Matthew — Blooming Where We Are Planted
October 5, 2014
Several years ago, I became acquainted with a physician who I developed a deep respect for. There were several reasons this was the case but one of the main reasons was due to the peculiar route he had followed toward becoming a doctor. You see, he began his adult working life in a very different type of job. Starting out, his career path was much more blue-collar and labor intensive than white collar and professional. One day though, he decided that he wanted to be a doctor. He was incredible intelligent, very driven and one of those guys who refused to let anything get in the way of his goals. The end result was that he continued his blue collar career while literally putting himself through medical school.
One of the interesting things that I observed about him was that his journey was not something to dismiss but rather something that endeared him to other people. What I mean is that he was a better doctor as a result of the particular path that he followed. He was easy to talk to and very generous with his time. His earlier life experiences helped him to relate well to almost everyone and it developed in him a deep compassion for the tough places that his patients’ health struggles often created in their lives.
Among the disciples, there is only one of the twelve whose occupation was consistently named. Matthew, who we are told over and over again, was a tax collector. While we know that several of the disciples were commercial fisherman, when the disciples’names simply appear in a list, Matthew is the only one whose occupation follows his name. It is as if we were meant to never forget where he came from.
Why was this the case? Well, I think there are several reasons. For sure, it was at least in part because this was such a notorious way to make a living as tax collectors worked for and with Romans who occupied Israel at the time. Likewise, the disdain for tax collectors was also built around the fact that they were ultimately successful based on their ability to charge more taxes than Rome demanded since the difference between Rome’s tax rate and what tax officials collected was how they produced their salary. All of this went toward the disgust during the biblical period for them as a profession.
This morning, however, I want to suggest that perhaps another reason that the gospels wanted to drive home the point of Matthew’s occupation over and over again was the fact, like my doctor friend, that Matthew’s previous life helped him to be a stronger not weaker disciple. In other words, he was better because of where he had been.
I say this because Matthew seems to have embraced the idea of blooming where he was planted on two levels and both were apparently valuable to him and both can be very, very valuable to us. Let me explain what I mean.
On the one hand, Matthew seems to have embraced blooming where you are planted on a very, very practical level. It has been suggested that Matthew brought something to the table that none of the other disciples offered. Again, Matthew went to work for the occupying Roman forces. Most all Jews resented him for this — since they felt he worked and conspired with the enemy. And, without question, there were many things about the arrangement that were not very admirable. But, at the same time, Matthew recognized that the Romans were in control and that this was not likely to change any time soon. Also, he may well have understood that Roman taxes did go toward the creation of what at the time was the most peaceful, successful and advanced society in the ancient world. As a result, Matthew appears to have done his best to make the most out of a bad situation. Rather than fighting the Roman occupiers at every turn as most Jewish people did, Matthew decided to collaborate with them.
All of us face similar choices on a regular basis. Life is rarely what we expect it to be. Instead, we often find ourselves in places, situations and professions that are far different from what we would have ever expected. When this happens, we all have the chance to approach such times from one of two perspectives. We can throw our hands up, complain and refuse to engage in life until things get better. Or, we can admit that while this isn’t the situation or the experience we had expected, we will commit ourselves to making the most of where we are. Again, we cannot condone all aspects of Matthew’s occupation, but, like no other disciple, he appears to have done his best to come to terms with Rome in charge while committing himself to making the most of where he found himself. As a result of his attitude, I think Jesus was glad to have him among the twelve for the roughly three years of Jesus’ public ministry. For during those years, few things happened in the way they expected.
A number of years ago now, I accompanied a group of children on an overnight trip to the Saint Louis Children’s Aquarium. At the time, they had a program called “Sleeping with the Sharks”. The idea was that groups could come, tour the exhibits and then unroll their sleeping bags and spend the night in the Aquarium. Though no one in our group had ever been to the Aquarium, it sounded like great fun and we had a terrific group that was excited about the adventure.
The only problem was that when our group arrived, we discovered much to our surprise that the St. Louis Children’s Aquarium was more like a glorified, low level pet store and even that may be being a bit generous. There was no way on God’s green earth that those of us who were adults were going to let our children spend the night there.
In an instant, we had a tough decision to make. Would we simply turn around and make the three hour plus drive back home or would we make lemonade out of lemons to steal an old phrase.
Well as you might guess, we chose the second option. We went for ice cream, treated the kids to a movie and ended the long day by playing games and spending the night in a local church’s gymnasium through a connection that one of the adults with our group had. To this day, I have fond memories of that experience. This is true not because we did anything overly exciting or profound but because we chose not to allow the unexpected to ruin our experience.
Matthew seems to have been that type of person. And, all of us will, without question, have a better quality of life if we choose to live in a similar fashion.
At the same time, Matthew also appears to have bloomed where he was planted from a very spiritual perspective too. If you notice, Matthew chose not to hide from but rather to embrace his past. As our text for today unfolds, Matthew chooses to invite other tax collectors to come and meet Jesus and consider a relationship with him. Likewise, as has already been mentioned, each time the gospels list the twelve for us, Matthew is always connected with his work as a tax collector and there seems to have been no issue with this on Matthew’s part.
He didn’t deny where he came from, he didn’t try to run away from it and he didn’t act like someone that he was not. Rather, I think that Matthew saw his past as a crucial part of his testimony. Matthew allowed his own life to be exhibit A as to what God wants to do in all of our lives. You see, the primary work of God through the Holy Spirit, is the work of redemption. This means that God takes us just as we are and allows something beautiful and wonderful to emerge in the midst of the chaos, the struggles and the frailties that often characterize our lives. It also means that God sometimes uses fragments of our messy past to create masterpieces in our future. Think about this in regard to Matthew. He authored one of the four gospels. Why? At least in part, this may have been because as a tax collector who had to keep records, he may have been one of the few among the twelve who could write.
Here is the thing, when we are honest about who we are and where we have come from, we help ourselves to see our own possibilities and we help others to recognize that the same kinds of things are possible for them too.
There is a form of Japanese art that I learned about recently. It is called Wabi Sabi. Wabi Sabi are pieces of pottery that accentuate their imperfections. In other words, in a Wabi Sabi bowl rather than painting over or filling in any cracks that may have developed, the artist works hard to allow those cracks to be a visible and important aspects of the piece. (The Story of Wabi—Sabi, Leadership Journal, Spring 2014)
I like that, don’t you? I like the idea implied in imperfect art for this is what the disciple Matthew’s life exemplifies in a profound way. He wasn’t perfect and he was okay with that. He had made some questionable decisions and came from a bit of a checkered past. Yet, this was the same place were God met him and created something beautiful.
Will we give in and let God do the same with us? And just as importantly, through telling our own stories, imperfections and all, will we make it clear to others that God wants to do the same for them? Amen.