Imagine Matthew sitting at his customs post along the road that passed Capernaum, totally absorbed in his work.
In the opinion of the Jewish farmers and fishermen who had to pay him a toll to carry their products down the road to market, Matthew probably seemed like a traitor. He was raising taxes for the regime that held them in subjection. In addition, tax collectors were known to enrich themselves by charging higher fees than they were required to turn over to the government. Thus, Matthew was probably regarded as a thief as well. Tax collectors were barred from the synagogue, just like robbers and murderers.
Jesus had just healed a man of paralysis and, as he left Capernaum, he had to walk by Matthew’s toll office. Probably to Matthew’s astonishment—certainly to the astonishment of Jesus’ followers—Jesus went up to Matthew and invited him to become a disciple! We can only imagine what went through Matthew’s mind. No doubt he had heard about Jesus before this encounter. Perhaps, like Zacchaeus, his fellow tax collector (Luke 19:1-4), Matthew had stood on the periphery of the crowd and listened to Jesus. Had his heart been touched by what he heard? Had Matthew asked himself, “Who is this man, Jesus?” Did he feel some vague desire to break free of the sin of his outcast way of life?
We cannot read Matthew’s thoughts, but we know that this worldly man did not delay a minute in responding to Jesus’ invitation. As soon as Jesus said, “Follow me,” Matthew got up and followed (Matthew 9:9). By day’s end, Matthew invited Jesus to join him and his fellow tax collectors at a dinner in his home (Luke 5:29).
Jesus saw Matthew as he sees all of us—not just for who we are, but for who we can become through his grace. Jesus loved Matthew and had a specific task waiting for him in the kingdom. Jesus turned this hated, hardened tax collector into an apostle of love. No personal transformation is impossible with God!
According to tradition, Matthew preached the gospel among the Jews for fifteen years after Jesus’ resurrection, and then went on to evangelize in Persia, Macedonia, and Syria. After walking with Jesus on earth and witnessing his resurrection, this apostle faithfully poured out his life preaching the gospel of mercy that bears his name. May each of us who have experienced God’s mercy be compelled by this same mercy to give it to others.
Points for Meditation:
When Jesus called Matthew, he didn’t choose someone who was already perfect. Do you think that you have to be perfect before you can come into the presence of Jesus or give your life to him? Ask Jesus to remove any feelings of unworthiness that may be keeping you separated from him. Trust that as you grow in your relationship with Jesus, you too will experience the kind of transformation that Matthew did.
The tax collectors and other “public” sinners in Jesus’ day could see that they were in need of a physician. The Pharisees, however, could not acknowledge their condition and so would not come to the Great Physician for healing. Do you see yourself as a sinner in need of redemption? Let go of any tendency to think you’re doing “well enough” or to make light of sin. Tell Jesus how much you need him to cleanse you each day of your sinfulness.
In his wildest dreams, Matthew probably never could have imagined quitting his job as a tax collector and becoming a missionary and evangelist. Yet while Matthew’s skills were in tax collecting, he nonetheless accepted God’s plan for his life. Ask the Lord to show you whether he is calling you to some distinct mission in your life. Even if it seems beyond your capabilities, ask him for the grace to carry it out.
Jesus, thank you for calling me to leave behind my selfish ways and follow you. Give me the grace to respond to you today without hesitation. Change me as much as you changed Matthew!
This is a selection from A Year of Celebration: Experiencing God through the Feast Days of the Church (The Word Am0ng Us Press, 2001).