“As Jesus was passing on, he saw a man called Matthew sitting at the tax office, and Jesus said to him, ‘Follow me,’ and he rose and followed Him” (Matthew 9:9)
Matthew’s fellow Jews despised him. He was a collaborator with the Roman occupational army. He was considered to be a low-life person who made his fortune on graft and bribes. He was an agent of Herod. A tax collector’s money, considered dirty, would not be accepted by anyone even as alms. His evidence would never be accepted in a law court. But Jesus saw beyond appearances. In this unlikely man there was a person who was a child of God, and one who one day would become a herald and writer of the Gospel. His call was sudden; it interrupted him in the middle of his business. Jesus touched something deep within him. There was an emptiness waiting to be filled. St. Mark writes, “and he (Matthew) rose at once and followed Jesus” (Mark 2:14). Whenever I read this I am struck by the immediacy of Matthew’s response. He simply stood up and walked way from his desk. Money was not collected and put away, the books were not updated, and everything was left as it was. He walked away from his business in an instant.
Matthew then throws a party. (Matt 9:10) Throwing a party seems to go along with repentance in the Gospels. Recall the party with music and dancing which is given at the return of the Prodigal Son. Jesus is Matthew’s guest of honor. He also invites his old cronies in crime and many public sinners to this party.
Some people had a problem with this. Here is Jesus with this group of scoundrels, those who neglect religious laws and the commandments. They are eating and drinking together. To many it seemed to be a scandalous event. Religious Pharisees see the event and lift up their shocked hands. They ask the disciples “why does your teacher eat with public sinners and tax collectors?”
Jesus hears the complaint and gives a classic line out of Matthew’s Gospel, “Those who are well have no need of a physician, but those who are sick. Go and learn what this means – I have come not to call the righteous, but sinners” (Matt.9:12)
It is characteristic of some communities everywhere to shun those who disregard accepted standards of behavior. In some religious groups the limits of tolerance of outsiders is extremely narrow. If churches, at the present moment, are having diminishing members, it may be in part because they have grown comfortable with a group of like-minded people and shun the “outsider”. In every generation outcasts are present, those who claim to be disciples of the Good Shepherd must seek ways of reaching out and drawing them into the community.
Matthew’s call and conversion affected the way he wrote his Gospel account of Jesus. He saw the Kingdom of God as being a great feast. Maybe he remembers the great dinner party he first had with Jesus. He saw Christ extending table fellowship with those considered outcasts to be continued in their acceptance into the Church community.
His Gospel extols the attitude of spiritual poverty and counsels us who read this Gospel that our salvation depends upon the quality of our mercy toward the needy.
All of this is brought together in the 25th chapter of his gospel account of the Final Judgment each of us must undergo. He gives us these words of Jesus, “as you did to the least of my brothers, you did it to Me”.
A prayer to the Mother of God during the Christmas Fast:
“All holy Bride of God, you alone have carried in your womb the God whom no space can contain, when He was made man in His goodness. So I entreat you to drive away the evils that surround me on all sides, that following the straight and narrow path, I may find the way that leads to life.” (Morning Prayer)
Originally published on November 16th, 2003