The call of Matthew

Anthony Zimmerman
For Catholicmind
Aug. 23, 2004
Reproduced with Permission

As Jesus was walking along, he saw a man called Matthew sitting at the tax booth; and he said to him, "Follow me." And he got up and followed him (Matt 9:9).

I love that simple verse, Matthew telling about his jumping off the chair to follow Jesus. Did he first count the money and deliver the cash box to the accounting office? There is no sign of that, nor perhaps time for it. Nor time to lock the door. Jesus had called. That was IT! He bounded into a new kind of life. Perhaps he was but one of a larger group but the text does not provide such information. When Jesus beckoned, there was no need for anything else in the world. Let the money be, let the officials stamp their feet in anger, forget about bank accounts - Jesus had looked at him, made eye contact, and said "Come." He left the secular world behind and celebrated his new vocation. How many are the priests and nuns who can tell a similar story. The voice of the Lord! The Almighty Voice that sometimes rolls over the earth in majestic thunder, that Voice of the Lord has never lost its strength and attractiveness.

Here Matthew writes about Matthew, in a document destined for the world to see, during all generations until the end of time. He doesn't write that the look that Jesus bestowed on him was special, but from the action that fallows, we conclude that a fleeting glance of heaven was in that eye-contact. That look of Jesus was so different from the usual cold and distant look of reluctant tax payers. He collected duties for Herod Antipas on goods that people transported in and out of the territory, and probably for the Roman Caesar as well. His occupation joined him to the forces of oppression in the eyes of his fellow-men, and tended to segregate him from friendly concourse with ordinary people. "The rabbis classified tax collectors with murderers, robbers, and the unclean, and approved of lying to them in order to escape taxation. Such persons were regarded as incapable of belonging to the messianic kingdom and were often associated with 'sinners' and 'Gentiles'" (International Bible Commentary, 1285).

Chrysostom joins those who consider Matthew's job as one of ill repute, whereas that of the fishermen was not so: "And the fishermen too He called when they were in the midst of their business. But that was a craft not indeed in bad report, but of men rather rudely bred, not mingling with others, and endowed with great simplicity; whereas the pursuit now in question was one full of all insolence and boldness, and a mode of gain whereof no fair account could be given, a shameless traffic, a robbery under cloak of law: yet nevertheless He who uttered the call was ashamed of none of these things" (Sermon 29, Logos CD Early Fathers of the Church).

The fact that Jesus called this outcast to join the innermost circle of His followers was surely a scandal for the rabbis and pharisees who disdained such people. Not only that, but Jesus thrust him into the company of Peter and Andrew and James and John, fishermen who likely inherited a clannish scorn for tax collectors. Henceforth they would share meals and sleeping quarters and company with each other under the eyes of Jesus. The civilization of love that Jesus was bringing into the world must break down cultural and racial barriers, so that each would love the neighbor as oneself; so that "The wolf shall live with the lamb, the leopard shall lie down with the kid, the calf and the lion and the fatling together, and a little child shall lead them" (Isaiah 11:6). More than once the apostles would jostle against each other to get to the top in the hierarchical pecking order, and Jesus would insist that they quit such worldly contestation and become, instead, like innocent little children.

What kind of look was it that Jesus had given to Matthew, the tax-collector? We have here a prime example of what it means to be called by Christ and to follow him. Paul said this about his vocation: "But I do not count my life of any value to myself, if only I may finish my course and the ministry that I received from the Lord Jesus, to testify to the good news of God's grace" (Acts 20:24). We experience that inexpressible attraction of Jesus today when we follow the vocation to which He calls us, and then accompanies in us and for us during the rest of our lives. Husband and wife feel His presence when they exchange rings. Young men and young women follow Him to serve the Church when they make their vows. Priests respond when the bishop calls them by name. Matthew does not write that he was ever sorry for getting up from his chair to follow Christ. He did not become Peter the boss of the twelve; nor was he the John who leaned on the breast of Christ at the last supper. But he found his niche too, and became an evangelist famous all over the world; he likely also became a martyr for the faith.

When Christ calls, He calls with spiritual power, with a sweetness of attraction that makes all other things of this world to be trivial in comparison - to be counted as dung, as Paul writes (Phil 3:8). One look from Jesus, and two simple words from Him: "Follow me" became the happy chance for Matthew to rise out of the ranks of tax collectors to become an apostle, and now to sit in heaven with Jesus governing the Church. For Jesus promised nothing less to His apostles when He said: "Truly I tell you, at the renewal of all things, when the Son of Man is seated on the throne of his glory, you who have followed me will also sit on twelve thrones, judging the twelve tribes of Israel" (Matt 19: 28).

Matthew does not inform us that his original name was Levi (Luke 5:27), which designates him as a member of the priestly tribe of Levi. We can conclude that Jesus gave him the new name of Matthew, indicating that he had left behind his native niche of birth and occupation. By following Jesus he had become a new man. Jesus likewise changed the name of Simon, who was likely a member of the tribe of Judah, to Peter. Perhaps the change of names would help them to leave the old world behind and to live the new vocation to which Jesus called them. We thank Jesus, and we thank Matthew, for giving us this shining example of how good it is to follow one's vocation - the vocation to which Jesus calls us.

Jesus dines with tax collectors and sinners

And as he sat at dinner in the house, many tax collectors and sinners came and were sitting with him and his disciples. When the Pharisees saw this, they said to his disciples, "Why does your teacher eat with tax collectors and sinners?" But when he heard this, he said, "Those who are well have no need of a physician, but those who are sick. Go and learn what this means, 'I desire mercy, not sacrifice.' For I have come to call not the righteous but sinners" (Matt 9:10-13).

Matthew likely gave a farewell dinner to his colleagues, other tax collectors and "sinners," the latter meaning Jews who did not obey Jewish prescriptions. It was therefore a kind of open-house to all the bad people of the area, those excluded from proper Jewish society. Tax collectors for the Romans were especially marked as traitors and extortioners. They bought a right to be an official for collecting the tax levied by the occupation troops, and then charged what they could get from those who paid the taxes, taking the margin for themselves. That Jesus came and sat with these outcasts at dinner was an absolute scandal to the observing Jews. Note that they didn't go to Jesus to confront Him, but to the disciples, thinking perhaps to shame them away from such company and from Jesus, to join the opposition. But Jesus overheard, or the disciples told him about the murmuring.

There is a touch of sarcasm, of course in the response "Those who are well have no need for a physician." The Jews who were criticizing Him assumed that they were the ones who were "well" and that Jesus needed to be cured. Chrysostom has a magnificent passage in which he indicates that Jesus did not disdain to associate with sinners, but sought them specially to heal them with His grace. We must be gentle with sinners in order to open their hearts to a true healing. Conversions brought about by fear will probably not last long:

We must, you see, use gentleness to eradicate the disease. Since he who is become better through the fear of man, will quickly return to wickedness again. For this cause He commanded also the tares to be left, giving an appointed day of repentance. Yea, and many of them in fact repented, and became good, who before were bad; as for instance, Paul, the Publican, the Thief; for these being really tares turned into kindly wheat. Because, although in the seeds this cannot be, yet in the human will it is both manageable and easy; for our will is bound by no limits of nature, but hath freedom of choice for its privilege.

Weeds in the field cannot become wheat, he admits, but human "weeds" can become good wheat, Good pastors of souls, he continues, use every means at their disposal to bring about the conversion of sinners:

Accordingly, when thou seest an enemy of the truth, wait on him, take care of him, lead him back into virtue, by showing forth an excellent life, by applying "speech that cannot be condemned," by bestowing attention and tender care, by trying every means of amendment, in imitation of the best physicians. For neither do they cure in one manner only, but when they see the wound not yield to the first remedy, they add another, and after that again another; and now they use the knife, and now bind up. And do thou accordingly, having become a physician of souls, put in practice every mode of cure according to Christ's laws; that thou mayest receive the reward both of saving thyself and of profiting others, doing all to the glory of God, and so being glorified also thyself. "For them that glorify me," saith He, "I will glorify; and they that despise me, shall be lightly esteemed."

The USCCB and pro-choice legislators

Much as Christ approached sinners, saying "Those who are well have no need of a physician, but those who are sick," so also the US Conference of Catholic Bishops have realized the need to make a special approach to pro-choice legislators. In the June, 2004 document of the USCCB, the bishops recognize that for them it an obligation to teach the truth to legislators who now support abortion, to warn them also, hoping that the scandal can be resolved by the proper formation of their consciences. In this they follow the example of Christ who called Matthew to His side, who joined a banquet with sinners, who sought to be a physician to heal their souls. The statement of the bishops reads in part:

Our obligation as bishops at this time is to teach clearly. It is with pastoral solicitude for everyone involved in the political process that we will also counsel Catholic public officials that their acting consistently to support abortion on demand risks making them cooperators in evil in a public manner. We will persist in this duty to counsel, in the hope that the scandal of their cooperating in evil can be resolved by the proper formation of their consciences...

We commit ourselves to maintain communication with public officials who make decisions every day that touch issues of human life and dignity.

We rejoice to read that last sentence, for communication between a bishop and the Catholic public officials in the diocese should be a major task of the bishop. As Cardinal Dulles said in an interview: "Provided that the moral principles are kept clearly in view, bishops and politicians will do well to keep in dialogue about matters of strategy" (Zenit News, June 30, 2004).

This promise to "at this time" maintain communication with public officials is especially important in order to undo the heresy once popularized by Presidential Candidate John Kennedy. He promised that his Catholic adherence will not govern his public decisions. This has since been interpreted to mean that the Ten Commandments do not govern public policy. It means, in effect, that politicians become gods who decide what is good and what is bad, as Adam and Eve once decided to their sorrow and ours.

John Kennedy did not say this in so many words, of course, but that is what he implied when he spoke of a separation between private life as a Catholic, and public life as outside of the Catholic domain. During the four decades since his assassination, this canard has become a heresy that flaws the common sense of otherwise skilled statesmen.

The Ten Commandments include: "Thou shalt not kill." The heretical politicians say: "In private life YES; in public life NO." A new initiative by the bishops to re-inform the consciences of Catholic politicians has become a public necessity.

Bishops, fortified by God with special divine powers to teach, to govern, and to sanctify, will know that teaching by words is ineffective, if deeds do not spell out the words. If public abortion promoters choose to be unteachable after due efforts by their bishop, they must be dissuaded from receiving Holy Communion until the sinner exhibits a public change of mind. We do not need to judge about the private minds of others, but public statements and public actions must be dealt with by public restraints. "It's not enough that a person is right with God within the privacy of the person's own conscience; one must also be right with God in that arena that everyone can see: public actions" (Fr. Frank Pavone, Priests for Life site, June 23, 2004). Such teaching by deeds is needed to overcome the heresy once proclaimed by John Kennedy, now adopted by numerous legislators and judges.

The same Jesus who fraternized with sinners at Matthew's table, who dealt gently there to form the consciences of the Pharisees at this early stage, is also the Jesus who denounced the hardened sinners later in Matthew's Gospel, to undo the scandals they caused, and to bring them to a better state of mind by "tough love." He said to them, in public and with a thunderous voice:

"But woe to you, scribes and Pharisees, hypocrites! because you shut the kingdom of heaven against men; for you neither enter yourselves, nor allow those who would enter to go in. Woe to you, scribes and Pharisees, hypocrites! for you traverse sea and land to make a single proselyte, and when he becomes a proselyte, you make him twice as much a child of hell as yourselves. ... You blind guides, straining out a gnat and swallowing a camel! ... Hypocrites! for you are like whitewashed tombs, which outwardly appear beautiful, but within they are full of dead men's bones and all uncleanness. So you also outwardly appear righteous to men, but within you are full of hypocrisy and iniquity (Matt 23:13 ff).

The scathing language that Jesus used to expose the basic wickedness of the Pharisees had two effects: it gave the apostles courage to not be bullied or over-awed by the better educated Pharisees, who presided in the synagogues and "sat in the chair of Moses." It may also have been just the right kind of language that would bring some few of them to conversion. Saul was one Pharisee, who became a convert of converts.

We pray for our bishops, and for our public officials. For bishops that they exercise their powers to teach, to sanctify, and also to govern their flock. For public officials that they may recognize that they are under the Ten Commandments, not above them. We pray that words will be followed by deeds that confirm the words. Bishops must deny Holy Communion to public officials who, despite efforts made by the bishop to inform consciences, nevertheless notoriously and obstinately promote legal abortion and similar abominable crimes. The reason for refusing Communion is the public fact that "their state and condition of life objectively contradict their union of love between Christ and the Church" (cf. Familiaris Consortio 84).