Sunday, June 05, 2005

Four Reasons Why Matthew’s Conversion Lasted

(Tenth Sunday of the Year (A): This homily was given on June 5, 2005 at St. Pius X Church, Westerly, R.I. Read Matthew 9: 9-13.)

Caravaggio's painting, "The Calling of St. Matthew". (Matthew is the one pointing to himself.)

(For the audio version of this homily, click here: Tenth Sunday 2005]

Conversions are a lot like friendships and marriages: some of them last and some of them don’t.

For example, on September 11, 2001—and for several weeks thereafter—churches in this country were packed with worshippers. Remember that? People all over this nation either discovered or rediscovered the importance of God in their lives. It was a time of many sincere, heartfelt religious conversions.

Some of those conversions, no doubt, have lasted; however, many others—sadly—have not. But that’s the way it’s always been! Just look at today’s first reading from the Book of Hosea, chapter 6. There the prophet makes this observation: “In their affliction, people will say: ‘Let us know, let us strive to know the Lord; as certain as the dawn is his coming, and his judgment shines forth like the light of day! He will come to us like the rain, like spring rain that waters the earth.’”

At the time of Hosea, as in our own day, people turned to God in their affliction—in the 9/11’s of their lives. But all too often those conversions didn’t last for very long. That explains the next line of the text. There God speaks, and he says, “What can I do with you, Ephraim? What can I do with you, Judah? Your piety is like a morning cloud, like the dew that early passes away.”

Human nature hasn’t changed much, has it, in the 27 or so centuries since that line was written?

Which brings us to our Gospel reading from Matthew 9, where we hear about the beginning of one conversion that did last—one conversion that did stand the test of time: Matthew’s!

Why? To me, that’s the obvious question: Why did Matthew persevere in following Jesus on the narrow road that leads to eternal life? Why didn’t he fall back into his old sinful habits?

If we know those answers—in other words if we know why Matthew stayed converted for the rest of his life—we will learn some important lessons that we can apply to ourselves. We will come to know at least some of the things we need to do to remain strong in our Catholic faith, in the midst of the pressures we encounter every day to turn away from Christ and his Gospel.

In reflecting on the matter recently, I came to see that there were at least 4 reasons why Matthew remained firm in his commitment to Jesus. I’ll share those 4 with you today.

Reason number 1: He had the strength to walk away from what must have been his greatest temptation! Jewish tax collectors in first century Palestine were known to be greedy, materialistic people. They were also looked upon as traitors, since they collected money from their fellow Jews in order to pay off the pagan Romans who were occupying their land. That, of course, was bad enough, but in the process they also stole from their own people, by charging much more than the Romans required them to charge—and then pocketing the difference!

Given all this, I think it’s safe to say that avarice was probably the greatest temptation Matthew faced on a daily basis.

But when Jesus approached him at his customs post one day and said, “Follow me,” Scripture says that he immediately got up and followed! Without any hesitation whatsoever, he walked away from it all—and never went back.

It sounds like magic, doesn’t it? But it wasn’t! There’s an old principle of theology: Grace perfects nature. Grace doesn’t overpower or violate nature, it perfects it.

This means that when Jesus called Matthew, he didn’t magically control his free will! He didn’t turn Matthew into a robot and force him to obey.

He simply offered Matthew the grace of conversion. Matthew, for his part, had to freely accept it (which he did)!

What is your greatest temptation?—Pornography on the internet? Trying to get rich at the casino? The temptation to abuse alcohol or drugs? The temptation to hold grudges or to slander your neighbor?

Today is a day for each of us to think about our greatest temptation—and to reflect on how often we have walked away from it in the past. It’s also a day to ask God for the grace we will need to walk away in the future like Matthew did 2,000 years ago—because our conversions will only last if we consistently foster the habit of walking away.

Reason number 2 as to why Matthew’s conversion persisted is this: He surrounded himself with new friends who supported him in his new way of life. Remember, there’s no such thing as a “Lone Ranger Christian.” People who try to follow Christ on their own normally don’t last very long.

On the day Matthew met Jesus, he began a new relationship with our Lord (that’s obvious). But, lest we forget, he also began friendships on that occasion with 11 other men who had similarly been called to follow Jesus as his apostles. I’m sure he also formed other godly friendships as well—with Mary, our Blessed Mother, and with the many holy women who were also followers of Jesus during his 3 year ministry.

Matthew, in other words, developed a new circle of friends, who kept him on “the straight and narrow” (so to speak).

Reason number 3 as to why Matthew’s conversion lasted is this: He tried to evangelize his old friends, before they could de-evangelize him!

The process of getting “de-evangelized” is something that I’ve seen happen over and over again, especially with teenagers who come back from Steubenville East or a Youth 2000 retreat. These teens have a genuine conversion on the weekend, and then they go back to their old circle of friends. Now there’s nothing wrong with that, in and of itself. The problem is that instead of trying to evangelize these old friends by inviting them to youth group or by connecting them with their new Christian support system, they make the mistake of saying almost nothing to them about their recent experience of God. Consequently, their old friends quickly de-evangelize them, and draw them back into many of their old, sinful habits.

Notice what happens in this Gospel story. Matthew begins to follow Christ, and the first thing he does is to invite Jesus and the other apostles to dinner at his house. But he doesn’t stop there! He goes on to invite all his old tax collector and sinner friends to the dinner as well! It seems that Matthew was determined to evangelize his former associates by bringing them to Jesus, before they could de-evangelize him and lead him back to his old way of life.

When it came to evangelization Matthew took the offensive; and so should we—if we want our conversions to last.

Finally, Matthew’s conversion persisted because he took the Gospel seriously when he heard it! For example, when he heard Jesus say that he had come to call sinners, Matthew believed it! He took the message seriously. He came to the realization that he could change, in spite of his materialistic and dishonest past. Had he not accepted this Gospel truth from Jesus that day, he not only would have failed to persevere in his conversion, he never would have had a conversion experience in the first place! He would have continued to believe that he was hopeless.

For the next 3 years, of course, Matthew had to keep believing the many things he heard Jesus say when he preached, even when those teachings were hard and challenging (as they often were).

We need to do the same, when Jesus teaches us today through his Church. Practically speaking, this means that if you’re a “Cafeteria Catholic,” you shouldn’t expect your conversion to last very long. You may still go to Church after awhile, you may still go through the motions of being a Catholic, but your heart really won’t be with the Lord.

I’ll end my homily today as I began it. . . . Conversions are a lot like friendships and marriages: some of them last and some of them don’t.

St. Matthew, great apostle of Jesus Christ, pray for us today and every day, that our conversions will last unto eternity—as yours did!

Icon of St. Matthew the Apostle