Text: Matthew 9:9-13
“He said to him, ‘Follow Me’. And he got up and followed him”
In the name of the +Father, and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit. Amen.
Just prior to the April 5th Tax deadline, I was reminded of a certain passage of Scripture – “Render unto God what is God’s, and render unto Caesar what is Caesar’s – but in Caesar’s case, not necessarily all of it”
We hate Tax. We have always hated Tax. However, as death and taxes are the only two things we can be assured of; we really should accept both, even if it pains us.
Jesus happened upon Matthew while he was at work, in his tollbooth, collecting taxes. As with fishermen, Jesus calls his disciples while they are at work, living their routine lives. At least when Jesus calls the fishermen, there is an element of calling the noble working man from his honest day’s graft, whereas to encounter and then call a tax collector was to challenge every social nicety of the day.
The taxes in question would be customs duties on goods passing through on the great road from Syria to Egypt or possibly at a tollbooth near the lake on goods coming across the lake. Tax collectors were typically among the most hated of people, especially in Palestine.
In the Roman system, the office of tax collection was awarded to the highest bidder. The winner of this right would employ others to do the actual work of collecting taxes. Matthew might well have been a middle level employee, rather than a rich man in his own right. However, he and any tax collector could become rich through extortion. It was permissible to charge a certain amount over and above the tax required in order to receive compensation. That’s how the tax collector got paid.
It is a vicious circle: the more the tax collectors collected, the more they were hated, and the more they were hated the more they collected. Being Jews working for the occupying government made them traitors and being Jews coming into contact with Gentiles, merchants from around the world, and other sinners, made them religiously and ceremonially, unclean.
Jesus said to Matthew, “Follow me.” There is no mention of a previous conversation and no hint that Jesus and Matthew had met before. However, the form of the command is in the present tense, which means to continue to follow, to keep on following. The emphasis here is not on the conditions that led Matthew to accept, but on his unconditional acceptance.
Matthew left a whole way of life in order to follow Jesus. He may well have been wealthy, but perhaps only on his way to wealth. Nonetheless, he left it all and followed Jesus. Fishermen might and did, return to their former occupation, but not tax collectors. Rome would not hire him again, should he have changed his mind and tried to return. This was a irrevocable commitment, one made without knowing the “benefit package” – terms and conditions which would lead inevitably to privation, Martyrdom and heavenly glory.
Jesus says to us today, “Follow Me.” He calls us to ever greater things. You might have thought that the removing the pews was the end, but my dear friends, it is only the beginning. It is the first step down a long road which will lead us to, well, who knows where. Matthew certainly didn’t know where to either, but he undertook the journey anyway.
Jesus reaches out of the text to you this morning and says to you “Follow Me”, and what will you do? Will you follow? Will you demurr? Will you stick your heels into the ground and refuse to budge? Will you try and avoid or subvert the call to follow? Will you hide at the back and hope that he goes away?
Or will you embrace the offer that the Saviour extends to you? Will you take that call that might lead you into unfamiliar territory? Will you be prepared to lend a hand in the mission of this Church? The Mission to young and to old, the Mission to the isolated or the otherwise disenfranchised? None of the disciples at the time understood what “Follow Me” meant, but they embraced the call to the mission of the church, the Missio Dei – the mission of God and did what they were bid.
In another pericope which occurs just prior to this morning’s reading, a disciple demurs when asked by Christ to follow him. He asks leave to bury his father first. This phrase in Hebrew culture did not mean literally to bury one’s dead parent, but meant “to put one’s house in order” – a breathing space, a time for consideration. Christ pours scorn on the disciple’s reticence, archly telling the dead to bury their own. Even today, this is a response which challenges us with its directness. There is nothing, nothing more important than the call of Christ. Family ties, moral obligations, societal pressures all mean nothing when compared to that call.
How would we respond? As we sat in our nice warm offices, sandwich in one hand, newspaper in the other – a typical day’s work in other words. Jesus knocks on our office door and says to us “Get your coat – you’ve pulled!”
Have we the faith to drop the newspaper and the sandwich and to follow? To follow is to embrace a rollercoaster of uncertainty and challenge, to subvert our own pride and prejudices in order to come closer to God. The call from Christ is not because we are good or worthy but because we are exactly the sort of people who will benefit from coming close to God: Christ makes apostles of Tax Collectors and Prostitutes, he comes as a doctor to the sick not to the well.
“Follow Me” Christ asks each and every one of us here this morning. He asks us this each day in the Mass, for the commitment to Christ we make is not simply a one-off decision, it is one we have to make on a daily basis. We follow him to the altar step and out into the world. As it was for Matthew, as it was for the fishermen, it must be an instant decision – no burying one’s father, no putting one’s house in order: drop everything and follow him.
Matthew accepted the call of Christ without equivocation, without examining the small print. We too, should not be afraid to do the same, for as is revealed, the ultimate benefits package which comes with that decision is one far beyond compare…