Last Wednesday was the Feast of Saint Matthew the Apostle. I’ve heard the story of Jesus calling St. Matthew over and over again throughout my life, but until last week, I hadn’t given that much thought to the event. Jesus called. Matthew answered. Tah-dah!
But last week, I suddenly thought of something that hadn’t occurred to me before: Matthew had a life, a job, a career. And he walked away.
What prompted this sudden abandonment of his former life? How did it happen that a man up and left?
As a child, it never would have occurred to me that anything had to have happened before that, but as an adult, I understand that Matthew was not in some kind of vacuum before Jesus walked up to him and simply said, “Follow me.” Matthew lived before that. He had stuff to do. He had a home (it says so in the Bible), he had a good-paying job (even if it earned him the scorn of his fellow Jews) … People don’t often just up and leave their grown-up lives for something new.
This idea prompted me to try to imagine what might have been going on before that fateful moment we see in the Gospel. The back-story of Matthew.
Maybe Matthew had heard of Jesus – voices from Heaven don’t happen every day, and I’m sure word got around about this Jesus from Galilee who saw that desert preacher John the Baptizer. Word had it that when John baptized Jesus, a booming voice – from the Lord, could it have been? – proclaimed Jesus was His Son. That’s not the kind of story people can keep to themselves. So Matthew probably had, at the very least, heard of Jesus. Then Jesus comes back from praying in the desert and starts gathering followers of his own. Fishermen. Weird. They go to a wedding near there and now there are rumors about some miracle wine.
Matthew hears that this Jesus is nearby, preaching and telling people about the Kingdom of God. So he goes, lingering around the outside edges of the crowd. This isn’t that hard, since most of his fellow Israelites don’t like him much, anyway. “Tax collector,” they hiss under their breath as he strolls nearby.
But this Jesus is different than other preachers. He’s different than even the prophets in Scripture. He speaks with authority like no one Matthew has ever heard. He sees the Apostles, sitting near Jesus, and has the sudden urge to join them. “I want to follow this Man,” he suddenly says to himself. And in the next breath he thinks, “How preposterous! As if this Man – it’s obvious He’s Holy! – would want someone like me near him. Sure, those fishermen are an odd choice, but at least they aren’t tax collectors!” And, though he longs to be near Jesus, follow him as a distant disciple, at the end of Jesus’ lessons, Matthew goes back home.
What Matthew doesn’t see is Jesus looking after him, even as the crowds draw nearer, asking Him to bless their children, heal their sick, listen to their needs. Jesus knows. Jesus sees Matthew’s heart and the desire within it to change his life and follow God.
Maybe days later, Matthew is working in the center of town. Crowds are everywhere, and they jostle his table as they rush by, trying to get to the next booth to barter for the makings of that evening’s meal. Matthew keeps his head bent down over his figures and papers, taking tallies of the taxes he collects that day.
But ever since he heard Jesus speak, all he really thinks of is the message to repent and turn to God. It’s something he longs to do, but doesn’t understand how it’s possible. Besides, why would God want him? “Tax collectors!” mutters another man as he passes Matthew’s table.
There’s a huge crowd of people who seem to be moving in a large group, all in one direction. Matthew glances over, then turns his attention back to the man in front of his table.
In the center of that crowd is Jesus and his Apostles. People press all around Him, jostling for a position close to the Teacher, and Jesus doesn’t ignore anyone who comes to Him, but He is definitely going somewhere in particular today. He is walking towards Matthew.
As the crowd sees him, whispers go around. “It’s Jesus! Did you hear Him speaking last week?” “He healed my aunt! He’s a Holy Man!” Then they see His trajectory, and the murmurs start to change. “He’s headed towards that tax collector, Matthew!” “What could He want with him?” “Surely, he’ll reprimand him. Those tax collectors are all the same. Thieves! Every last one!”
Matthew looks up and sees Jesus, just steps away from him, and the crowd parts to let Him through while not getting too far away. Who would want to miss this?
Matthew’s stomach turns. Even though he has longed to meet Jesus and talk to Him, Matthew is certain he’s not worthy to be associated with such a Holy Man. Surely the reason Jesus stands before him now is to reprimand him and call him out for his sins.
Matthew looks up, his heart racing. He’s fearful of what’s about to be said, and yet… Something else is there, too. Hope? “Hope? Hope for what?” he asks himself.
As this thought passes through his mind, Jesus comes to a stop in front of him. The crowd quiets, and Matthew swallows hard. He cannot utter a single word. “Who is this standing before me?” he wonders.
And then Jesus looks Matthew in the eye, smiles gently, and speaks to him.
How can that be? Matthew sits stock still for a moment, trying to understand exactly what Jesus just said.
Thoughts race through his mind at lightning speed. “Follow Him? Follow Him?? Me? How am I worthy? Does He know who I am? Well, yes, we’re here at my table, so yes, but why me? Am I worthy? What do I do?”
He realizes that he’s looked away from Jesus for a moment as the thoughts crashed in, so Matthew looks back up from his table into Jesus’ face.
And he realizes that he may not be worthy of the honor, but Jesus means it. He wants Matthew – a tax collector! – and He will help him become worthy. All of this, Matthew can sense just in the way Jesus smiles at him.
And Matthew rises, never taking his eyes off Jesus, and walks away from his life to start again.