Sunday, June 08, 2008

A Lesson on Friendship from Matthew

"As Jesus passed on from there, he saw a man named Matthew sitting at the customs post. He said to him, 'Follow me.' And he got up and followed him." (Matthew 9: 9)

(Tenth Sunday of the Year (A): This homily was given on June 8, 2008 at St. Pius X Church, Westerly, R.I., by Fr. Raymond Suriani. Read Matthew 9: 9-13.)

[For the audio version of this homily, click here: Tenth Sunday 2008]

Today’s lesson is on friendship, courtesy of Matthew, the tax collector. However, to understand the lesson we have to be able—and willing—to “read between the lines” of the gospel passage we just heard.

When we do this we learn, among other things, what kind of friend Matthew was to others.

We’re told in this story that one day Jesus saw Matthew at his customs post and said to him, “Follow me.” And he did—immediately! At first it might be hard for us to imagine this kind of scenario happening, but in all likelihood Matthew had already heard Jesus preach and had already seen him perform a miracle or two. In that case his immediate response to our Lord is not so surprising.

Then the scene shifts to Matthew’s house, where a big dinner party is taking place involving Jesus and his apostles and many of Matthew’s old friends, none of whom is what you would call “a pillar of the community”!

They were, to say the least, a colorful cast of characters.

And the self-righteous Pharisees are more than happy to point this out to the apostles. Jesus overhears the remark and responds, “Those who are well do not need a physician, but the sick do. . . . I did not come to call the righteous but sinners.”

As I reflected on this scene the other day and tried to “read between the lines” of the story, four points stood out to me regarding Matthew as a friend.

First of all, he made the difficult decision to follow Jesus in part because he wanted to be a better friend to others. It wasn’t his only motivation for following our Lord, to be sure, but I’m convinced it was there in the background.

Matthew knew the kind of person he had been in the past: a lying, cheating tax collector who had gotten rich by ripping off his own Jewish people and supporting the evil Roman government. He also sensed what kind of person Jesus was: holy, merciful, faithful and just. And he realized that if he left his past behind and spent most of his time in the future with Jesus, in all likelihood he’d end up becoming more like our Lord. He would become a better person; therefore he would become a better friend to the people he really cared about on this earth.

Secondly, Matthew was not ashamed of his new friendship with Jesus. He didn’t try to hide this fact from his old sinner friends. If he had been ashamed, he obviously would have had two separate parties on two separate occasions: one for Jesus and his apostles, the other for the big time sinners.

Thirdly, he desperately wanted his old friends to meet Jesus Christ, his new friend. I’m convinced that’s why he held this dinner party immediately after his conversion. He was extremely excited about this new relationship in his life! He was overjoyed with this new friendship, and he wanted his old sinner friends to experience the same level of excitement and joy in their lives.

And finally, he was ready to draw the line, with respect to his old relationships. If Matthew’s old friends had rejected Jesus after meeting him; or worse, if they had tried to undermine his relationship with our Lord in some way, I’m sure Matthew was prepared to “let go” of those old friendships. In other words, if it came down to Jesus or them, he was prepared to choose Jesus.

His friendship with our Lord was now the most important friendship in his life; he would not compromise it or throw it away—for anybody!

Which leads to the key questions of the day: What kind of friend are you? Are you a friend like Matthew?

To answer those questions, you need to go back to those four points I just made about the tax collector turned apostle.

I started off by saying that Matthew made the decision to follow Jesus because he knew he’d be a better friend to others by growing closer to our Lord and becoming more like him. I know many people today who hesitate to follow Jesus as completely as they know they should, because they believe that doing so will make them less of a friend to others. And that’s true—it will—if their human friendships are rooted in sin! For example, if your friendship with Joe centers around the fact that the two of you get drunk together every Friday and Saturday night, you will definitely not want to grow close to Jesus like Matthew did, because then you’ll have to stop your wild partying , and in the process your friendship with Joe will completely fall apart! The basis of your relationship—the sin of drunkenness—will be gone.

In the same way those who are involved in sexual relationships outside of marriage are reluctant to strike up a deep friendship with Jesus, because if they do they know they’ll have to change their behavior, and in the process the people they’re sexually involved with might walk away.

Do I believe, like Matthew did, that having Jesus as my best friend will make me the best possible friend I can be to other people?

That can be a tough one—because it ultimately brings into play the fourth point I mentioned. Matthew, I said, was ready to draw the line with respect to his old relationships. If his old friends had tried to undermine his relationship with Jesus Christ in some way, Matthew was prepared to let those old friends go and choose Jesus.

Let’s be honest about it, letting go of old friends—even if they’re not the most virtuous of friends—can be very difficult.

The second point I made about the ex-tax collector was that he was not ashamed of his new relationship with Jesus. He didn’t try to hide that fact from the other people in his life. If we’re a friend to others like Matthew, then our friends will definitely know how committed we are to Jesus Christ and our Catholic faith.

We’ll make sure they do!

The temptation can be strong, of course, to act otherwise. In this regard, I recently came across a very powerful witness story written by a young woman named Melanie Welsch. Melanie had a conversion experience in high school and was really into her Catholic faith.

But then she went off to college, and decided that in order to fit in, she would need to keep her Catholicism and her friendship with Jesus “under wraps,” so to speak.

But that all changed after her encounter with a fellow student named Nick. Listen now to her description of the event:

Nick was the muscular, tan, dark-haired guy who lived across the hall. He was the kind of guy whom every girl liked and every guy wanted to be. He paid a lot of attention to me. We spent time together and got to know each other pretty well—or so I thought.

One day Nick commented on my outfit as I walked down the hall. “You look really good. Where are you going?”

We were well into the college semester. I was confident in my friendships, and I decided that it was time to come clean about being Catholic. In fact, I thought Nick might be impressed to discover that I was a Christian girl with values.

“I’m going to church,” I responded, batting my eyes.

He didn’t hide his surprise. You’re going to church?”

“Yeah, I go to church every Sunday.” I went on to tell him about how I was this REALLY Catholic girl and that my nickname used to be “Mother Teresa.” I thought this new information was impressing him until he spoke again in that same confused voice: “Huh! I would have never guessed that YOU were Catholic.”

I was stunned. “Why not?”

He chuckled and said, “I just never would have guessed it by the way you dress, the way you talk, the jokes you tell and the way you dance. Wow! I just never would have guessed that!”

Needless to say, Melanie was crushed. But the experience finally woke her up to reality. After a few hours of crying and reassessing her life, she vowed to renew her friendship with Jesus and to be open about it with ALL her earthly friends—like Matthew was with his.

And finally, I noted that Matthew desperately wanted his old friends to meet Jesus, his new friend—and that this was why he hosted the dinner party at his house immediately after his conversion.

That’s one way of saying that after his conversion Matthew became very intent on evangelizing the people he knew and loved.

Are you as intent on evangelizing your friends? You should be, if your friendship with the Savior of the world is indeed the most important and most meaningful relationship in your life.

In this regard, when teenagers tell me that they’re not going to a Steubenville East Conference or to a Youth 2000 retreat because “I already went, Father Ray; I already had my experience with Jesus,” I flip out!

I say, “But what about your friends? You’ve got friends who don’t know Jesus; how about inviting them and going along with them? Don’t you care about their souls? Don’t you care about their eternal salvation? The Christian life is not about you and Jesus, period; it’s about you, Jesus AND OTHER PEOPLE! The first time you go on one of these retreats, you should go for yourself. But if at all possible you should go again for the sake of your friends—for the sake of the people you really care about: to help them have the same kind of encounter with Jesus Christ that you had.”

That’s what Matthew would have done. No doubt about it!

What kind of friend are you? Are you a friend like Matthew?

St. Matthew, great apostle and great friend pray for us, that we will learn from your example and cultivate good, Christ-centered friendships in our lives.