As Jesus went on from there, he saw a man named Matthew sitting at the tax collector’s booth. “Follow me,” he told him, and Matthew got up and followed him.
While Jesus was having dinner at Matthew’s house, many tax collectors and sinners came and ate with him and his disciples. When the Pharisees saw this, they asked his disciples, “Why does your teacher eat with tax collectors and sinners?”
On hearing this, Jesus said, “It is not the healthy who need a doctor, but the sick. But go and learn what this means: ‘I desire mercy, not sacrifice.’[a] For I have not come to call the righteous, but sinners.”
Jesus calling Matthew, the tax collector is quite interesting on a number of levels. Tax collectors were despised, and especially those who as Jews worked for what was considered by many to be the enemy, the Roman government. They collected taxes which could be costly, especially to a poor family. And often added extra money, not required by the Romans, for themselves.
But Jesus, as he was prone to do, is willing to upset the apple cart, so often challenging the norms of Jewish religious life, actually by just doing what he did, while maintaining other customs such as teaching in the synagogues. Jesus walks right up to Matthew sitting at his tax collector’s booth, and tells Matthew to follow him.
It is a call, and Matthew answers the call by literally getting up, and following Jesus. Such a call was based on the premise that the one calling was a rabbi. A rabbi, or we often translate that, teacher, is actually more than a teacher, say in a classroom setting as we’re accustomed to today. They certainly taught, but their students were more than just students, just like they were more than teachers. Their students were to be followers, to follow their example and emulate or imitate their life.
The story that unfolds here is instructive in itself, the Jewish religious leaders reaction, and Jesus’s response to them, pointing them to scripture, and their failure to understand, much less practice what it says.
Matthew goes on to write the gospel account that bears his name, part of which is quoted above. He answered Christ’s call, and left all to follow. Tradition tells us he was among the early Christian martyrs.
To be a follower means to follow someone, and to the Jews in rabbinic tradition, that meant to do what they did, to become like them (see Lois Tverberg’s books and writings, which are most helpful along this line).
By the Spirit through the gospel that call continues today. We answer the call in the affirmative like Matthew did, or we fail to heed the call at all. A call to leave all behind and follow the one not only in what we do and don’t do, but in who we are, what we are becoming, our very mindset, heart, and life. To become like Jesus, in and through him.