When Jesus became a ‘follower’ – Feast of St Matthew- Apostle and Evangelist – Matthew 9: 9-13
We celebrate today the feast of St Matthew, the Apostle and Evangelist. The Gospel of today tells us that as Jesus passed on, he saw a man named Matthew sitting at the tax office and said to him, “follow Me.” Matthew simply obeys; he arose and followed Jesus. From the Gospel of St Mark, we know that Matthew is also called Levi, son of Alpheus. We are told that Matthew was a tax collector or as the older texts have it, a publican. The publicani were tax-gatherers, and were so called because they dealt with public money and with public funds.
At the time of Jesus, tax collectors were not only notorious sinners; they were also regarded as the most visible Jewish collaborators with the Romans against their fellow Jews. This was not their only sin as they were also notorious extortioners. Roman tax collectors bid among others for the tax-collecting contract. For example, many tax collectors might want to have the tax contract for a city like Capernaum. The Romans awarded the contract to the highest bidder. The man in charge collected taxes, paid the Romans what he promised, and kept the remainder. Therefore, there was a lot of incentive for tax collectors to over-charge and cheat any way they could.
Tax collection was enforced with the help of the Roman soldiers who were assigned to each tax collector. It was an effective way of collecting taxes, the tax collector was a local who knew the in’s and out of his fellow citizens while the soldiers provided the muscle for ensuring the collection without any incident. It is for this reason that when a Jew entered the customs service he was regarded as an outcast from society: he was disqualified as a judge or a witness in a court session, was excommunicated from the synagogue, and in the eyes of the community his disgrace extended to his family; how Alpheus must have suffered as a consequence of his sons decision.
It is to an outcast that the saviour of the world extended the most astounding invitation; “follow Me.” This was breaking news in Capernaum. The call of Matthew may be downplayed as a familiar narrative in our Bibles but at the time of Jesus it was the stuff that made feet move from house to house while wagging their mouths at the same time; this is how news broke in Palestine. Yet this invitation was not just a call to join the mass of followers but a clear and personal call of love. It proved to be a well-placed love; Matthew responded to Jesus’ invitation by leaving his tax collecting business and following Jesus and eventually writing this same gospel account. Matthew did not entirely leave the tax booth of all its possessions but took from it one thing, his pen. This man, whose trade had taught him to use a pen, used that skill to compose the first handbook of the teaching of Jesus.
While Jesus called Matthew to follow him it was in reality Jesus who followed Matthew that day; right to his home and table. To compound an already complex day that had most certainly shocked everyone, Jesus decided to crown it with an unthinkable act. Being a social and religious outcast, the guests at Matthew’s table would obviously be those of his own kind; his former business associates. We might say that Jesus took advantage of Matthew’s decision to also reach those whom he knew.
There was much that this new rabbi on the block had done that the Pharisees were forced to swallow, after all he spoke with authority unlike them. Yet this act was one they could not let slide. “Why does your Teacher eat with tax collectors and sinners?” Lumped with the tax collectors were ‘sinners’. These sinners were common folk who did not share all the scruples of the Pharisees. The answer as to why Jesus ate with the tax collectors and sinners was simple; because Jesus is the friend of sinners and by extension the friend of any sinner in need of his love and redemption.
Jesus was not going to let the Pharisees have their two minutes of fame, he shuts down these man made excommunication of the tax collectors with spiritual wisdom, “those who are well have no need of a physician, but those who are sick! Go and learn what this means: ‘I desire mercy and not sacrifice. For I did not come to call the righteous, but sinners, to repentance.”
This was the principle that the criticizing Pharisees did not understand. The Pharisees were like doctors who wanted to avoid all contact with sick people. Of course they wished that sick people would become healthy, but they wouldn’t risk getting infected themselves. In quoting the prophet Hosea 6:6 he reminds them that many of them were good at bringing sacrifice (Hosea 5:6), but they had forsaken mercy, and they abandoned mercy because they gave up the knowledge of God and truth (Hosea 4:1). God would rather have right hearts, full of truth and mercy than sacrifice.