On the Apostolic Life - A Homily on the Feast of the Evangelist Matthew (2020)

On the Apostolic Life - A Homily on the Feast of the Evangelist Matthew (2020)

 

IN THE NAME OF THE FATHER, AND OF THE SON, AND OF THE HOLY SPIRIT. AMEN.

Introduction

The Gospel according to the Holy Apostle and Evangelist Matthew, not only introduces its readers to Jesus Christ as the prophesied Messiah who came to save sinners but also illustrates this through the life of the Apostle Matthew. When the Apostle describes his employment as a Publican, he does not shy away from accentuating how others viewed his profession, which is mostly in a disparaging, critical, and insulting way. With these illustrations, Matthew reveals not only the depth of the vice to which he was employed but also the distance which Christ traversed in order to call sinners unto Himself. He writes that if we love others as they love us, we do not deserve a reward because even publicans do the same (Matt. 5:46-47). He says that Pharisees ridiculed Christ because he ate with publicans and sinners (Matt. 9:10-11; 11:19). When the Church’s elders correct one of Her adherents, but they do not listen, they are to be treated as a heathen and a publican (Matt. 18:17). Finally, publicans are even grouped with harlots, when Jesus, speaking to the Pharisees, said: “Verily I say unto you, that the publicans and the harlots go into the kingdom of God before you” (Matt. 21:31), and this Publican-Apostle entered the Kingdom of God.

Narration

When Matthew was called by Christ, the Apostle Luke tells us that he “left all” and followed Him (Luke 5.28). He followed Him who had no place to lay his head (Luke 9.58). He gave up his employment, he gave up his relationships, he gave up his finances, his security, his routine, his comfort, his familiarity, his aspirations, his hopes, his dreams – he left all. Why? Because He who called him had the words of eternal life (John 6.68), and in that pregnant moment when Christ speaks to him, saying, “Follow me,” this Publican realized it.

The “Hundredfold”

Moreover, what does this Publican gain? What does it benefit him to become an Apostle of Christ and to forsake all? Christ answers by saying, “every one that hath forsaken houses, or brethren, or sisters, or father, or mother, or wife, or children, or lands, for my name’s sake, shall receive a hundredfold, and shall inherit everlasting life” (Matt. 19.29). To become an Apostle was to become the recipient of the highest rewards of labor for Christ, which also includes “everlasting life.”

Earlier in the Gospel of Matthew (13. 1-23), we hear Christ teaching the crowds through the parable of the Sower and the Seed. The Lord says that not everyone receives the seed of the Gospel message, and, therefore, this seed withers and dies. Others receive it and depending on how they nurture and tend this seed, it will bear fruit thirty, sixty, or a hundredfold. Only in this parable and in the calling of the Apostles do we hear of those who produce fruit a hundredfold.[1]

The fruit is the blessedness reaped from the virtues done for God’s sake. The difference in the amount of fruit produced is due to the variation in the forms of virtue and the variation in those who perform them.[2] It is important to note that the rewards for our labors correspond to the effort exerted. In his commentary on this passage, St. Theophlayct writes:

Not all who accept the word bear fruit equally: but “one a hundredfold,” perhaps he who attained perfect non-possessiveness and extreme asceticism; “another sixtyfold,” perhaps the monk dwelling in a monastic community, and he too, yields fruitfully; and another thirtyfold,” he who has chosen honorable marriage and diligently practices the virtues as much as he is able.[3]

Addressing this “hundredfold,” St. Athanasius the Great, in his letter to the Monk Amun, writes:

For, there being two roads in life as regards these matters, the one a more moderate and helpful road conducive to life, that of marriage, I mean; the other one being angelic and unsurpassable, that of virginity; but if anyone should choose the mundane (i.e., natural) life, the way of marriage, though he is not liable to censure or blame, he will not receive so many gracious gifts. For what he will receive when he bears fruit will be thirty. But if he embraces the chaste and supramundane life (i.e., life above nature), though the road is rough in comparison with the first and difficult to achieve, yet it has more wonderful features in the way of gracious gifts: for it has produced the perfect fruit, the hundred.[4]

However, may we not neglect to see that the magnitude of God’s love accepts those who do much and those of us who only do little.[5] Not everyone is called to forsake houses, brethren, sisters, father, mother, wife, children, or lands for Christ’s sake, yet those who do will receive a hundredfold.[6] In like manner does the Lord instruct the young lawyer who asks, “What must I do to be saved?” to which He responds by answering not what one needs to do in order to be saved but in order to be perfect or, as St. John Cassian puts it, Christ’s answer is exhortatory (by way of encouragement), not imperative (or commanding), in order to encourage and persuade the young lawyer’s will.[7] Therefore, Christ says: “If thou wilt be perfect, go and sell that thou hast, and give to the poor, and thou shalt have treasure in heaven: and come and follow me” (cf. Matt 19. 16-22).

Slaves, Servants, and Sons

Growth in the spiritual life is a growth and ascent in love towards God. Slaves constitute the beginning of the spiritual life in repentance; servants constitute those who are maturing, and the sons and daughters are those who love God more perfectly.

This is the language that the Apostle Paul uses when he describes how we once served sin and unrighteousness (Rom. 6.16-17, 20) but then turned to serve God and righteousness and are considered “servants of God” (Rom. 6.20, 22; cf. Eph. 6.6 and 1 Peter 2.16) who desire to be obedient to God in all things being assured of the rewards which befit good servants. For this, Christ continually promises: for those who are persecuted for His name’s sake, great is their reward in heaven (Matt. 5.12); at the second coming, each man will be rewarded according to his works (Matt. 16.27); those who love their enemies and do good to them will receive their reward in Heaven (Luke 6.23), Christ is a rewarder of those who diligently seek Him (Heb. 11.6). These are not debts paid to a worker because the work of Christians is but filthy rags in the sight of God; they are promises to those obedient to God.

St. Gregory Palamas notes,

When at first someone approaches God as a guilty man, he really is a slave on account of his former disobedience and defiance. Next, having served as a slave, he desires a recompense as well. Then after making progress in love, he becomes a son, who is now in possession of virtue and submits as if by nature to the heavenly Father, without compulsion.[8]

From Servants to Sons

Where does the ascent lead? It leads from the repentance of slaves and the obedience of servants who receive the reward of their labors, to becoming “friends” who have learned not to fear Christ, nor to desire His rewards, but to love Him.

St. John Climacus, describing love for God as the supreme impetus in working for God, says, “The man who renounces the world from fear is like burning incense, that begins with incense but ends in smoke. He who leaves the world through hope of reward is like a millstone that always moves in the same way (i.e., is self-centered, revolving around itself). But he who withdraws from the world out of love for God has obtained fire at the very outset; and, like fire set to fuel, it soon kindles a large fire.”[9]

As Christ said, “Ye are my friends if you do whatsoever I command you. Henceforth I call you not servants… but I have called you friends...” (cf. John 15.14-15). “Greater love hath no man than this, that a man lay down his life for his friends’ (John 15.13). Love sacrifices itself for the beloved, which Christ did and which the Apostle Matthew also did in turn for Christ. These “friends” are the sons and daughters of God. “Behold, what manner of love the Father hath bestowed upon us, that we should be called the sons of God,” says the Apostle John. “In this the children of God are manifest… For this is the message that ye heard from the beginning, that we should love one another.” (cf. John 3. 1-11). For love for neighbor is proof of love for God and embraces all the virtues.

I have seen impure souls raving madly about physical love, says St. John of the Ladder, making their experience of such love a reason for repentance, they transferred the same love to the Lord; and, overcoming all fear, they spurred themselves insatiably on to the love of God. That is why the Lord does not say of that chaste harlot (who washed His feet with her tears and wiped them with her hair); ‘Because she feared,” but: “Because she loved much,” and could easily expel love by love.[10]

Conclusion

Brothers and sisters, for the love of Christ and for the love of his neighbor, the Apostle and Evangelist Matthew forsook all and never looked back. After the descent of the Holy Spirit, he stayed in Jerusalem. There he wrote his Gospel and then left to the lands in the Middle East preaching that Gospel before going on to Ethiopia. He lived here as a hermit for a time, not even in a cave but in the open air, praying for the salvation of the people in this land. God revealed to him how to preach to these people, and so he left this seclusion to preach the Gospel. In so doing, many were converted before he was martyred, and the seed of his life and the seed of the Gospel was planted in the land of Ethiopia.

Such is the apostolic life; such is the hundredfold; such is love for God.

THROUGH THE PRAYERS OF THE HOLY APOSTLE AND EVANGELIST MATTHEW, LORD JESUS CHRIST, HAVE MERCY ON US. AMEN.

 

[1] This is omitted in the Gospel of John, but is present in Matthew, Mark, and Luke.

[2] Cf.The Explanation by Blessed Theophylact of the Holy Gospel According to St. Matthew. (Chrysostom Press: House Springs, 1993), 114.

[3] Ibid., 111.

[4] First Epistle of Athanasius the Great, addressed to the monk Amun.

[5] “Salvation by works” is not implied here. The point is that all Christians are asked to deny themselves and follow Christ. The degree to which one does so corresponds to the reward one receives such as is heard in the Parable of the Talents where the Lord will reward each according what they have done – “Well done, good and faithful servant” (cf. Matt. 25. 14-30).

[6] Earlier in his commentary, St. Theophylact categorizes those who correspond to each of the variations in the harvest noting, “Nor do all who accept the word bear fruit equally: but ‘one a hundredfold’, perhaps he who has attained to perfect non-possesiveness and extreme asceticism; ‘another sixtyfold’, perhaps the monk dwelling in a monastic community, and he, too, yields fruitfully; ‘and another thirtyfold’, he who has chosen honorable marriage and diligently pactices the virtues as much as he is able.” (Ibid., 111).

[7] Cf. Conferences 21.V.4

[8] “Homily 47 – On the Gospel for the Fourth Sunday of Luke Which says, ‘A Sower Went Out to Sow His Seed,’” in Saint Gregory Palamas: The Homilies. (Mount Thabor Publishing: Dalton, 2009), 370-371.

[9] The Ladder of Divine Ascent, 1.13

[10] Ibid., 5.26.


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