As Jesus passed by, he saw a man named Matthew sitting at the customs post. He said to him, “Follow me.” And he got up and followed him (Mt 9:9).
We hear little else about the apostle Matthew from the Gospels. Much of what we know of him is inferred from his former occupation. He was likely wealthy: he had both a house large enough to host a banquet for Jesus and the means to feed all the guests (Lk 5:29). He served the dreaded Roman Empire, and because of this he would be scorned by his compatriots. As a tax collector, his wages came from adding a portion of his choosing to the amount his countrymen were due to pay. It was a system that encouraged greed and theft, and to make matters worse those taxes funded an empire that Israel detested. Thus, by the vice of his office Matthew was a public sinner who lived far outside the realm of religious respectability. Matthew’s profession made him a person to avoid, and indeed the Pharisees rightly criticized tax collectors like Matthew for their greed at the expense of their neighbors. Yet when Jesus called Matthew away from that contemptible state to a life of sacrifice and righteousness, he responded with docility. By grace he knew that Jesus’ call was greater than all else, and so “he got up and followed him.”
Elsewhere in the Gospel of Matthew we meet a man who lived an upright life and whom we might expect to be more suitable for preaching the Kingdom of God, a fellow known to us as the rich young man. The rich young man was good and sought to be better. Once he heard about the teacher Jesus, he had the initiative to seek him out and to ask him what he should do to have eternal life. At first, Jesus told the rich young man that he should keep the commandments, but he already observed them as well as any God-fearing man could. He then asked what else he might do, yet when Jesus told the rich young man, “If you would be perfect, go, sell what you possess and give to the poor, and you will have treasure in heaven; and come, follow me” (Mt 19:21), he was not willing to accept the burden. He went away sorrowful. He wanted to be a spiritually strong man, and to this end he was offered a gift of far greater worth than he could ever expect: companionship with Christ. Yet when offered this gift, he found that he would rather keep to his own path and cling to his own things than pay the price of that gift: abandonment to the will of God.
Both St. Matthew and the rich young man were called to give up their wealth and to follow Jesus in order to inherit eternal life. The rich young man explicitly desired eternal life, and he knew that following God’s precepts was necessary. The rich young man lived virtuously, but his heart was divided. He was separated from God, not because he committed many sins, but because he had an inordinate attachment to wealth and comforts. Saint Matthew, on the other hand, was docile. He had no conditions for God. When St. Matthew responded to Jesus’ call, he accepted that he needed to turn away from a sinful profession, and he gave up all he had. He needed to do both, and by that double abandonment of sin and wealth, he was able to give himself totally to Jesus, and now he lives with him in eternity.
Photo by Fr. Lawrence Lew, O.P. (used with permission)