Here we read about the calling of Matthew, the tax collector. And guess which Gospel we read it from? Matthew's Gospel. Here the apostle writes about his own encounter with Jesus, in which the Lord called him to follow. Probably the most pivotal even in his life. How notable that he gets to include his own story in the Gospel account. This Gospel would be read by billions of Christians, around the world, for thousands of years. So how would Matthew portray himself? What would we remember about him?
That he was a sinner.
Yes, St. Matthew the Apostle and Evangelist, St. Matthew, the writer of the very first New Testament book – when you read his story you find out he was clearly a sinner.
Yes, a tax collector.
Now, even today, no one likes the tax collector. Three of the scariest letters together in our language are I-R-S. But in ancient Israel it was even worse. Because the taxes went to Rome, those hated pagan occupiers. And the Jews who collected those taxes were seen as turncoats and traitors. Working for the dogs. Preying on their own people. And worse. Most tax collectors were assumed to be skimming off the top, taking more than their fair share, and grew quite wealthy at the expense of the people. You could even say that “tax collector” and “sinner” were basically synonymous in that day.
So here was Matthew, sitting there doing what tax-collectors do, at his tax-collecting booth. And Jesus comes right up and calls him to follow. It's more stunning than you might think.
For Jesus doesn't wait for him to quit. He doesn't say, “well, Matthew, this life of greed and corruption is bad news for you, and you can only be my follower once you've proven yourself. So clean up your act, then come talk to me later.” He says, simply, “Follow me”. And in this short sentences calls Matthew to repentance AND faith. Matthew's trust in the Lord leads him to respond just as immediately, as he left behind his tax-collecting booth and followed the Savior.
The Pharisees, no doubt, thought Jesus should be eating with and socializing with and chumming around with people of good moral character and standing. Pillars of the community, who had the respect of good, observant Jews. People who deserved his company. People, well, like them. It's as if Jesus was saying these sinners and tax collectors were more worthy of his time, more deserving of his attention than they, the self-important Pharisees were.
Jesus is not against the sacrifices, either. These were prescribed by God for the Old Testament people, and they were good. But they were not meant to become outward works – so that merely going through the motions gave one a sense of self-righteousness. This is a twisting of trust sacrifice.