By Mark Michael
I’ve had a longtime fascination with auctioneers. When I was a kid, house and farm auctions were a big deal in our little town. There was one most every Saturday in the fall and the late spring, selling the estates of old couples moving into the nursing home or stepping across the threshold into glory. Farmhouses and sheds and barns would be emptied of amazing quantities of material, the furniture ranked in lines across the side yard and oddities of all sorts laid out on planks propped up with sawhorses.
The Lions Club or a Sunday school class would sell hot dogs out of the garage, with hot coffee and big slices of homemade pie. There were bound to be treasures amid all the scattered offerings. Our kitchen table came from a farm sale, a few of my favorite books, and a calendar we have framed on the wall that was printed for my great-great-grandfather’s general store in 1925.
But auctioneers themselves were what mesmerized me. Each one had his own patter, a chant that rose and fell and sped and slowed as he watched the crowd. We didn’t have improv comedians in little towns in western Maryland, but auctioneers had something of a talent for reading a crowd. They would get us all laughing one minute, and then turn deadly serious the next, making the contest for an antique china cabinet look like the drama of the century.
They also always seemed to know what an item would bring. They’d seen it all before, and seemed to understand just where to start the bidding, and how wide to space the bid intervals. I’ve seen them stop the process when an item didn’t seem likely to rise to a reasonable rate, and go back to it again a few hours later, after the antique dealers had arrived.
Those auctioneers had to make thousands of on-the-spot judgments, and it’s no wonder that quite a few of them moonlighted as appraisers. That ability to see right into an item’s worth must be a crucial part of the auctioneer’s trade. There’s not that much room for error. You can only hold a crowd so long, you need to space the items appropriately and keep the drama at just the right level so your bidders don’t lose interest and head back to watching college football.
St. Matthew must have had ample opportunity to become a kind of appraiser in his days as a tax collector, and if he’d learned a good patter, I expect that he would have done pretty well as a small-town auctioneer. The ancient tax collector wasn’t at all like a modern IRS official. In largely illiterate society, it just wasn’t practical to make people fill out forms or assess carefully calibrated rates.
Instead the Romans, like most ancient empires, collected their funds through what is called “tax farming.” They didn’t pay salaries to their tax collectors—quite the contrary. You had to purchase the privilege of collecting taxes. A tax collector was responsible for forwarding a set amount of income from his district to the central government each year. How he raised it was his business, and whatever he kept over the set amount was his income.
Tax collectors, as a rule, tried to milk the system for all it could possibly give. They would go from door to door collecting what they thought they could badger out of the residents. They had to survey a farm quickly and produce the set price, and to get round the fact that citizens knew how corrupt the process was and would do their best to conceal whatever assets they did have. Ask too little, and they’d try the same trick on you next time. Ask too much, and you might find yourself chased away with a rake or conspicuously short of a few sheep. Most tax collectors gathered two to three times the official rate, and became very wealthy, if despised among their fellow men.
A peasant might despise a tax collector, but he surely feared his gaze. That ability to see right into things, to know in an instant what you were really worth, that’s a power that commands hushed tones and averted eyes. So what, I wonder, must it have been like for a man like that to meet Jesus? St. Matthew gives us an account of his conversion, and it is today’s Gospel. But it it’s a rather terse account, perfunctory and guarded when you compare it with the two extensive accounts of Saint Paul’s conversion in the Book of Acts. Jesus met him at his counting table. He said, “follow me,” and St. Matthew got right up and left it all behind.
I can’t read this story without thinking of Caravaggio’s famous painting of it, which hangs in the Church of San Luigi dei Francesi in Rome. St. Matthew is sitting in a dark room at his table, surrounded by some assistants. And Jesus stands by the door, as the light floods in and falls on Saint Matthew. Jesus beckons and Saint Matthew stares right into the light, perplexed but also deeply moved, pointing at his chest. “It couldn’t be me you want,” St. Matthew seems to be saying.
But Jesus’ glance is steady. The tables are turned. Jesus has appraised the appraiser, and he has seen a worth in him that was long hidden from the world, a value that he had probably even hid from himself. He will rise, that is certain, and he will follow this strange Man out of darkness into the light. St. Matthew had spent half a lifetime learning the value of things, but in an instant he’d found himself truly valued, and the curtain spread wide to reveal a whole new kind of value.
It’s telling, I think, that St. Matthew would, in time, write the first Gospel, a collection of what he had seen and heard, the treasures he had gathered in his heart to share with the world. He didn’t write a dramatic preface, but if he had, maybe he would have talked like an old auctioneer—all the beautiful things he had seen in his day, acres of fine farmland, beautiful cattle, fine furniture, wagons of grain, but most precious of all are the words of the Lord, for they gave me what I had never found before. “Turn my eyes from watching what is worthless” today’s Psalm says, “give me life in your ways.”
Today’s Psalm is appropriately chosen, from the heart of the 119th Psalm, the longest chapter of the Bible, which sings the glory of God’s Word in so many different ways. Together with the other lessons appointed for today, it celebrates the way the Scriptures provide us with wisdom for life, how they are, as St. Paul writes, “profitable … for training in righteousness.”
The great value of God’s word is a beloved theme of the wisdom books. True wisdom is rare, and because its fruit endures forever, nothing can be more valuable for the life of the soul. My favorite passage of this kind comes from the Book of Job,
“But where shall wisdom be found? And where is the place of understanding? Man does not know the way to it, and it is not found in the land of the living. … It cannot be gotten for gold, and silver cannot be weighed as its price. … No mention shall be made of coral or of crystal; the price of wisdom is above pearls. … [God] saw it and declared it; he established it, and searched it out. And he said to man, ‘Behold, the fear of the Lord, that is wisdom; and to depart from evil is understanding.’”
Advice, as they say, is cheap, and we live in a world saturated with information, with messages haphazardly bombarding us all the time. But the wisdom of God, the way of life revealed in Holy Scripture, is of an entirely different character. On the sacred page, God who made human life reveals its purpose to us. The Scripture unfolds the truth about ourselves we simply cannot find in other places. And the Holy Spirit works through the Scriptures to speak directly to us, one heart speaking to another. As we read and meditate, we find God working so often as in Caravaggio’s painting. The light pierces the gloom, and we see God and ourselves in a way we have never known him before.
If you have already begun a discipline of Bible reading, either as part of the Daily Office or in a less structured way of study and meditation, I urge you to continue in it. Share with others the way that God has used the Scripture to teach and guide you. Consider participating in one of our Bible study groups. We currently have four of them meeting at different times throughout the week. Reading the Bible with others often helps us to see things we miss when studying on our own. If you have never tried reading the Bible, we have many resources to share with you to get started in the best possible way.
I believe that you will find Holy Scripture, with the saints of every age, precious and lively. We read it gladly, and yet God, through it, reads us. And when he says to us, “follow me” from it, we find in it just how to rise and where to go.
The Rev. Mark Michael is rector of St. Francis Episcopal Church in Potomac, Maryland, and editor of The Living Church.