This Sunday we commemorated St. Matthew, Apostle and Evangelist, which is why the reading is out of sync with the current pattern, and we have gone back to the story of Jesus calling a tax collector named Matthew. The account in Mark and Luke call him Levi but it is the same chap. Over time this Matthew has been associated as the author of the gospel with the same name, but historically he would have been at least 90-100 when he started writing if this were the case. Of course, we don’t know who wrote the gospel and why it was called Matthew. We have to live with the mystery.
We don’t know very much about the Matthew in our story either, other than his name, his occupation, and the fact that he is later listed as a member of the 12 disciples, so he must have been obedient to the call. Down through history people did what most of us usually do when we don’t know much about someone, we improvise, we invent, we make stuff up! How much do we really know one another, even those we meet on a daily basis? And yet no matter how little we know about a person, we can make preliminary judgements, often giving them a label or a category. When we learn about a person’s friends and associates we might lower our opinion of them, or we may elevate them to a higher status as well. She used to work on the market, or he had supper with Prince Harry. You get the idea.
Jesus’ opponents did not like the company that he kept and it influenced their opinion of him. Jesus had just chosen a tax collector to be one of his disciples. To understand about the culture of that time makes this absolutely incredible. Tax collectors were among the most hated people in society. Even today tax officers are not the most popular people, but back then they were fiercely hated. Tax collectors put in a bid with the Roman government for the right to collect taxes. Whoever offered the Romans the best deal would win the bid, and then they would turn around and collect tax from the general population in order to pay the Romans the promised amount. They could decide who was to pay and how much they had to pay. In most cases, the tax collections were far above what was required, so they could take the extra money for themselves; this was as well as being paid by the Romans a handsome wage, and their methods were unethical and immoral.
Then, of course, they were acting as an agent of an occupying army, working for the enemy, which made them traitors and a thieves; and to top it all the Romans were ceremonially unclean. You may remember that the temple authorities who brought Jesus to Pilate for his trial would not enter his house. They wanted to be ceremonially clean so that they could celebrate the Passover. By just associating with the Romans, the tax collectors were also unclean and to be avoided at all cost. That is the reason that the terms tax collector and sinner went together so often.
So Jesus was really asking for trouble when He chose a tax collector to be His disciple. But it does not stop there, Matthew decided to use some of his ill-gotten wealth to invite Jesus to dinner. Of course Matthew wanted this to be a great occasion and to introduce Jesus so he invited all his friends to dinner. Jesus and His disciples found themselves at a tax collector’s house eating a meal with some of the scum of society. As if that was not bad enough, remember that people at that time did not sit at a table to eat; they lay on couches next to low tables. Typically, three people reclined on each couch. This meant that when Jesus ate with these tax collectors and sinners, He was actually rubbing shoulders with them. Now we can understand perhaps the reason that the Pharisees were absolutely astonished that Jesus went to this dinner, and why they said to his disciples, “Why does your teacher eat with tax collectors and sinners?”
When Jesus heard what they were saying, He said, “Those who are well have no need of a physician, but those who are sick.” He was not referring to any bodily ailments but their souls. He was there as a ‘soul doctor.’
We, like Matthew and his friends are sinful people. We may not have cheated people out of their taxes, but I guess we have all cheated as some point in our lives, we may have stolen something, notepaper from work, time from our employers, phone calls in work time.... I am sure we have all manipulated the truth, or indulged in a little white lie or two; we have probably been unfaithful as well, not to our partners or friends but to the gospel. The bottom line is we are all made out of the same stuff, and we all need the same soul doctor to give us the cure. Jesus offers us the same mercy that he offered to Matthew and his friends. He wants to join us at our table. Then he gives the Pharisees some homework. “Go and learn what this means: I desire mercy more than sacrifice.”
The Pharisees did not show mercy, instead they were good at going to the synagogue, giving their tithe, spouting Bible verses, quoting religious platitudes, looking pious, and generally being religious, but God was not impressed. He desires a people who are kind and caring and in a right relationship with Him and one another.
So we end where we began with the call of Matthew. We can see the setting, a whole group of tax collectors over at Matthew’s place, along with sinners, lepers, the lame, the blind and all manner of social outcasts. Jesus had just called Matthew to be one of his disciples and the Pharisees are standing on the other side of the room, not wanting to get too close to those despicable people. But Jesus knows their hearts just as he knows ours.
May God give us the grace to own up to our imperfections and sinfulness, as we do, or should do, every time we confess our sins, and truly live as a forgiven people. Matthew heard the call, left his old life behind, and all the baggage, and followed Jesus. That same offer holds for today as we meet Him at the table. We too can walk away and leave all the past and all the baggage behind.
Matthew the Apostle and Evangelist