Readings: Hosea 6:3-6; Romans 4:18 -25; Matthew 9:9-13
All the three readings give us the single theme: God’s invitation to faith demands repentance. In the Gospel we see Matthew a despised tax collector is going about his normal daily routine. Jesus stops close to him and says, “Follow me.” What power there must have been in the gaze of Jesus and the firmness of his voice? Matthew has no hesitation; he gets up, leaves everything and follows Jesus. Then he makes a celebration out of it calling all his friends and to show that he has begun a new life. In the first reading, God says, what I desire is steadfast love and not sacrifices, the knowledge of God rather than burnt offerings. The Lord will come to us as showers come, like spring rains watering the earth. In the Second Reading Paul speaks of the faith and trust of Abraham in God. Because of this God remains faithful to him and grants him a son in his old age.
The Gospel reading describes the call of Matthew or as some evangelists say, the call of Levi. Perhaps he was the evangelist Matthew himself or some person much involved in his worldly ways whom Jesus calls to be his disciple. On that day, something very special and totally unexpected came into this man’s life. The poetic words of the First Reading are realized here: “Let us set ourselves to know the Lord; that he will come is as certain as the dawn his judgment will rise like the light, he will come to us as showers come, like spring rains watering the earth.” Yes, the Lord comes to all of us in the most unexpected ways and at the most unexpected times. Matthew was ready with his response when he came. Jesus called him and in a generous spirit Mathew said yes to him.
For Mathew this was the divine call. A divine call is always intimate and personal. There is an invitation and response. Every human being is called by God at different levels. The first call which every human person gets is at birth when God calls personally, by name. He takes possession of the individual. He gives all the life and shares his very life with the person. Secondly there is a call of a higher level, to be Christian. A special call is given to the individual to die to the world and to be reborn in Christ, a call to baptism. Finally a unique call is given to individual towards a choice of life to be particularly close to Jesus, to renounce all and be with him and follow him. This is a special call where all are called to be faithful to the evangelical counsels and be followers of Jesus in the vocation they have chosen. Like every person, Mathew received this call.
Certainly, Matthew was a highly unlikely candidate for discipleship. After all, he was a tax collector. Tax collectors were among the most despised group of people in Jewish society of the time. They, like lepers were the outcasts of the society because of their association with the Romans. Tax collectors never could be particularly popular, given their distasteful job and during Jesus’ time they were collecting taxes on behalf of a hated and pagan colonial ruler. As such they were seen as collaborators and traitors both to their own people and to their religion. The Romans had the custom of farming out the collection of taxes to volunteer agents. These paid up the amount that the Romans demanded and then had to get back the money from the people. In order to make a living from such work, they needed to collect more than they had paid the Romans. This was like the zamindari system in India followed by the British rulers. They had their “commission” but there was often an element of extortion and corruption in the whole practice.
Jesus now invites one of these despised people to be his chosen follower. We can imagine Matthew’s astonishment at being picked out in this way. Jesus does not judge a person from his exterior behaviour and Jesus also shows that we have no right to pass any judgment. His choice is unique, special and personal which goes beyond any reason. Our God is indeed a God of surprises. We see this in the Second Reading where Paul speaks of the faith and trust of Abraham in God. Abraham and Sarah already advanced in age and are longing for a son to carry on the family name. They are rewarded because of their trust and faith in God and in his promises.
Now Jesus does something more drastic and totally unexpected thing. He accepts Mathew’s invitation and goes to his house for dinner with his disciples and joins Mathew’s tax collector friends. It looks as if it was altogether natural for Matthew to celebrate his new calling with his friends. Seeing this some Pharisees are shocked and scandalized. For Jesus it is a lesson that he teaches to all, namely, to be a model of the Church community where Christians gather to listen to him and experience his healing. The Pharisees complain about this act of Jesus but Jesus responds saying it is the sick that need doctor. Jesus is the healer or as we heard in he first reading, where God says, what I want is love, not sacrifice; knowledge of God, not holocausts.” The lost sheep has to be sought out and found and not the ninety nine faithful ones who already have been filled with the divine love.
The lesson of today’s readings is clearly relevant for our own day. When looking for potential followers of Christ we wonder at times at the wisdom of God’s choice. When we look at the twelve apostles, they were indeed a strange bunch. Full of faults, fragile in their faith but in the end they started something extraordinary which today plays a central part of our lives. Secondly Jesus looks for compassion and love and not wisdom and eloquence. He will give his spirit and will transform his chosen ones.
Anecdote: Ramakrishna gives a beautiful example of an unrestricted calling by God. Once there was a coupe in a particular village and the wife told the husband, my dear I am afraid of my brother. He has planned to leave the world and for the past three months he has been sacrificing bit by bit his food special dishes and his rich clothes to be accustomed of being a sannyasi (mendicant). The husband smiled and said, my dear you need not be afraid. Those who plan to leave the world this way will never leave it. She was surprised and said then how does one leave and become sannyasi? The husband said, do you want to know? Look. He got up, tore his flowing garments, wore a loin cloth, took a stick and begging bowl, bowed to his wife and said from now all every woman to me is like a mother and left the house never to return.