Summary: St Matthew’s Day: The call of Matthew is a reminder that Jesus calls outsiders. Fortunately, Jesus turns the tables on us, turning everyone into an outsider, called to follow him.
May the words of my mouth, and the meditations of our hearts, be pleasing in your sight, O Lord, our Rock and our Redeemer. Amen
Have you ever wondered, why did Matthew get up? I don’t mean, why did he get up in the morning to go to work. Why did Matthew get up... and follow Jesus?
I once saw a famous painting that helped me understand the feelings of Matthew on that day. The Call of Saint Matthew, by the Renaissance painter Caravaggio, shows the scene.
On the left side of the painting, Matthew sits at a table, counting coins that he has earned in his work as a tax collector. Matthew is dressed in clothes of fine quality, surrounded by four assistants. In the shadows on the right side of the painting is Jesus. Jesus is pointing to Matthew, calling him to follow, his feet already turning to head for the door. Jesus will not wait.
Matthew has no time to ponder his options. With a coin still in his hand, his face looks surprised, and he gestures as if to say, "Who, ME?" And in the next moment, the tax collector must have tossed that coin, risen from the table, and followed Jesus.
Tax collectors weren’t respectable members of the community in Jesus’ time. They were considered traitors by their neighbors. The Roman government told them how much money they expected to receive, but tax collectors were free to demand as much money as they could, and pocket the difference as their own income. They were fairly well-off, but they weren’t respected, or even accepted.
Tax collectors wouldn’t have been welcome to worship, wouldn’t have received invitations to attend anyone’s wedding, wouldn’t even have expected to be spoken to by a religious teacher like Jesus.
Yet, here was Jesus, talking to Matthew. Here was a religious teacher, a righteous and honorable man, inviting this "traitor" to come and learn from him, to have dinner with him, to become one of Jesus’ circle of friends.
What a surprise that must have been for those in the room. Those who worked with Matthew and those who were bringing their taxes would have been surprised. The disciples following Jesus probably were surprised. Matthew himself surely must have been surprised.
But not Jesus. I picture Jesus with a little smirk on his face and a twinkle in his eye at the surprise he must have caused. And I expect Jesus must have walked away with great happiness in his heart, to have Matthew trust him, and follow.
There were others who were surprised, as well. The religious leaders were surprised. Notice that they didn’t even want to talk to Jesus about it directly. They drew near to his followers, and asked the disciples to answer for the actions of their teacher. But Jesus answered the Pharisees directly.
Here’s how the passage reads in a contemporary translation of the Bible,
Later when Jesus was eating supper at Matthew’s house with his close followers, a lot of disreputable characters came and joined them. When the Pharisees saw him keeping this kind of company, they had a fit, and lit into Jesus’ followers. "What kind of example is this from your Teacher, acting cozy with crooks and riff-raff?"
Jesus, overhearing, shot back. "Who needs a doctor: the healthy or the sick? Go figure out what this Scripture means: ‘I’m after mercy, not religion.’ I’m here to invite outsiders, not coddle insiders."
Jesus doesn’t mince words. He says things plainly, even when his words might sting. Jesus came to invite outsiders. Jesus is here to invite outsiders.
This talk of outsiders and insiders often is difficult for us hear. For myself, when I was growing up, I often was an outsider; I didn’t fit in. But when I got to college, I found myself as a leader of the insiders in a couple areas of campus life. Perhaps you, too, can remember occasions when you felt like an insider, and times when you felt like an outsider.
Jesus is saying these words to each of us. One of Martin Luther’s insights is that we all are "simul justus et peccator"— that’s Latin for "simultaneously saint and sinner." Each one of us is the righteous and the sinner. Each one of us is the insider and the outsider. These words of Jesus are for all of us.
When we feel like insiders, Jesus reminds us that God’s desire is that we will be merciful toward others. Jesus invites us to reach out to those who may feel like outsiders, to invite them to sit at our table, to belong to Jesus’ group, to honor them and care for them— no matter what other people might think.
If we want to sit with Jesus, then we, too, must share our meals with those outsiders. Here is a list of outsiders who might be at the table today, from another preacher, Barbara Brown Taylor: