"The Calling of St. Matthew" by Caravaggio
Today is the Feast of St. Matthew. We read the story of his conversion in Matthew 9:9-17....
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.Matthew was, perhaps, the most unlikely person to follow Jesus. Matthew was probably the name this man was later given by Jesus. It means: “Gift of God.” But his given name was Levi. So he was, quite obviously, a Jew. Was he a Jew of the tribe of Levi, one who should have been serving in the temple? No one knows. But one thing is for certain, Matthew was a Jew whom other Jews considered to have turned traitor against his people because he was serving as a tax collector for the Roman government. The Jews believed that God alone was king and that to pay taxes to any human ruler was an infringement on God’s rights and an insult to his majesty. By Jewish law a tax-gatherer was debarred from the synagogue; he was included with things and beasts unclean; he was forbidden to be a witness in any trial; robbers, murderers and tax collectors were all lumped together in one category in the Jewish mind. When Jesus called Matthew he called someone whom all the Jews hated.
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 doctor, but the sick. But go and learn what this means: ‘I desire mercy, not sacrifice.’ For I have not come to call the righteous, but sinners.”
Then John’s disciples came and asked him, “How is it that we and the Pharisees fast, but your disciples do not fast?”
Jesus answered, “How can the guests of the bridegroom mourn while he is with them? The time will come when the bridegroom will be taken from them; then they will fast.
“No one sews a patch of unshrunk cloth on an old garment, for the patch will pull away from the garment, making the tear worse. Neither do men pour new wine into old wineskins. If they do, the skins will burst, the wine will run out and the wineskins will be ruined. No, they pour new wine into new wineskins, and both are preserved.”
The tax collector’s booth where Jesus found him was probably a toll booth on the major international road that went from Damascus through Capernaum to the Mediterranean coast and on to Egypt. Capernaum, where Matthew collected taxes, was part of Herod Antipas’ territory. It is likely that Matthew worked indirectly for Rome through Herod. When goods and commodities came through Capernaum they were entering Herod’s territory. Matthew was probably a customs officer who exacted duty on these goods, just as someone bringing goods from another country into the United States today might have to pay a duty tax.
Certainly, living and working in Capernaum, Matthew had seen and heard Jesus before. Here was a man who healed paralytics, cast out demons and calmed storms. How would you feel in the presence of such a man if you were someone as universally hated as Matthew was? Perhaps Matthew entertained in the back of his mind the hope that perhaps Jesus could give him a new life just as he had done for so many others. Perhaps Matthew was longing, waiting and looking for a way to start life fresh and to no longer work as a hated tax collector. But maybe he felt he had no way out. What else could he do to support himself and his family? But then when Jesus stood in front of him and said, “Follow me!” that pulled the trigger for Matthew. He suddenly saw his way out of his hated old life and he took it in an instant.
William Barclay has written, “We must note what Matthew lost and what Matthew found. He lost a comfortable job, but found a destiny. He lost a good income, but found honor. He lost a comfortable security, but found an adventure the like of which he had never dreamed.”
Barclay goes on to say, “We must note what Matthew left and what Matthew took. He left his tax-collector’s table; but from it took one thing—his pen. Here is a shining example of how Jesus can use whatever gift a man may bring to him. It is not likely that the others of the Twelve were handy with a pen. Galilean fishermen would not have much skill in writing or in putting words together. But Matthew had; and this man, whose trade had taught him to use a pen, used that skill to compose the first handbook of the teaching of Jesus, which must rank as one of the most important books the world has ever read.”
Is there anyone in your life or sphere of influence whom you think it unlikely for Jesus to call? Perhaps we each need to open our minds and our hearts to the possibility of God calling into his kingdom some people we think unlikely converts. And God may use us in that process, if we are open-minded and open-hearted.
As fascinating as Matthew’s conversion was, even more fascinating was the next thing he did. Matthew threw a party for Jesus in his own home and invited all his friends to meet the Master. The house was filled with tax collectors and other people whom the Pharisees would have considered hopeless “sinners”.
In fact, the Pharisees found this so provocative they asked the disciples, “Why does your teacher eat with tax collectors and ‘sinners’?” From the Pharisees’ point of view, this just wasn’t done. Perhaps the equivalent in some Christian circles today would be for a Christian to hang out at a bar. That would make some Christians ask, “Why does he do that? Doesn’t he know that’s just wrong?”
Jesus’ response to the Pharisees was, “It is not the healthy who need a doctor, but the sick. But go and learn what this means: ‘I desire mercy, not sacrifice.’ For I have not come to call the righteous, but sinners.”
Now Jesus is not saying that there really are spiritually healthy people who don’t need a Savior. He is mocking the Pharisees who presume to be spiritually healthy. He is saying, “Alright, you think you are spiritually well off. If so, then I, the doctor, have not come to heal you, but to heal the spiritually sick people. So that’s why I hang out with them.”
Jesus gives us the picture of what the church should be like. The church should be a hospital for sinners, not a display case for saints.
In the Christian Reader a man named Jim Corley tells of a conversation he had with a friend named Alex who attended his church. Alex was struggling over his many failures to live the Christian life the way he knew he should. One day they met at the car dealership where Alex worked.
That day in his office Alex got straight to the point. “Jim, I feel like a hypocrite every time I go to church because I fail to live for Christ so often.”
“Alex, what do you call this part of the dealership?” Jim asked, nodding to the area outside his cubicle.
“You mean the showroom?”
Jim smiled. “Yes. And what’s behind the showroom, past the parts counter?”
“The service department,” Alex said confidently.
“What if I told you I didn’t want to bring my car to the service department because it was running rough?”
“That would be crazy! That’s the whole point of service departments—to fix cars that aren’t running right.”
“You’re absolutely right,” Jim replied. “Now, let’s get back to our initial conversation. Instead of thinking of church as a showroom where image is everything, start thinking of it as God’s service department. Helping people get back in running order with God is what the church is all about.”
Jesus understood this. That was his whole mission: to help people get back in running order with God the Father. And it didn’t matter what those people were like to begin with. It didn’t matter to Jesus whether they were religious or not. Jesus understood that his Father was much more interested in mercy than in religion. It didn’t matter to Jesus whether people were tax-collectors or fishermen. He loved them all. And he loved them right into the presence of the Father.
That’s what we should be doing as well.
Matthew’s party raised other questions as well, not only for the Pharisees, but for the disciples of John the Baptist. They came to Jesus and asked, “How is that we and the Pharisees fast, but your disciples do not.” The disciples of John had just witnessed Jesus enjoying himself at a party where there was plenty of food and the wine was flowing freely. They probably resented the fact that they were going without while Jesus was living it up.
Jesus, in turn, asks the disciples of John a question: How can the guests of the bridegroom mourn while he is with them?
Jewish weddings in Jesus’ day consisted of a week-long open house. Weddings were great parties full of rollicking laughter, dancing, plenty of food and drink. These were milestone events—times of celebration that rarely came along for the kind of poor people Jesus hung out with. These wedding parties were paid for by the bridegroom’s family and were open to everyone from the village.
What a description this is of the kingdom Jesus came to usher in. The kingdom of God is like a great wedding party. Jesus has paid the price for all of us to enter into the Father’s joy.
And there is a clear prediction in this same saying of Jesus—a clear prediction of the price he would pay for us to enter into his kingdom joy. “The time will come when the bridegroom will be taken from them; then they will fast.” Jesus was talking about the time of his crucifixion. The price he paid for us to be able to enter into the wedding feast was his own death. Then would be a time of mourning and fasting, Jesus says. But right now is a time for rejoicing.
One thing is clear: the kingdom that Jesus ushers in is something brand new, not to be mixed with the old. Just as you can’t put new wine in an old wineskin, or an unshrunk patch on an old garment, so too Jesus’ kingdom joy just doesn’t mix with old time religion.
I was born in the 1960’s. It was a time when revolution was in the air. Martin Luther King, Jr. was marching for civil rights. College students were protesting the Vietnam War. It was a time when a new generation wanted to make everything different. Bob Dylan summed it up well when he sang, “The times they are a changing.”
2000 years ago when Jesus said the times were changing, they really were. Questions bubbled to the surface when people didn’t see in Jesus and his followers the kind of kingdom movement they expected. Jesus’ answer was, “Look, everything is different now.”
The question for us is: Are we living in that new world ourselves? Or do we keep sidling back to that old world where we feel more comfortable? Are we content with religion that is merely a bunch of rules and regulations? If we are, then some time we have to face the fact that all we are really doing is rearranging the deck chairs on the Titanic. We may have a better view as we go down, but that is all.
The alternative is to get on board with Jesus’ kingdom movement. Allow him to change us from the inside out, fully realizing that he may move us and lead us to do some uncomfortable things—like attending a party with tax collectors and “sinners”. Jesus may call us to give up our jobs to follow him, leaving it all behind. But what we will gain will be worth so much more than what we will lose. Yes, we may lose our comfortable lives, but we will be on an adventure, one that will never end.