By Fr. Charles Samson
The account of the Jesus’ calling of Matthew never ceases to encourage me deeply in my own vocation. Our Lord, by choosing and calling him, showed to this sinful tax collector great mercy—this truly “kind” demonstration of love is the motto, in fact, of our Holy Father, Pope Francis: miserando atque eligendo (1 Cor 13:4).
As utterly disarming and profoundly moving is this individual moment, what heartens me even more is the lingering and liberating effect that this merciful love clearly had on the author of the first Gospel. We can understand and detect this grace-inspired dynamic when we consider, from the point of view of this former public sinner who was despised by many, two other passages from Matthew’s own Gospel.
Firstly, immediately after chapter nine, which contains the account of his own vocation, Matthew relays the summoning and naming of Jesus’ twelve apostles (Matt 10:1-4). When we come to Matthew’s name, we note that next to it is found the identifying phrase: “the tax collector.” Curiously, this phrase is absent from Luke’s listing of the Twelve; it is understandable, though, that this phrase appears in Matthew chapter ten, given that the phrase was penned by the selfsame apostle, who seems to be writing here very deliberately, and even personally.
Moreover, it is also curious to note that Matthew’s is the only name in this list that is accompanied by a description or title of a former profession—and what a profession to highlight within this sacred and impressive list of the Twelve Apostles! One wonders what must have been going through Matthew’s mind and heart as he wrote that list in chapter ten, immediately after having composed the account of his calling in chapter nine. Specifically, might he have felt any kind of shame or regret as he ‘self-identified’ as a tax collector? Was the writing of this phrase a painful reminder of his ignominious past? Might it even have brought to his mind the by now, for him, embarrassing image of his custom’s booth, which remained in place long enough for the pilgrim Egeria, in 383 A.D., to see it along the public road just outside of his own town of Capernaum?
Such would be surely understandable. Had any of us been in Matthew’s shoes writing in our own gospel such a passing reference to our unfortunate former life, we would almost certainly be tempted to allow those sinful memories to weigh us down, spiritually.
However, I am inclined to suggest a vehement “no!” to both of these questions—that is, that Matthew’s heart did not take so downward a turn. To get to this no, though, we must first consider a second passage in Matthew’s Gospel from the very same point of view of the evangelist.
Toward the end of chapter five, Matthew relates Jesus delivering quite possibly the best-known, and most significant, of the teachings that he delivered in his famous Sermon on the Mount. Jesus speaks of the need to love one’s enemy, and not just one’s neighbor (Matt 5:43-47). The novelty and impact of this pronouncement are so ponderous that a simple and subtle fact often goes overlooked—that is, one of the images by means of which Jesus argues for the necessity of a “higher righteousness” (see Matt 5:17-20) and more “perfect” (see Matt 5:48) a life, is precisely that of tax-collectors: “If you love those who love you, what recompense will you have? Do not the tax-collectors do the same?” (Matt 5:47). Tax-collectors . . . patently with a rather pejorative connotation.
Would Matthew’s having been told this preaching of Jesus, and then his having to record it in his own sacred text, have stung a little bit to receive and then bite even more so to have to write? Again, would Jesus’ mention, and criticism, of tax-collectors have weighed-down the heart of Matthew with the onerous spiritual baggage of shame and grief that could so easily stifle any kind of hope for progress in virtue and a new life in Christ?
Here, as before, I believe that the answer is a resounding “NO!” Again, why else would Matthew include in his Gospel these very words of Jesus had he not first made peace with them, and hence with his sinful past, in his heart? Just like Paul, expressing to the Philippians his “confident and hopeful pursuit of the goal and prize of God’s upward calling,” pledged his resolve to “forget what lies behind and strain forward to what lies ahead” (Phil 3:12-13), Matthew did not let his past and its sins define himself. Rather, Matthew took comfort in the divinely freeing goal that the Lord’s sermon fixed firmly within his own soul, and in which he placed his own hope for his earthly and heavenly life: “blessed are the merciful, for they shall receive mercy” (Matt 5:8).
In a nutshell, this is every one of us, especially those who have discerned, and so are already living out, their vocation. Like He did for Matthew, when God called us to our own particular states of life, He invited us out of the darkness of our past sins and shortcomings into His own wonderful light—the light of His purpose for us, of His plan for how we are to serve Him and our neighbor for Him. Each and every vocation is a great and truly freeing gift. Each and every vocation is a sure and certain mercy on the part of God, graciously given to us so that we might have life within our soul—and have it abundantly (John 10:10).
Prayer for Living Out Our Vocation
Dear Lord Jesus, through the intercession, and after the example, of St. Matthew the tax-collector, help us to live out faithfully our own vocations. Let not the sight or thought of the customs booths of our past sins and shortcomings weigh us down and hold us back from spreading with all whom we meet the joy of the gospel that only we, by your grace, can share. And above all, help us, your called ones who have been forgiven much, to be likewise merciful towards all whom we meet (Matt 18:33).
Fr. Charles K. Samson is a priest of the Archdiocese of St. Louis, Missouri. Drawing on his extensive experience leading the Holy Land Retreat and Pilgrimage of Kenrick-Glennon Seminary, he wrote Come and See: A Catholic Guide to the Holy Land.