April 15, 2005

From the Editor Emeritus / John F. Fink

Jesus in the Gospels: The call of Matthew

See Matthew 9:9-13, Mark 2:13-17, Luke 5:27-32

Matthew, Mark and Luke all tell the same story, but Matthew calls the tax collector Matthew while the other two call him Levi. In their lists of the Apostles, though, there is no Levi and Matthew specifically refers to “Matthew the tax collector” (Mt 10:3).

It’s difficult for us to realize how scandalous it was for Jesus to call a tax collector to “Follow me.” The Jews detested tax collectors who were in the employ of their Roman occupiers. The Jews were subject to numerous taxes: income, property, import and export, and tolls for traveling from one district to another. (Jesus and the Apostles often escaped those tolls by traveling by boat.)

The main tax collector in a province was called a publican. He employed ­others, called exactors, who would sit at customs’ posts. Publicans made their living from commissions, so it was in their interest to squeeze as much money as they could. Extortion was the normal practice, so the Jews considered them sinners. Nevertheless, Jesus told Matthew to follow him, and Matthew immediately got up, left his lucrative business and followed him.

It was bad enough that Jesus had associated himself with fishermen, but this sinner? And what did the fishermen think? Matthew (or Levi) probably had collected taxes from them, and now was he to be their companion?

And what about Matthew’s wife? In order to get his position, Matthew certainly would have been above the usual age when men married, and most Jewish men did. Jesus and perhaps John, who might have still been a teenager, were the exceptions. How did the Apostles explain to their wives what they were doing? We can only speculate.

Anyway, Matthew decided to throw a big party for Jesus and invited his friends and colleagues—other tax collectors and those whom the Jews considered sinners. Now the scribes and Pharisees really were scandalized! To sit at table with these ­people made Jesus and his Apostles ritually unclean.

We can imagine those scribes and Pharisees standing outside Matthew’s house, watching the guests as they arrived, and growing more and more agitated. Finally, one of them asked Jesus’ disciples, “Why does your teacher eat with tax collectors and sinners?”

Jesus overheard this question and replied, “Those who are well do not need a physician, but the sick do. I did not come to call the righteous but sinners.”

Matthew’s Gospel adds, “Go and learn the meaning of the words, ‘I desire mercy, not sacrifice.’” He was quoting the prophet Hosea (Hos 6:6). What does that have to do with eating with sinners? If mercy is superior to temple sacrifices, surely it is more important than the laws of ritual purity. (Jesus was to repeat the quotation from Hosea when his disciples were criticized for picking grain on the Sabbath.)

You might think that Jesus, as a holy man, would be associating with the most religious people among the Jews. Instead, he was associating with sinners and making their conversion his main concern. †

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