Imagine an employee of the Inland Revenue writing a book about the life of an obscure Jewish man. It doesn’t sound like it would shift quite as many copies as the stories about a young student wizard called Potter does it!
But now consider that the tax man author is St. Matthew. The subject of the book is none other than Jesus of Nazareth, who many millions throughout the ages would come to call The Christ, and then we come to recognize that this tax collector’s writings, which form such a key part of the best selling book of all time, actually make J. K. Rowling’s efforts look about as popular as a Grove Book on the use of incense at a Soul Survivor youth conference!
During my studies for fulltime ministry here at Cranmer Hall, Durham, my timetable provided for a bit of “extra-curricula activity” and Dr. Pete Phillips at CODEC suggested I might work on a Lent course for the Big Bible project, aimed at those exploring the Christian faith for the first time, or for new believers. This was right up my street! I came to faith at the age of 25 and as such, can still remember what it was like to be the one with no church background (or baggage), seeking more and more answers about this Jesus, who had come so powerfully into my life. The challenge today, eight years later, is how do I communicate with the same passion and enthusiasm, but without all the church lingo that I have inevitably acquired?
Since the liturgical year in 2011 allows for the study of Matthew’s gospel during Lent, I started to research writing a small group study resource looking at the writings of Jesus’ tax collector friend. The course has become “Meetings with Matt” and includes five sessions (including an introductory meal) looking at those who Jesus encounters in this amazing gospel – starting with Matthew himself.
The sessions encourage those attending to think about what the text is saying, how it makes us react, what is means to experience awe and wonder through the passage and how the encounters with Jesus might affect our witness to the world at large.
As I have been looking at the gospel, my own faith has been refreshed as I have read again about John the Baptist and experienced the Trinity in the voice of the father, the baptized Son and the descending dove of the Spirit. I have been excited to see the power of Christ the healer as he assures and restores the sick woman and the dead girl in Matthew chapter nine. I have been challenged about the materialism that surrounds me as I have read of the challenge to the rich young man and I have questioned, experienced guilt and even sympathised with Pilate as he asks “are you the Christ?”
What does it say to us that Jesus calls a hated tax collector to follow him, to be one of his closest friends? I wonder if we often forget this simple message that Jesus calls those who cheat and swindle, those who do dodgy deals and accept backhanders, those who have no hope of learning from a true master, to follow him, to love him, to call the Christ…our friend.
It strikes me that Matthew was exactly the sort of person we might cross the road to avoid, the kind of person we would never trust with the church accounts.
I love Matthew….he reminds me a lot of myself!
“…for all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God, and all are justified freely by his grace through the redemption that came by Christ Jesus.”
Romans 3: 23-24
Russell Gant is a 33 year-old husband to Jenny and Dad to Annabelle. A former local government officer, he is now training for ministry in the Church of England at Cranmer Hall, Durham. He has a passion for Alpha, the book of James, his family and friends and steam engines!!
Meetings with Matt will be available as a downloadable resource from January 2011 from: www.bigbible.org.uk
Article originally commissioned for Methodist Evangelicals Together Magazine.