November 16, 2014

The Immediate Response of Matthew to the Call of Jesus

By Professor John Karavidopoulos

Today our Church celebrates the memory of Matthew the Evangelist, the author of the first Gospel in the series of books of the New Testament. This same Evangelist himself narrates his invitation by Jesus to follow Him:

As Jesus went on from there, He saw a man named Matthew sitting at the tax collector’s booth. “Follow me,” He told him, and Matthew got up and followed Him. While Jesus was having dinner at Matthew’s house, many tax collectors and sinners came and ate with Him and His disciples. When the Pharisees saw this, they asked His disciples, “Why does your teacher eat with tax collectors and sinners?” On hearing this, Jesus said, “It is not the healthy who need a physician, but the sick. But go and learn what this means: ‘I want mercy, not sacrifice.’ For I have not come to call the righteous, but sinners.” (Matt. 9:9-13)

The above passage speaks of the call of Jesus for Matthew to follow Him and it is followed by a gathering of Matthew, Jesus and the other disciples together with tax collectors and sinners. This call was not narrated by the Evangelist to show how, after the call of the first four disciples while they were fishing (Matt. 4:18-22), the team of twelve disciples came together. Besides, beyond the narration of the call of the first four and Matthew nothing is spoken about the call of the rest, but he wanted to give a typical and exemplary incident of an immediate response to Jesus's invitation, and even, as in the case from today's reading, from a man who comes from the ranks of sinners. The profession of tax collector at that time was associated with injustice and the seizing of goods from taxpayers to satisfy both the Roman authorities and the tax collectors themselves, thus it became synonymous with being a sinner. The story concludes with the words Jesus used to answer the querulous Pharisees, first citing the words of the Prophet Hosea (6:6): "I want mercy, not sacrifice." He also wanted to explain the reason and purpose of His activities among the tax collectors and sinners: "For I have not come to call the righteous, but sinners."

Jesus meets Matthew while the latter is sitting at his tax booth, obviously working, and He offers the invitation with the known call that he used with His first four disciples, which is the phrase: "Follow Me." The immediate response of the tax collector is very typical. The Evangelist doesn't care to justify the dramatic decision with some additional information from prior acquaintances with Jesus or from the first four fishermen he perhaps knew, but he rather seeks to commend the immediate decision of the tax collector, as a model for imitation. He shows a vast change in his lifestyle - a public display of his personal experience - which the new disciple of Jesus celebrates with a large gathering in his home, in which "many tax collectors and sinners" participated. This instigated the question of the Pharisees, a query that contains strong criticism and disapproval of the attitude of Jesus and His disciples: “Why does your teacher eat with tax collectors and sinners?” Here is seen the difference between the self-righteous perception of the expected Messiah and the Christian: It was inconceivable to the Pharisees for the Messiah who is holy to socialize with sinners, and therefore Jesus could not have been the true Messiah, since His position is different from the scorners of the Law. With His attitude Christ shows that holiness does not mean to abstain from communication with sinners, but instead to meet with them and transform them, as an invitation to repentance and salvation.

This is highlighted in the last sentence of the narrative with some implicit irony, since the Pharisees considered themselves pure and righteous. Perhaps the phrase "It is not the healthy who need a physician, but the sick" is a proverb of the time that Jesus carried over into the area of religious health and sickness, as is clearly shown in the last sentence of the passage: "For I have not come to call the righteous, but sinners.” The implicit irony in this sentence is that the Pharisees who considered themselves righteous are in need of the same physician as sinners; except that the latter sense and receive the therapeutic offering of Jesus the physician, while the former are satisfied with the smug certainty of religious competence, and do not respond to the invitation of Jesus to repentance.

If the other three Evangelists describe the invitation Christ sent to the four fishermen and the tax collector to become His disciples, it is not because they are interested as historians to describe the beginnings of the Messiah's work on earth and the recruitment of His co-workers, but because of the way the four fishermen and the tax collector received Him and responded immediately. They see in this a typical example and model for how a person is to accept the divine call.

Through the prism of this narrative we can observe the following points:

First of all we must be aware that the invitation is addressed to the four fishermen and the tax collector precisely at the time they were at work. This leads us to think that we do not need to remove ourselves from the world and from life to encounter God. Such renunciation is taught by certain philosophical systems that are imbued with the notion that the world and matter are inherently evil elements and that man, to find salvation, must turn away from them. According to Holy Scripture, the world, despite its decay and its fall into evil and sin, is the work of God, and God on His own initiative meets man in this world, in society, in his work to offer salvation.

For others the invitation has already been signaled, or it will certainly come at some point: Will it be an exciting sermon? Will it be a moving experience? Will it be a sudden awakening from the slumber of indifference? Will it be an invitation from a priest? Will it be something else? God knows many ways to communicate with His creatures and to save them. Let us not forget that Christianity is not the culmination of the effort of the human spirit to find God, but it is the manifestation of the energies of God in history in order to meet and redeem man, and the most important events in this were the incarnation, crucifixion and resurrection of Christ.

A second point the narrative wants to emphasize is trust in the person of Christ, no matter where we are in life, and the willingness to be obedient to His words just as the four fishermen and Matthew the tax collector.

Lastly, this narrative is a wake-up call: To realize our sinfulness, to accept with confidence the divine call to immediately follow Christ, wherever we are in life, such as in the performance of our duties and of our work. And the miracle will follow immediately; let's not wait for it prior in order to convince us.

Source: Translated by John Sanidopoulos.