I’ve mentioned before that the prayer book I take to Mass with me always includes stories about saints. Generally there is a theme around the saints they choose to feature. This month the theme is saints who didn’t really want to be saints. The saints featured during the past week included St. Matthew, the apostle, Gospel writer, and former tax collector.
A few years ago, Bill and I were audited by the IRS. It was from the year that I spent a month in the hospital. As you can imagine, our medical bills that particular year were extremely high, and our tax return reflected this. Since it was so unusual for us to have such high medical payments, it shouldn’t have come as a surprise to us that we were audited. Eventually the IRS dropped the audit and we weren’t liable for any extra taxes, much to our relief. But the audit raised angst and ire in my family. One sister was irked that the IRS would seek more money from us when there are so many people that get away with paying far less in taxes than they should. As for Bill and me, we were simply concerned about how much more they would require, and whether or not we would be put in prison for tax fraud, thereby requiring my brother to bake a cake with a file in it to bring to us in prison.
According to what I read in my prayer book, tax collectors were abhorred during the time of Jesus as much – if not more so – than now. Right up there with prostitutes and Samaritans. The reason was that tax collectors were independent contractors who paid the taxes for the people up front, and then collected the money from those same people afterwards. No rules. They could collect as much as they wanted, and in any manner they saw fit. So not only were they cheating their fellow Jews, but they were colluding with the Romans, the Jews’ sworn enemy.
So no one was a fan of Matthew. And yet, while passing through Capernaum, Jesus called him to “follow me.” According to Matthew’s own recount of the incident, his response was this: And he got up and followed him (Matthew, 9:9).
Though I had heard this story many times, reading it on Sunday morning resulted in me putting my prayer book on my lap and thinking about why Jesus seemed to want to particularly reach out to those folks not well regarded by the Jews. In his gospel, Matthew gives the reason, quoting Jesus: Those who are well do not need a physician, but the sick do….I did not come to call the righteous but sinners (Matthew, 9: 12-13).
What a relief that is, because if there is anything I do well, it’s sinning. Perhaps I can’t compete with Matthew-the-tax-collector, or the sinner who washed Jesus’ feet with her tears and wiped them with her hair. Still, I do my share of not being a good and faithful follower of Jesus. I don’t always forgive easily. I take the Lord’s name in vain. I frequently am not the most gracious of wives. My sins go on and on. Still, I know that God forgives me and invites me every day to be with him in heaven.
As an aside, prior to our big adventure in 2008, I had never heard of the Italian artist Michelangelo Meris da Caravaggio, who painted in the early 1600s. Caravaggio’s art was initially somewhat controversial at least in part because of his realistic portrayals and his use of dramatic lighting. We saw several of his paintings that hang in various churches throughout Rome, generally totally unprotected and hanging in the dark unless you have a coin to put into the slot which thereby turns on the lights. But my favorite was the painting called The Calling of St. Matthew. In it, you see Jesus and St. Peter who have entered the room in which Matthew sits at a table with other tax collectors. Jesus has just asked Matthew to follow him. In the painting, the man assumed to be Matthew is pointing to himself with a surprised look on his face, presumably saying something like, “Really? Me? Are you sure about this?”
I can only presume that in real life, not only was Matthew surprised, but I suspect that all of his apostles were pretty shocked.
Jesus loves sinners as much as he loves everyone. Thank goodness.
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