It is highly unlikely that being a tax collector was Matthew's "Plan A." We can assume that there weren't any kids in Capernum waiting for him to retire so they could have his job. Few parents would have encouraged their kids to consider going into tax collecting as an honest way to make a living. In Jesus's time tax collection was privatized. That's another way of saying that some person or group of people would put in a bid to the Roman government to collect taxes in their town. For the Roman government that occupied the land it was easier to get locals to collect taxes than to try to do it themselves. The locals knew the culture, the people, the language. But that put tax collectors like Matthew in a difficult position. Tax collectors were suspected of skimming money off the top for themselves. Many of them did. But even if they were honest brokers, they were still seen as selling out to the Roman government. They were seen colluders. Sellouts who were helping the Roman government at the expense of their own neighbors.
Collecting taxes wasn't anyone's Plan A. Few of us are still on Plan A. You start with a dream but things happen. Someone gets sick. Someone loses a job. A relationship ends. And you move
on to Plan B. And Plan C. And pretty soon you start running out of letters so maybe you add numbers too. You give up the dream you had of an amazing job or an ideal family or perfect health. And then you find yourself where Matthew is. Just trying to get by. Just trying to keep it together. Just trying to hold on to part of Plan A.
The text tells us that Matthew didn't utter a word in response to Jesus. Jesus says, "Follow me," and Matthew just gets up and follows him. If this were most of us, we would want some details or an itinerary. You would probably have a couple of questions. The most urgent question Matthew doesn't ask is "What are you doing?" Perhaps Matthew doesn't ask questions because he's heard rumors about Jesus. Or perhaps he doesn't ask questions because he figures things can't get much worse than they already are. We don't know.
But Matthew doesn't ask any questions. The people who do ask questions in the text are the Pharisees. "Why does your teacher eat with tax-collectors and sinners?" Another way of putting that is the question Matthew should have asked: "What are you doing?" The Pharisees are the
experts in keeping the law, especially requirements about purity. Purity laws are especially important for eating, which is part of the reason why these questions about the law come up around a dinner table. The gospel writers often cast the Pharisees in an unfairly negative light, residue of the conflict between Christianity and Judaism when the gospels were written. But the Pharisees were likely honestly bewildered by what this teacher, as they call him, was doing. What's with the tax collectors and the sinners? What are you doing?
Today's reading is often lifted up as a model for discipleship, for following Jesus. But most of never have the choice put in such stark choices as Matthew experienced. Usually when we try to make discipleship about making a choice, we make it about actions, about doing something. But discipleship is not about trying to live a perfect life or even about trying to do what Jesus would do. Discipleship is about coming back to that question that lies beneath today's gospel reading. "What is Jesus doing?" What is Jesus doing in the world? In the city? In my life?
The answer to "What is Jesus doing?" can't be answered with words. It has to be seen and
lived. Matthew may seem hopelessly naive for not asking any questions, but what answers could Jesus possibly give? The glimpses of the answer only come from experience. For the people who keep asking that question in Matthew's gospel, it will become clear that eating with sinners is a sign of the forgiveness of sins. It's not until after the Last Supper that the disciples like Matthew will start to piece that together. Only then does the answer to "What is Jesus doing?" begin to emerge.
Jesus's answer to the Pharisee's question is a very strange proclamation of good news. "I have not come for those who are well but for those who are sick." I can't imagine the mixed reaction that got from the people around the table. We would probably expect Jesus to say that they're actually not sinners or the Pharisees need to stop being so critical. But that's not what happens. Jesus never condones what Matthew and the others at the table are doing. He doesn't say that it's not a problem.
But Jesus doesn't say they're unrighteous until he says that he has come to call the unrighteous. And not just to call them but to show them the kindness that reflects God's grace. The sinners
and tax collectors only see their shortcomings and failures when Jesus tells them that he has come for them, even comparing himself to a physician who will make them whole. Jesus only speaks the truth about the sinners and tax collectors' condition when he embodies a word of forgiveness.
Asking "What is Jesus doing" will eventually lead us to be honest about our own shortcomings, but not until it leads us to the Savior who first shows us mercy and forgiveness. The only sins we can truly repent for are the ones that have already been forgiven. "Follow me" is not a command or even an invitation so much as a word of forgiveness. Forgiveness is not the goal of discipleship but the beginning of life in Christ.
Caravaggio's painting of the calling of Matthew hangs in a church in Rome. It's a massive painting, over ten feet by ten feet. On the left of the canvas, four men of varying ages sit around a table counting money and keeping ledgers. Opposite the tax collectors stands Christ, who you wouldn't recognize were it not for the halo. His fingers stretch across the table, but who do they land on? Who is the invitation for? Certainly for Matthew, but also for you. For all of us who
have long since given up on Plan A.
It's telling that today's feast day is called the feast of Matthew the Apostle. Not Matthew the tax collector. What defines Matthew's life is no longer his occupation, what he does. What defines Matthew is no longer how far away he is from Plan A. What defines Matthew's life is that holy invitation. Those words that will transform Matthew's life in a deeper way than he can imagine. You can go through as many plans as you want, but it won't be what defines your life. And once you know that, you can stop trying to hold on to Plan A and start asking that holy question.
God comes to you not with a command or an ultimatum but with this word of forgiveness. "Follow me. Come see what I am doing."
Vicar Joseph Schattauer Paille
Saint Peter's Church
In the City of New York
SAINT MATTHEW, APOSTLE AND EVANGELIST
Saint Matthew 9:9β13