A chance for redemption
A tax collector who charged whatever he could to make money turned his heart and his literate abilities over to the task of evangelisation when Jesus invited him to “follow me”. With a single invitation, a money hungry extortionist took a chance at personal redemption.
In the gospel verses that preceded the call of Matthew, Jesus cured the paralytic. In doing so, Jesus demonstrated his power to forgive sin. In other words, he could reconcile sinners with God. His actions, of course, caused scandal among the Pharisees. Now Jesus would seek the immoral and the outcast. So, Jesus called Matthew, a despised tax collector. The local populace hated tax collectors for two reasons. First, the Romans established tax franchises to local citizens. In the eyes of their countrymen, collecting taxes for a foreign occupying power turned these tax men into traitors.
Second, the Romans allowed tax collectors to greatly enrich themselves above the amount Rome required. And the Romans backed these tax collectors with the power of the law. In other words, tax collectors could embezzle a fortune from the common people. So the people also saw tax collectors as cheats.
Jesus acted in a way that caused scandal. He went out of his way to reach everyone, including the sick, the outsiders, and the misfits – and he included them in his circle of friends. The dispute between the Pharisees and Jesus turned on this point. While Jesus and his followers were outsiders, the Pharisees were insiders. They extolled a lifestyle so faithful to God’s Law they “built a fence around the Torah” with their rules and regulations. Their goal was to be “holy, as God is holy.” (Leviticus 11:44). In this case, “holy” meant “unique” as well as “undefiled.” Jews were to live as a “people set apart” for God. (1 Kings 8:53). The lifestyle the Pharisees taught meant separation from those who did not live God’s Law – and total concentration on living His Law. They implicitly had an “us” and “them” mentality. No wonder they asked the question about Jesus!
Jesus didn’t mind getting himself “dirty” with the outsiders. While he honoured and kept the Jewish Law, he did not mind making himself “un-kosher” in the eyes of the Pharisees for the good of those he served. As much as the Pharisees defined themselves as exclusive, Jesus became inclusive. He reached out to the undesirable and the untouchable. He wanted to bring them into the Kingdom.
September 21 is the feast day of Matthew who heard the call of Jesus to not only change, but to join a movement of converted sinners who would go out and tell the world of One who changed them. Let us reflect on how far we have walked in the footsteps of Matthew, turning away from our past lives and spreading the Good News of Jesus by what we do and say. Could we do more?
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