A. The call of Matthew and the initial party
1. The call of St. Matthew to be a disciple is related in two gospels. The account we just read from Matthew’s Gospel contains some ambiguities. It tells us that Jesus said to Matthew, “Follow me,” but it is not clear exactly where they were going. Then it speaks of a meal in “the house” without telling us whose house or the purpose of the meal. The parallel account in Luke’s Gospel fills in the details. In Luke, we discover that Matthew was also known as, “Levi.” St Luke writes,
[Jesus] went out and saw a tax collector named Levi, sitting at the tax office. And He said to him, “Follow Me.” So he left all, rose up, and followed Him. Then Levi gave Him a great feast in his own house. And there were a great number of tax collectors and others who sat down with them. (Luke 5:27-29).
2. St. Luke makes it clear that Matthew or Levi “left all” to follow Jesus. He changed his occupation and lifestyle. St. Luke also makes it clear that “the house” was Matthew’s house and the purpose of the party was a “great feast” put on by Matthew to honor Jesus.
B. Objections to the feast by the Pharisees
1. It is evident from today’s gospel and the subsequent verses in Matthew’s Gospel that many people thought this party was scandalous. The Pharisees though it was scandalous because of the guest list. Many “tax collectors and sinners” were invited and Jesus seemed to have no qualms about this.
2. The title “sinner” refers to “non-observant” Jews. These were not all pimps, prostitutes and drug addicts. Rather, these “sinners” were people who did not habitually follow the teachings of the Torah, the Law of Moses, according the traditions that had developed in the centuries between the Old Testament and the coming of Christ. These traditions later came to be known as the Talmud. These “sinners” weren’t necessarily horrible people. They just didn’t practice their faith in the manner that the religious leaders had determined was necessary to be counted as righteous.
3. According the Pharisees, Israel was divided between the righteous, who observed the Torah by meticulously practicing the tradition, and the sinners who did not. The rest of the world consisted of Samaritans, who were rejected for their impure bloodlines and inauthentic traditions and the Gentiles, who opposed God’s people and would soon be judged by God. To eat with people, in the Jewish mind, was to share a kind of communion and fellowship with them. Thus, Jesus was communing with the very group the Pharisees thought was undermining the hope of Israel.
C. Objections to the feast by the disciples of John
The disciples of John the Baptist also objected to the feast, but for different reasons. In the passage in Matthew just after today’s gospel, the disciples of John said to Jesus, “Why do we and the Pharisees fast often, but your disciples do not fast?” (Mathew 9:14). John the Baptist lived an austere ascetical life, wearing a hair shirt and eating a diet of “locusts and wild honey” (Matthew 3:4). He had baptized Jesus and it was through John’s ministry that Jesus was revealed as the Messiah. John’s followers, who probably lived liked John, were wondering what on earth Jesus was doing partying in the home of a tax collector.
D. The re-definition of God’s people and the presence of the kingdom
1. Jesus offended these two groups for reasons that are rooted in the Incarnation. Throughout the Old Testament, Israel failed to observe the Torah. The point of the Torah was precisely to reveal human sin (Romans 3:20). The Son of God became man to fulfill the Torah on Israel’s behalf. The Torah, The Word of God, was literally been made flesh in the person of Jesus. Thus, membership in Israel is no longer defined by one’s relationship to the written law of the Old Covenant. It is now defined by one’s relationship to Jesus, who has fulfilled the law. Those who heeded the call of Jesus to repent and follow him became the new Israel because they became followers of the new Torah. Those who rejected Jesus, the Torah made flesh, found themselves on the outside.
3. The party at Matthew’s house illustrates this new definition. Those who were formerly thought to be sinners but now followed Jesus became the new people of God, enjoying the new feast of the kingdom. Those who were formerly thought to be “righteous” but rejected the Torah made flesh (like the Pharisees) were now on the outside, excluded from God’s new people and God’s new feast by their lack of faith in God’s Son.
3. The followers of John the Baptist also did not fully understand the Incarnation. John lived austerely because he was waiting for the kingdom. But Jesus said, “Repent, for the kingdom of heaven is at hand” (Matthew 4:17). In the person of Jesus, the kingdom was present in Israel. The kingdom was present in Matthew’s house and new members were being added to it. How could the new people of God fast when it was time to celebrate? How could the new people of God fast and mourn when there was joy in the presence of the angels of God? (Luke 15:10).
E. Implications for us.
1. The Eucharist continues the theme Matthew’s party. Jesus calls sinners like us to eat with him. We are part of God’s new people because of our faith in Jesus, not because we zealously observe the Ten Commandments. The focus of our faith is on Christ and what he is doing in us, not on what we have done for him. Holiness and good works are the fruit rather than the cause of our faith.
2. The new people of God have a new attitude towards those who are without. The Pharisees looked for ways to find fault and exclude people. The new people of God focus on mission. They go into all nations to make disciples. They call people into the kingdom rather than defining them out of it. To be sure, not all will continue to follow Jesus anymore than all the guests at Matthew’s house became committed disciples. But Jesus ate with them because he wanted them to become disciples. This is why our ministry focuses on inviting people to social events. We invite other sinners to eat and drink with us because we want them to know Christ as we do.
3. The Incarnation leads to a paradox in our practice of the faith. Because the kingdom of God is present with us right now through the Holy Spirit, we celebrate and have parties. However, because the kingdom of God is not yet fully present, because we still wait for the fullness of that which we now know in part, we also fast. The Christian life, life “in Christ,” is a mixture of feasting and fasting because the kingdom is both already here and also not yet fully here.
D. Today is a day of feasting both because it is our weekly commemoration of the Day of Resurrection and because it is the day we have set aside to honor our patron St. Matthew. There is no better way to honor St. Matthew than to follow his example; to have a great feast to celebrate the life we have in Christ, and invite our friends, and even out enemies, to the feast so that they may also know Christ and become a part of God’s new people