Summary: Matthew’s puzzling and sudden following of Jesus is not so puzzling if we attend to Matthew’s profession, his Levitial upbringing, and his recognition of Jesus as the one about whom Hosea prophesied.
Matthew’s Puzzling Conversion
Last Sunday, I had occasion to mention the California coastal city named Laguna Beach. I mentioned Laguna Beach as an example of Jesus’ parable at the end of the sermon on the Mount, the part about the man who built his house upon the sand, and the storm came and blew against that house, and great was the fall thereof. Over the years, Laguna Beach has afforded many examples of this very thing – someone building their house on bluffs of clay and sand that line the California coast at that point. And, if you were watching the news this past week, you saw that another crop of foolish men have continued to build their multi-million dollar houses on those bluffs.
Well, within twelve hours of delivering you that homily last week, there was yet another landslide in Laguna Beach. Over a dozen homes were destroyed, several of them valued in the millions of dollars. Another two dozen or so homes were evacuated, because they were in danger of sliding into Bluebird Canyon.
There is a place on the Internet called Darwin Awards dot com, which lists the verified tales of people who do the most outrageously stupid things. All of them are verifiable lost causes, it would seem. And, now the people who built those houses on the sand are prime candidates for new entries for the Darwin Award of 2005.
There is another lost cause in today’s gospel lesson, but it has a dramatically different sort of outcome. It is, at first glance, something of a puzzle. Just prior to what we read in today’s gospel, Jesus had healed a bed-ridden cripple and had forgiven his sins. This, of course, promptly created a stir. Among the people, it was a stir of joy and hope. Here was one who could forgive sins and heal sickness; and in the popular estimation of things, the two always went hand in hand. If you were a notorious sinner, something evil befell you – some disease or accident. But, if you were forgiven your sins, the malady would go away too. So, the people were overjoyed at what Jesus did.
The Scribes, however, were scandalized. They judged Jesus to be blasphemous to forgive sins.
Now as he was passing on from this episode, Jesus passed by the stand of Matthew the tax collector. Mostly likely, Matthew’s office was along the route that traders would take, and he collected various sorts of tariffs and taxes from them. Jesus sees him and simply says to him, “Follow me.”
Here’s the puzzle: the gospel text – which by the way is composed by the same man, Matthew – simply says that Matthew rose up and followed him. No explanation is given at all. You might wonder if Matthew left something out.
If Matthew’s gospel were something like the let-it-all-hang-out first person accounts you find on newsstands, or bookstores, or on shows like Oprah or Jerry Springer, you would have at this point a long, tedious, and shameless baring of the soul, to explain how it was that Matthew got up and followed Jesus. But, no – even though this part of Matthew’s gospel is autobiographical, he simply relates that he got up and followed Jesus.
If we check the parallel account in Mark 2 and Luke 5 we find the same thing – perhaps an extra detail or two – but otherwise, it’s the same thing. Jesus says “Follow me” and Matthew gets up and follows Jesus. I think we have to take this at face value – with no hesitation by Matthew, he makes no requests for an explanations, he offers Jesus no excuses for remaining where he is, he tries no negotiating of any kind. Matthew just plucks himself up and follows Jesus. What’s going on here?
Well, we might explain this the way Hollywood moviemakers would probably explain it – with a kind of ethereal, spooky, Jesus, with wide, staring blue eyes and a blank face who INTONES “F-o-l-l-o-w M-e-e-e-e” And then the camera would cut to Matthew who would have a look on his face kind of like the pod people in the film Night of the Living Dead, and he would kind of stagger after Jesus like he was under some sort of spell.
I don’t think that’s what happened either. The clue to Matthew’s immediate response are right there in the gospel we heard read. It turns on three things.
First of all, there is Matthew himself. He’s a tax collector. And in that setting, a tax collector is first class creep. The Romans were no dummies about taxes. When they conquered a people like the Jews, they found the petty Mafiosi types among the citizenry and made them the tax collectors. The would assign a certain amount of money which the tax collector would owe to the Roman authorities. And, any amounts beyond that which the tax collector could squeeze out of the taxpayers, the tax collector got to keep. And, if the taxpayer didn’t pay up, all Matthew had to do was report him to the Roman magistrate, and it was off with his head and then a confiscation of the dead taxpayer’s estate.