Here is the text of the sermon I preached, more or less, when I officiated for Evensong at Godmanchester on Sunday, The First Evening Prayer of Saint Matthew, Apostle and Evangelist. It was, as it always is, a great pleasure and a privilege to be able to sing the Office, and to preach the sermon.
The New Wisdom
Isaiah 33:13-17 — Matthew 6:19-end
A Jewish Gospel
Saint Matthew begins his Gospel with the words,
“An account of the genealogy of Jesus the Messiah, the son of David, the son of Abraham” (Matthew 1:1).
However, he doesn’t just have a dry-as-dust interest in family trees, though it has to be said, the first chapter of Matthew’s Gospel, isn’t the most exciting place to start reading the Bible!
“Abraham was the father of Isaac, and Isaac the father of Jacob, and Jacob the father of Judah and his brothers, and Judah the father of Perez and Zerah by Tamar, and Perez the father of Hezron, and Hezron the father of Aram, and Aram the father of Aminadab, and Aminadab the father of Nahshon, and Nahshon the father of Salmon . . .” (Matthew 1:2-4).
and on through forty-two generations in all, I’m sure you don’t want me to read them all: the list finishes with,
“. . . and Jacob the father of Joseph the husband of Mary, of whom Jesus was born, who is called the Messiah” (Matthew 1:16).
Matthew wants to give Jesus his place in history. He wants to show the Jewish roots of the Christian gospel.
Saint Matthew’s has been described as the most Jewish of the Gospels. He never misses a chance to show how the events of Jesus’s life, are a fulfilment of patterns and predictions in the Old Testament. Jesus is the climax of the process, which began with the Jewish kings, prophets, and lawgivers.
But there was another strand in Jewish religion, which we often forget about, and which Jesus also fulfilled. These were the wise people — although all of them were male, I’m hesitant to call them ‘wise men’, because you’d most likely think of them as the three wise men who visited Bethlehem, but those were non-Jewish, or Gentiles. These ‘wise people’, who I’m referring to, were secretaries in the court of the Jewish kings.
As the job of these ‘wise people’ was reading and writing, they were frequently called ‘scribes’. They most likely based their work on the example of the Egyptian courts. There, the scribes of the Pharaohs wrote books describing the wisdom, that was needed by those who were to advise the monarch, often in the form of proverbs or wise sayings.
The Jewish scribes in the court of King Solomon, which had close contacts with Egypt, made collections of wise sayings, several of which appear in the biblical Book of Proverbs.
Matthew may have seen himself as standing in this tradition — our New Testament reading (Matthew 6:19-end) this evening certainly has that feel about it. And he’s the only one of the Evangelists to record Jesus saying,
“Therefore every scribe who has been trained for the kingdom of heaven is like the master of a household who brings out of his treasure what is new and what is old” (Matthew 13:52).
What then was this wisdom that the scribes wrote about? To a large extent it was practical common sense. The scribes would’ve most likely learnt to write by copying out proverbs written by their predecessors. And as they wrote they would’ve absorbed much of what they were reading, and so learnt to be a good advisor to the king.
Along with the Book of Proverbs, the scribes are credited with writing several other books, such as Job, Ecclesiastes, and several of the Apocryphal books, which, together, we call the ‘Wisdom Literature’.
Many of these contain poems in praise of Wisdom, who is imagined as if she were a wise teacher. One such, from the Book of Proverbs is:
“Happy are those who find wisdom,
and those who get understanding,
for her income is better than silver,
and her revenue better than gold.
She is more precious than jewels,
and nothing you desire can compare with her.” (Proverbs 3:13-15)
The moral teaching of Jesus
Saint Matthew’s Gospel then probably regards the moral teaching of Jesus, as not only fulfilling the Jewish Law, but also taking on the mantle of the teachers of wisdom. His wise advice on loving God and loving your neighbour is common sense.
The teaching of Jesus, as presented by Saint Matthew, could justly be called, ‘the New Wisdom’.
The call of the tax collector
It’s hard to believe sometimes that this is the same despised tax collector whom Jesus called to be one of his Apostles.
The people despised tax collectors in Jesus’s day, because they’d bought — from the hated occupying Roman government — the rights to collect customs dues from everybody who crossed the provincial boundary, in a particular place. They were able to charge whatever they liked, and did — extortionately.
So Matthew wasn’t only a cheat and a swindler, but he robbed his own people on behalf of their enemies — he was a quisling and a traitor. No wonder he was hated. But Jesus saw through all of that, and was able to see the potential in the despised and hated tax collector.
Only by grace
Perhaps though, it’s because of his own recent history, that Matthew knew so well, that it’s impossible to put that New Wisdom into practice. On your own, that is.
As Saint Paul said, describing his days as a Pharisee,
“I do not do the good I want, but the evil I do not want is what I do” (Romans 7:19).
It’s impossible to follow the wise teaching of Jesus, until we receive grace.
So in the second part of his Gospel, Matthew moves on from wise teaching and describes the death and resurrection of Jesus. His suffering and his triumph bring us the grace that enables us to obey his commandments, and to begin to follow his wise teaching ourselves, to begin to behave wisely.
Without the cross, wisdom is just wishful thinking. With the cross at its centre, the Christian teaching isn’t just wisdom, but Gospel — the good news that God loves us. It’s this that elicits our love for God in response, and gives us the grace to serve with wisdom.
Thank you, Matthew, for writing your Gospel to bring us the good news of God’s grace, which is more precious than jewels, and nothing we desire can compare with it.