29 November 2014

A blessed Feast of Holy Apostle Matthew

I would by highly remiss if I allowed yet another year pass over without remarking upon the Holy Apostle Matthew, the first of the Evangelists and witness of Christ to the Parthians, the Medes and the Ethiopians, whose feast day we celebrate today in the Russian Orthodox Church. Being the saint for whom I was named would be reason enough, but Holy Apostle Matthew is noteworthy in these days in particular, and to Americans in particular, for several other reasons.

Firstly, that Holy Apostle Matthew was a Gospel witness to the Iranians is of great importance. Iran and her people, specifically magi, feature prominently in the Gospel which the holy Saint authored. Iran, the land where Prophets Daniel, Esther and Mordechai still keep their repose, was also the land from which the wise men hailed who first saw the signs of the birth of Our Lord and knelt down before him in adoration. Iran has long been a nation which has thirsted after the timeless and transcendental truths, before gold and land, before power and fame, and before worldly honour and glory; in her way, she was the one nation outside of Israel which was most receptive to the idea of one God, without form, whose overriding character lies in His goodness and His care for the weakest and most vulnerable members of human society. Her zeal, her thirst for truth and her expectation of God’s justice all continue to this day. Is it any wonder the wisest men of this land would, as in Holy Apostle Matthew’s telling, look for God (and indeed recognise Him!) in a lowly manger, in a poor town, born to vagrant parents in the occupied client state of Herodean Israel? And is it any wonder that, after the victory of Christ over death, Holy Apostle Matthew would fare eastward with the good news, to proclaim it there?

As Christians - as those who have heard what was preached by the Holy Apostle Matthew and others - those of us living in America and in the West generally should recoil in shame and horror before we would allow our governments to engage in the military destruction they so often threaten against that country, over an Iranian nuclear weapons programme that is continually fretted over but which never quite manages to materialise. Also, we are duty-bound to pray for the success of the diplomatic ventures that would both ease the fear on our side of an Iranian nuke and ease the material deprivation from sanctions on their own.

Secondly, that when Holy Apostle Matthew recounted the Beatitudes of Our Lord Christ, of the poor in spirit being blessed, he was speaking of a spiritual discipline against the illusions of pride and self-sufficiency. He was emphatically not giving licence or sanction to the wealthy to oppress the economically poor for any reason. Indeed, such oppression and such pursuit of wealth are grave dangers to the soul, as wealth is a cruel and callous master who will brook no such spiritual discipline oriented toward God. No one could possibly have a greater awareness of this than Holy Apostle Matthew, who was himself formerly a tax collector who would have known all too well the temptations of greed, and who recounts Our Lord saying clearly: ‘No man can serve two masters: for either he will hate the one, and love the other; or else he will hold to the one, and despise the other. Ye cannot serve God and mammon.’ Not only is it a gross distortion of the meaning of S. Matthew’s Gospel to justify the naked pursuit of wealth and the neglect of the economically poor by stressing the spiritual dimension of the Beatitudes in his account, but it runs directly counter to that very same spiritual dimension. My favourite Orthodox philosopher, Nikolai Berdyaev, put it thus: ‘The question of bread for myself is a material question; but the question of bread for my neighbour is a spiritual question.’

Thirdly, that it is wholly reasonable to expect that Holy Apostle Matthew, whose concern with the genealogy of Our Lord and the signs of his sacral kingship in the line of David are evident in his very mode of writing, and would have been shared by his fellow Hebrews but not by Greek-speaking Gentiles, would almost certainly have been writing in Aramaic first rather than in Greek. That S. Matthew’s account agrees in large part, even to the point of being identical to that of S. Mark’s, is not evidence that he copied his account from S. Mark, or that they both copied from some other source whose existence stands on much flimsier rational grounds than the Aramaic original text of S. Matthew. The Church Fathers beginning with Papias and Irenaeus assert that S. Matthew wrote his Gospel before S. Mark did; and there is no independent reason to cast doubt or suspicion on their understanding of the history of the texts - particularly not for the sake of modernist scholars of higher-criticism suffering from acute cases of chronological snobbery.

It is necessary for us to keep all of the above in mind. Holy Apostle Matthew’s life and works should never be forgotten, and still less what they all mean for us today, particularly we white Christians living sheltered lives under secular Western governments. Those whom we consider our enemies, we are called to love (S. Matthew 5:44). That the wealth and security which we hoard unto ourselves, even as S. Matthew himself did before Jesus called to him at Capernaum, can be a prohibitive spiritual barrier to our entry into the eternal Kingdom (S. Matthew 19:23-26). And that we ought not to trust in our own righteousness and wit and self-sufficiency, and demand signs and wonders in our comfortable self-satisfaction, but rather fast and repent in sincerity as did the men and women of great and proud Nineveh when the same sign was given to them (S. Matthew 16:4). Yet the life and works of S. Matthew show us the same thing that he tells us outright through the words of Our Lord: that with God, all things are indeed possible; as they were possible for him, they are possible too for us!

Holy Apostle Matthew, please pray with us, and entreat merciful God that He may grant our souls remission of our transgressions.

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