The Gospel of Matthew bears the name of a tax collector called as one of Jesus’ twelve apostles. The people working as tax collectors were especially despised by the Jews of Jesus’ time because they were representative of the oppressive regime ruling Judea. Paying tax to the regime’s representative reinforced to one’s mind the power dynamic at play. No matter one’s beliefs about one’s autonomy, at the end of the day, the payment of tax to a ruling power communicated to one the reality of one’s servitude to that power. The Jews longed for independence from Roman rule, and tax collectors represented the harsh reality that, as a people, they were, in fact, subject to the Roman emperor.
In Matthew 9:9-13 the author of the Gospel recounts the calling of Matthew, a tax collector, as one of Jesus’ apostles.
As Jesus was walking along, he saw a man called Matthew sitting at the tax booth; and he said to him, “Follow me.” And he got up and followed him. And as he sat at dinner in the house, many tax collectors and sinners came and were sitting with him and his disciples. When the Pharisees saw this, they said to his disciples, “Why does your teacher eat with tax collectors and sinners?” But when he heard this, he said, “Those who are well have no need of a physician, but those who are sick. Go and learn what this means, ‘I desire mercy, not sacrifice.’ For I have come to call not the righteous but sinners.”
Jesus’ calling of a tax collector into his inner circle, and then eating a meal with that tax collector and his colleagues, was illustrative of the type of kingdom Jesus was making. I’ve often wondered what type of effect that calling had on Matthew’s view of himself. What was going through Matthew’s mind?
It is interesting that, within the text of Matthew’s gospel, the calling of Matthew is sandwiched between stories of healings. The following stories are told in the associated chapters and verses within the Gospel of Matthew:
- 8:1-4 – Jesus heals a leper
- 8:5-13 – Jesus heals a centurion’s servant
- 8:14-17 – Jesus heals several people at Peter’s house
- 8:28-34 Jesus heals the Gadarene demoniacs
- 9:2-8 – Jesus heals a paralytic
- 9:9-13 – Jesus calls Matthew as a disciple
- 9:18-26 – Jesus heals a woman and restores a girl to life
- 9:27-31 – Jesus heals two blind men
- 9:32-34 – Jesus heals a mute
In other words, the author of the Gospel seems to have chosen to represent the calling of Matthew as a healing, emphasized by Jesus’ use of the physician/sick metaphor. And a component of that healing was for Jesus to sit down at a meal with Matthew and his friends, in effect healing them as well.
To me, this perspective has serious implications for how I see myself, for when Jesus calls me to be his disciple, he is healing me as well; and when I eat at his table (i.e., Eucharist or sacrament) in communion with fellow travelers, I learn that I am part of a community of those healed by Jesus’ call to be part of his new kingdom.
What does it mean for us to see our calling into discipleship as a personal healing?
What are the implications of Jesus inviting us to eat at his table together?