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by the Rev. John Keble



from Sermons for the Saints' Days and Other Festivals

James Parker and Co. Oxford, 1880.




S. Matt. ix. 10


"It came to pass, as Jesus sat at meat in the house,

behold, many publicans and sinners came and sat

 down with Him and His disciples."

SEE here the extreme condescension and tender love of Jesus Christ, for the worst and most miserable sinners. The holy evangelist S. Matthew seems himself astonished at the remembrance of it.  Behold, says he; as if it were something wonderful, something more than could be looked for, even from Christ's unspeakable mercy: that He should sit at meat in a publican's and sinner's house, and that many of the like sort should be permitted to come and sit down with Him.  Such, no doubt, had been S. Matthew's feeling at the time: and such it continued, so long afterwards, twenty or thirty years perhaps, when he came to write it down in his Gospel.  For he, S. Matthew's own self, was the person to whom this great thing happened.  He had been, a little before, called suddenly by Jesus Christ, when sitting at his ordinary work. Like a rich merchant, a lawyer, or a shop-keeper, who has many various accounts to settle; whose time is taken up, from morning till night, with calls of business which he is forced to attend to: all of them, more or less, turning his thoughts towards money, as if the gain, or the loss of it were the great business of life: such was Matthew, as he sat at the receipt of custom: and if you would wonder to see such an one rise up suddenly at the call of some holy man, leave his accounts, his treasures, and his gainful employments, and devote himself entirely to the more immediate service of God, you may in some measure judge, with what adoring love and thankfulness the great Apostle and Evangelist would remember the moment of his call: all the loving looks, gracious words, and merciful condescensions of his God and Saviour towards him.


We know how Abraham rejoiced, when he had entertained Angels unawares: but here is the God and Creator of the Angels coming to sit down to meat in the house of one, whom He had not long before called out of the dangerous ways of the wicked heathen world. For the publicans, or Roman tax-gatherers, were not only wicked persons, generally speaking, but even positive heathens; and S. Matthew, though a Jew, must have been, by his calling, brought into frequent companionship with such. How then must he have been transported and overpowered, what a bowing down of heaven to earth must it have appeared to him, when the Holy Jesus vouchsafed to enter under his roof: to sit at meat there, where so often profane and wicked persons had been, indulging-in profane and wicked discourse: and not only so, but as the publicans and sinners, one by one, entered in, and took their places at the same board with the Holy and Divine Visitor: how must the saint's heart have been filled with the thought of the same mercy offered to each of them, whereof he had himself so happily partaken! What joy to him to hope, that by inviting them to meet our Lord, he might do something, under God, unworthy as he was, towards changing their hearts, and saving their souls! And then what an enduring inexhaustible comfort, to perceive that his Redeemer's purpose was; not only to call sinners once for all, but to abide with them, after He had called them: to be their Helper as well as their Converter: to abide with them not only in Church-services, and where they appear before Him solemnly as penitents, but also in all the ordinary concerns of life, in their business and refreshment, their meals and conversations.


This, my brethren, is the point of view, in which I propose to-day to consider the call of the blessed Apostle and Evangelist, and the circumstances of the feast which shortly followed it. May we not rightly and profitably regard the whole history as a token of Christ's gracious Presence with true penitents, as well in all their common employments and diversions, as when they are actually on their knees before Him, or suffering under His rod?


It is an aweful, surely, as well as a comfortable thought, even for a forgiven sinner, to find himself in the immediate Presence of Almighty God. When we have been lying prostrate before Him, confessing our secret and open sins, and humbly waiting for such tokens of pardon and consolation as it may please Him to grant us: when, by His especial grace and favour, the world out of sight has been made more than usually present to us: when we have been carried up to heaven, and down again to the deep, with the sense of His heavenly encouragement, and our own miserable deficiencies: we may well feel afraid and ashamed to return to our ordinary feelings and employments, and mix ourselves up with earthly matters, as if nothing particular had happened.  And yet, so it must be: it is the condition under which we live, part of our task and burthen in this present world: the corruptible body must press down the soul and the earthly tabernacle; the cloud of temporal anxieties must weigh down the spirit, that museth of many and high things. Here then the remembrance comes in of our Lord's most loving and compassionate behaviour to penitents, such as S. Matthew and his friends on earth: how He not only accepted their penitency, their high and severe sacrifice of themselves, when He called them, and they, by a mighty effort left all, rose up and followed Him: but also continued with them in their after-life, through all ordinary times and occasions, when there was nothing uncommon to excite them. Levi made Him a great feast in his own house, his farewell-feast, on giving up his property: and there came many publicans and sinners, and sat down with Jesus and His disciples: and He did in no wise withdraw Himself, but abode with them in their innocent refreshment. They were not all the time actually engaged in holy services, in prayer and confession: they were taken up, as others might be, more or less, in providing for their bodily wants: still our Lord abode with them. He was at hand, as long as, by wilful relapsing or stubbornness, they did not drive Him away. He was at hand to cherish in them every faint beginning of good: to breath over their household and familiar thoughts a deeper meaning, a spirit of warning and exhortation: to reprove those who would discourage them by pride or censoriousness, to convince and remind them, in every way, that He came not to call righteous persons, but sinners to repentance. They were not to shrink from Him, though they knew themselves to be sinners, seeing He was come on purpose to call them: yet they were still to remember that He was calling them to repentance.


And now, see how all this applies to the ordinary sort amongst ourselves, to all whom Christ has called, or is daily calling to repentance. Suppose one swallowed up, like Levi, in some gainful business, or living on from day to day just according to the pleasure of the moment. He hears Christ speaking to him: his heart is deeply smitten by the call to forsake all, and follow his Saviour: he cannot be easy without seeking for a better happiness than any which his past life promises him. What is he to do? How is he to make the most of the merciful invitation of his good and gracious Saviour?


First and chiefly, let him once for all forsake, not only the sin, whatever it be, which most effectually separates him from Jesus Christ, but also everything which, he knows, will give occasion to that sin, or put him in great danger of it. S. Matthew not only forsook all covetous desires and inordinate love of riches, but he likewise gave up at once the business of a publican, which was continually tempting him to that bad mind. He left his office or counting-house, called here "the receipt of custom," his papers and bills of accompt, his heaps of money, and all the matters, which had hitherto taken up his whole attention; he parted with all of them entirely, he turned his whole mind and heart, his eyes and his hands, quite another way. The very place which he had been used to, he forsook. To continue there would have been continuing in the way of temptation. Our Saviour expressly bade him do so: but He no less clearly, though not in express words, instructs everyone of us to give up our profits, our pleasures, and our acquaintances, when we know in our hearts, that it will be dangerous for us to keep them.


Again, as Levi, being converted, made our Lord a great feast in his own house, so if we would continue our repentance, and make it perfect, we must order our houses and our meals so, that Jesus Christ may vouchsafe to be there present. Great and unspeakable as that honour is, far above what a sinner might have dared reckon upon, we are yet encouraged to hope for it. Christ, at Whose feet we have tried to cast ourselves, either in His Church, or in our private devotions, by deep and sincere acts of special repentance—He offers to return with us from the Church to our own homes, or from our silent communings with Him in our chamber to the company and conversation of others. He will sit down with us, even among publicans and sinners, if our duty call us into such company. Nay, He will the rather accompany us thither, if we, out of charity and religion, invite such as we may, to meet Him. S. Matthew, being once called, could not endure to enjoy the blessings of his calling himself alone, but invited many publicans and sinners, his former associates in heathenism and covetousness, to be now sharers with him in the love and bounty of the Holy Jesus. And in proportion as we have truly repented ourselves, we shall of course, silently and humbly, yet really, do our best to bring others, especially the partners of our sin, to like repentance and amendment. Knowing in our hearts, how utterly unworthy we are to sit at meat with Jesus Christ, yet humbly acknowledging His merciful invitation to us, we shall never despair of any the worst sinner, never judge his case hopeless, never think it useless to pray for him, and to watch for all opportunities of doing him good, which may be put in our way by the Lover of his soul and ours. We shall try to be always on our guard against that miserable pride, which made the Pharisees cry out, "Why eateth your Master with publicans and sinners?" [S. Matt. ix. 11.]  We shall abhor the notion of grudging our fellow-creatures and fellow-sinners that mercy, without which, we know, ourselves must infallibly have perished. If sacrifice, i.e. God's outward and visible service, come in the way of mercy, i.e. truly helping our brethren, and doing them good, we shall know which to prefer. He hath said, "I will have mercy and not sacrifice;" [S. Matt. ix. 13.] therefore true love to Him will always prevail upon us to give up even the joy we feel in personally serving Him; we shall willingly give up for the time even our devotions, rather than fail to wait upon any distressed member of Christ, who really wants our aid.


He that walks faithfully by these rules, forsaking, at his Saviour's call, not only sin but the occasions of sin: anxiously forwarding other men's repentance, in such ways as God's providence may enable him; delighting most of all in devotion, but preferring charity even to it: he shall find this great reward, that Christ will fill his heart more and more with loyal love for Himself and sense of His presence. Christ will reveal Himself to that man, as He revealed Himself to the blessed S. Matthew, enabling him to know more than others of His glorious and merciful life here on earth, of His sermons and conversations, His miracles of power and mercy. S. Matthew, at Christ's call, forsook all and followed Him: welcomed Him to his house: was charitably anxious to introduce his brethren and friends to Him: and, for his reward, he became the first evangelist: the writer of the first of the four Gospels: to him was especially committed the charge of making known the kingdom of God and of Christ. As that kingdom especially belongs to those who are poor in spirit, so Matthew, who, of all the Apostles, did most particularly make himself poor for Christ's sake, had commission to write that Gospel, in which that kingdom is most particularly set forth. For you will find, on comparison, that S. Matthew speaks of the kingdom of God, the kingdom of heaven, the kingdom of Christ, and the like, and that he sets forth Christ as a King, oftener and more plainly and in a greater variety of ways, than either of the other Gospels: and this is supposed to be the reason, why his Gospel is represented in visions among the cherubim by the lion, the royal animal; viz. that it makes known Christ as a royal Person; "the Lion of the tribe of Judah." [Webmaster's note:  St. Matthew has more commonly been understood to be represented by the "likeness of a man", see for example Blunt.]  For which cause also his Gospel is particularly addressed to the Jews, to whom the kingdom had been promised by the prophets. We cannot suppose that there was no remarkable meaning in one being chosen before all the rest, so to proclaim the great King. It was as if some mighty monarch, first entering into a place, should callout of the multitude around him some one person, whom no one thought of before, to do the work of a herald, declaring his glory: and as if people should find, on enquiry, that he chose that one on account of his being ready and forward to deny and humble himself, and make himself poor. So Levi the son of Alphaeus left all and followed Christ: and Christ made him steward of the riches of His grace: Christ entrusted him before others with the Gospel of His kingdom, to make known to His own people.


In conclusion, we may learn by our Lord's dealings with S. Matthew, not only how to repent, but also how to deal with others repenting. A feeling will sometimes come up even in a well-disposed mind, in spite of ourselves a feeling will arise, as if such persons were being too highly favoured: we are inclined to grudge them the high privileges of the Gospel. Let us beware of this; for too often it is part of the leaven of the Pharisees, it comes of our having too good an opinion of ourselves. Let us quiet every such thought with the remembrance of our own sad and shameful backslidings. Let us seriously consider, that to indulge any prejudice against any repenting sinner, as though he were too easily forgiven, is in fact grudging ourselves the salvation which we hope for. For how do we expect and hope to be saved? Is it not in the character of repenting sinners? And if we think scorn of their hope, what becomes of our own?


Instead then of grudging and envious emotions, when we behold persons, whom we know to have been wicked, apparently repenting, and in consequence absolved and admitted to Holy Communion, let us endeavour to have nothing in our hearts, but sincere love for them, and prayer that they may go on and prosper. Let their earnestness put us to shame for being so dull and languid as we too often are: let their rapid improvement stir us up to a holy jealousy, and quicken us day by day in the good path; that we, with the holy S. Matthew, and all true Gospel penitents, may be admitted, though in far lower places, to sit at meat with Jesus and His disciples in the kingdom of heaven.