not told anything about Matthew’s feelings as he walked away from the tax-collection booth, nor about the reactions of the queue of people waiting to pay their taxes, nor about his Roman employers, nor about his tax-collector colleagues. We are left to ponder on these things for ourselves. We are told that Jesus ate at Matthew’s house, and that many of Matthew’s former work colleagues came along as well – so presumably at very least they were curious about the matter! I think it is fair to guess from that that he was popular amongst his work associates – they wanted to know what had happened, they wanted to see for themselves what had caused him to make the break. So it is that I wonder if Matthew every now and again turned over the words of Psalm 42 in his mind. Not that his situation was exactly parallel, because the psalmist had had important religious duties whereas Matthew had a responsible secular job, but perhaps they shared some of those feelings of doubt or confusion.
How do we recognise when God is calling on us to make some possible change to the natural course of our lives? Matthew, it seems from the gospel account, had no difficulty in recognising that the voice of Jesus was the voice of authority. But for most of us, I suspect, the situation is not so clear cut. One of the people we went to Israel with last year is now part-way through training at a Bible college. For her this was not a sudden decision, but one made with the support of people whose opinions she trusted. It was the result of a process of questioning and testing, of affirmation and support, so on those days when she finds herself saying to her soul, “Why are you downcast? Why are you disturbed?” then she has something definite to bring to mind to give her reassurance.
I think it is very hard to manage two different impulses in the Christian life: to do what we know we are good at, or to do what we believe we have been called to. There was a series on television a while ago that I watched, in which one of the main characters had previously been a spy. In the early part of the series he was in hiding, trying to avoid notice, and his cover story was as a tailor. As the series progressed he found himself, with considerable reluctance, drawn more and more back into using his spying talents, and at one of the turning points in this process he laments to a friend, “but you know what – I was actually a very good tailor!”. I think we can sometimes feel a bit like that – sometimes God seems to be pulling us away from our skills and towards something we don’t feel very good at.
The foundation that the Bible most urges us to rest on when making choices like this is that of wisdom, and here, perhaps, we see this tension at its clearest. At work, on one of the computers there’s a little slogan that catches something of this – it says “Making the right choice comes from wisdom, but wisdom comes from making the wrong choices!” As we turn the pages of the Bible we find that sometimes wisdom is explained as a gift sovereignly presented by God, and sometimes described as a capability that can be taught or learned, person to person. We read on the one hand that we should ask God for wisdom, and on the other that wisdom is gained by taking advice. How can we blend these two together? There’s a thread running through these pages, that effort and application is needed to find wisdom, but that these things in no way guarantee the search will be successful. Unless the Lord builds the house, the labourers build in vain. Both within the Bible and in writings outside it from elsewhere in the ancient world, the image of the person who strives for wisdom but still fails to find it is a common one. It is important, though, to keep a good balance. Sometimes in Christian circles we can feel that the work of getting good at something, getting skilled and proficient, is somehow in conflict with the life of Christ, as though it leads one to trust too much in one’s own abilities. But the pages of the Bible, Old Testament and New, show us pictures of people who were not only attentive to God, listening out for where He might be telling them to go next and what to do there… but also very happy to apply themselves to the human task of getting good at these tasks, of making time and taking pains to persevere and improve. Moses, David, Isaiah, Ezra, Luke, Paul, and so on – these were people who were not simply called by God into their area of ministry, but who worked at getting skilled at it. The reverse is also true: Solomon’s wisdom was clearly presented a divine gift, and we are given diverse examples of his wisdom in action. But as his life went on, his choices seem to have become increasingly foolish. I wonder if he leaned too much on the supernatural origin of his wisdom, and failed to persevere in the human effort of maintaining and extending it?
So let’s return, as we draw towards a close, to our two passages. The psalmist is struggling to cope with changes that have happened to him, in his lifestyle and religious duties, and he wrote this rather pained poem to help us share his feelings. Matthew tells us of his own calling out of tax-collection into apostleship, and he writes it very matter of factly, as a kind of aside to the real story. He is telling us of the moment when he crossed a threshold, and my guess is that in that moment he really did not know all that this choice would mean, all that it would cost him. Doesn’t life do that sometimes? We make a choice, say some words, take a course of action, and then only later look back and consider what it has meant to us and those around us.
Of course we have to step out sometimes in ignorance – if we always tried to learn all the possible ramifications of our choices we would never do anything. There are times when we have to step out without full knowledge, we have to enact trust in other people and ultimately in God. I find it interesting that the Psalmist, in all his inner turmoil about his circumstances, never once suggests that leaving these things behind was the wrong choice. Quite the reverse, in fact – his inner debate is being held in order to reassure himself that despite appearances, it was the right thing to do. I very strongly suspect that Matthew, for all his certainty at leaving the tax booth behind him and following Jesus, had times in the years to come when he had to speak words like that to his own soul.
I wonder how we reassure ourselves at times like that? The Psalmist adopted several strategies as he wrote. First, and perhaps most important, he was willing to confess to having the feelings in the first place. It does not demean or call into question our faith to confess to feelings of uncertainty, to admit to internal crises as we seek to follow God’s direction. Having confessed, he moved on to practical tasks. He recognised and named the things arranged against him, such as these people that were deriding his faith. He committed himself to persisting in prayer, even if the content of the prayer was something of a complaint. He set himself the task of remembering the character and majesty of God in all situations. He reminded himself of truths that he knew about God even if they were unseen at the time. And he repeated several times the truth that things would change.
Psalm 43 reminds us that the Psalmist’s life, just like ours, is one of pilgrimage. He saw himself en route to the Temple – the holy mountain and the altar, the dwelling place of the God who was his ultimate joy and delight. The author of the letter to the Hebrews reminds us that we are en route to a heavenly Jerusalem, the city of the living God, to a kingdom that cannot be shaken. The earthly Jerusalem has suffered decay and distress many times over its history, and the altar that the Psalmist sought has long since gone. But the city that is our destination cannot be shaken, and will outlast all the sorrows and disappointments of this world. I expect Matthew was able to remind himself of that as he went about his own pilgrim ministry in the years that followed his calling: we also can remind ourselves of that when our inmost self finds the journey difficult.