The Calling of Saint Matthew, by Caravaggio c. 1600
Eph 4:1-7, 11-13; Mt 9:9-13
Imagine Matthew’s experience as today’s Gospel reading tells it. Here is he, literally minding his business, which was collecting tolls, possibly the toll paid when people transported goods, most likely fish, from the area of Galilee (Capernaum was a border town). Suddenly this man Jesus drops by. If Matthew worked out of Capernaum, he must have heard about and probably met the mysterious man from Nazareth who preached like Jeremiah and healed like Elijah. He knew that he had asked Peter, Andrew, James and John to join him. And now, though he scarcely knew him, along comes this Jesus with the simple and bold invitation, “Come, follow me.” This is most amazing. As a tax collector for the hated Roman government, most people had as little as possible to do with him, his only friends being other tax collectors and the sort of people the Pharisees labeled “sinners,” so called not because they were nasty people but because their trade or lack of learning made it unlikely that they kept the Torah properly. And yet this charismatic man of God is asking him to join him. What’s to lose? There got to be something better in this life than toll collecting. And there is something profoundly attractive about this Jesus. So he simply gets up and follows him.
When Matthew, to celebrate his new commitment, throws a party for Jesus (Luke 5:25 clarifies the host and the occasion), the guests, of course, are the only friends he has-other tax collectors and the folks called “sinners.” He knows that Jesus and the other disciples were compromising themselves by eating with tax collectors and sinners. In the eyes of the Pharisees and their followers, they were rendering themselves ritually unclean by eating with such “unclean” people. Indeed, some Pharisees are at hand to raise that very question, which they put in terms of Jesus’ behavior: “Why does your teacher eat with tax collectors and sinners?” Hearing this, Jesus answers the question himself: “Those who are well do not need a physician, but the sick do.”
Funny. Matthew wasn’t feeling especially sick that day. But then he realizes he is talking in pictures again, and he gets the point: he, like his buddies and the sinners, was indeed suffering from the social ailment of being ostracized; and he knew his relationship with God needed some mending. Jesus’ reaching out to include him in his mission and his readiness to share the table with him was already having a healing effect. Jesus heals relationships as well as bodies.
Matthew includes a saying of Jesus that we don’t hear in Mark’s and Luke’s version of this episode: “Go and learn the meaning of the words, ‘I desire mercy, not sacrifice.’” That’s a quote from Hosea 6:6a. The sacrifice in question is Temple sacrifice, as the second half of Hosea’s verse makes clear: “the knowledge of God rather than burnt offerings.” So Jesus’ point was that the mercy he is exhibiting in his table fellowship is more important in God’s eyes than the Pharisees’ Temple-linked preoccupation with ritual purity, extended to who count as proper dining partners.
What’s in this episode for us? Matthew’s experience of Jesus’ healing inclusion reminds us that we have this same experience each time we gather around the table of the Lord’s Supper. Being beneficiaries of Jesus’ table fellowship at least once a week gives us the same call Matthew received to be equally inclusive in our relation to the “tax collectors and sinners” in our own lives.
By Dennis Hamm