Many of us know intimately Jesus’s call for Saint Matthew to become a disciple. Not because we’ve all read and heard the Gospel story; that would not give us intimate knowledge.
Rather, like Matthew, we are human beings steeped in the cares and lures of the world–all asked to follow our Lord. We know Matthew’s calling from our own. And how the taxman-turned-evengelist responded to his summons from Christ could show us how we should answer ours.
As Biblical stories go, usually painted in colorful, interesting detail, Matthew’s summons is very bare. Jesus walks down the road one day, spots the taxman sitting behind his collection booth minding his own business. Without warning, the Lord tells him, “Follow me.” He gets up and follows. That’s it.
Immediately after, religious folk are murmuring disapprovingly about Jesus mingling with tax collectors and other riffraff, certifiable sinners all. He snaps back: “Talk to me again when you’ve reflected upon the meaning of what the Prophet Hosea says: ‘It is mercy, not sacrifice, that I desire.’ ”
Through it all, not a peep from Matthew. That is strange, since this account is from his own gospel, so he knew first hand what was going on, even in his head. So we’re left to speculate what may be on his mind from what we do know about him, and what details we have do not add up.
From taxman to evangelist
Matthew was Jewish, but collected taxes for the Roman occupiers. His kind was widely despised for collaborating with the invader. As a taxman, he could read and count. That would put him among the Jewish priestly caste, the tribe of Levi, the only literate class able to closely read the Torah, Judaism’s most holy book.
So Matthew knew the Torah’s explicit prohibition of Jews dancing with the enemy, collecting taxes for foreigners from one’s own people at that. And taxmen also pocketed a good part of the collection–that’s how they made a living. Thus, many Jews disdained Matthew as a corrupt money-grubbing collaborator.
Every time in fact that pious Jews passed his tollbooth by the main road, the mere sight of it would have stirred in them all kinds of bile. Then there was irony in his name, Mattith-Yah, the literal equivalent of, “gift of God.” Yet to his townsfolk he was anything but that.
This was the man Jesus approached that day. Matthew was mindful of His approach, seeing a rambunctious crowd following close behind. “Oh, darn!” he must have thought, “here comes trouble. If this self-righteous Rabbi so much as starts to point to me to make a teaching point, there will be trouble!”
Jesus did speak, but not to condemn or castigate Matthew. Rather, gazing deep into Matthew’s eyes, he simply said, all the while smiling warmly, “Follow me.” The holy man wanted the taxman to become a follower.
When Jesus made a similar pitch to Simon Peter, the fisherman asked the Lord to leave him because he was a sinner. No need for such a confession from Matthew; his job was a daily offense seen by all.
He could have asked why the man of God would take along a sinful tax collector. Instead, Matthew dropped everything and followed Jesus.
Now why would a moneyed taxman hated by his countrymen and steeped in the shekels he skims from daily collections, turn his back on his lucrative living and follow an itinerant preacher of humble means?
Was Matthew tired of the unprincipled materialism of his life? Could he have been longing for a more wholesome, even holy life? And having heard of Jesus, did Matthew see him as a prophet or even the long-awaited savior?
Maybe all of the above. And that may also be the answer for many people today.
Reflecting on their own lives, they may well find something missing in the daily money-, power-, and success-driven rat race. They may also sense a thing or two amiss in climbing higher and higher up the wealth pyramid without a care for those teeming at the bottom. And no thought for matters ethereal and eternal.
Would it be strange if these modern-day Matthews also heard a heavenly call in their heart and soul, and responded as the evangelist did?
Those who do will find a radically different world and life. When he rose and followed Jesus, it looked at first that they were going to dinner with that little group of outcasts, the tax collectors and other sinners frequenting his house.
And not only was the holy Jesus breaking bread with social ne’er do wells. He also chastised the religious chieftains, quoting Hosea about God wanting forgiveness, not temple offerings.
Matthew must have turned that phrase over and over in the next few days, as he followed Jesus around, a newly minted member of the band of disciples.
That in itself had brought to him a new sensation: community. For so long his social circumstances had forced him away from the stratum into which he had been born. But this was a new community, and how Matthew must have loved Jesus for making him a part of it.
Being loved made him feel more loveable, worth more than he thought he was, like he could be more than he thought he could. It made him feel special. And he saw Jesus embracing others and giving them the same profound sense of being loved in spite of their fallenness.
Matthew observed Jesus over the next few days and welcoming into his circle people who had been rejected from their own. The disciple looked on in amazement as Jesus reached out to people known as unclean.
A woman whose incurable menstrual bleeding had made her untouchable for twelve years. The outcast had touched the rabbi, but he did not rebuke her. He touched her back, called her “Daughter,” and pronounced her healed and clean.
Jesus even risked the utter uncleanness of touching the deceased, and Matthew was amazed to find that the Lord’s loving embrace overcame even the ultimate separation of death, as Jesus held the dead synagogue leader’s daughter and brought her back to life.
In time, Matthew slowly realized Hosea’s meaning and what it had to do with Jesus. The Lord loved the way God loves, never condemning, but always forgiving, embracing and uplifting our fallenness. And he calls each and every one us to do the same.
Now, isn’t that better than racing to be No. 1 rat every waking moment?