Jesus saw a man named Matthew and said to him, “Follow me.”
The apparent problem with the call of Matthew and others (cf. Matthew 4:18-22). Jesus seems to come by as a stranger at some random time and require people to leave everything on the spot. However, that is probably not what happened. Those Jesus called to follow him knew about Jesus and his ministry. They had heard him teach and were likely all considering the implications of that teaching for their own lives. Jesus came by at just the right moment and “asked for the order.”
If we began to follow a perfect stranger the first time he told us to leave all and follow, our relatives might, with justification, call the police. But our own call to discipleship follows the biblical pattern. We come to know about Jesus. We begin to be aware of the implications of who he is and what he taught. Then, at just the right moment, we hear the call to make a significant behavioral decision or to sacrifice something or be faithful in some new way.
To be honest, I’ve had a problem with leaving everything to follow Jesus. I think I’ve left one thing behind at a time at maybe a dozen significant moments—and maybe there are few things left to discard. But, again, this is always the way it works. We follow Jesus and begin to head in a new direction of obedience and service. As we head in that new direction, we discover more and more of the implications of discipleship. We are continually called to follow Jesus in new ways. In fact, one danger of “mature” faith is that we might cease to hear the voice of God; we might no longer be open to doing the new and sacrificial things Christ calls us to do.
As the apostles began to follow Jesus, they met new challenges and decisions along the way. Judas eventually opted out. And the others had their moments of questioning. One of these occurs at the end of John 6. Jesus gave an unpopular sermon about eating his body and drinking his blood that managed to drive away the entire crowd that had gathered for the feeding of the multitudes. After everyone else left, Jesus turned to the Apostles and said, “Do you want to go also?” It is likely that at least a few entertained the thought.
In one passage, “A certain scribe” came to Jesus and said “Teacher, I will follow You wherever You go.” Jesus said to him, “Foxes have holes and birds of the air have nests, but the Son of Man has nowhere to lay His head.” (Mat 8:19-20). Jesus meant, “I’m not leading you to a fixed destination, or on any well-mapped out pathway.” If you are expecting certainty, or if you have expectations, you will be disappointed. Peter followed Jesus and was prepared to fight and die for him. Then, at the very moment when Peter thought it was it was time to fight, when Peter drew his sword for battle, Jesus told him to put it away. Peter anticipated heroic battle and, perhaps, martyrdom. Instead he was told to surrender and run (John 18:10-11). Of course, the martyrdom came later, after Peter learned the kind of battle he was called to fight.
There are things we can expect from following Jesus: Joy and mission.
Matthew became a missionary. He went and told his friends about his decision and invited them all to a party with Jesus and his followers. Here we begin to see why St. Matthew is our patron saint! One thing that motivated Matthew to tell others was the mere fact that he qualified to be a disciple. Matthew was a tax collector, hated by the religious leadership because he was an agent of the hated Romans and a symbol of Israel’s submission to Roman rule. Plus, tax collectors typically cheated people. When Jesus said, “Follow me,” there had to be a little voice inside Matthew saying: “Are you sure? Me?” We can imagine Matthew running off to his friends and saying, “Guess who told me to follow him?” And we can imagine any witnesses to the event saying, “Guess who that crazy rabbi accepted as a disciple?”
There are people who believe they are saved by their own virtue or merit, or who believe they don’t need to be saved at all from sin, death and separation from God. But I think most people, even those who maintain an outward appearance of respectability, have inner doubts in the other direction. We know what is in our hearts. We know the thoughts we sometimes think. We know the things that we have done that we ought not to have done, and the things we have left undone that we ought to have done. Outwardly, we may pretend. But inwardly, we know.
This is why the call to follow Jesus necessarily involves an experience of grace. Jesus says, “YOU follow me.” We respond, “You don’t understand who I am or what I’ve done.” Or, “I’ve got to get all kinds of things organized and fixed before I am can come.” Or, “Can I think about it for a while?” And Jesus says, “No. YOU follow me, now. The faith that is necessary to follow Jesus is willing to trust that the ambiguities and doubts will be worked out along the road.
If we will accept the grace of God, we will experience joy. Biblical joy does not come from human achievement or victory. It comes from the experience of being accepted by God as we are, warts and all. People do not experience joy because they won’t accept grace; because they won’t come and follow Jesus as they are; because they cling to their excuses and doubts. As someone once said, “I refuse to be a part of any club that is willing to have me as a member!” But this is the good news. There is nothing about you or your life that disqualifies you from being disciple, other than your unwillingness to come when Jesus calls you.
Holiness and obedience are the fruit of grace and joy. Matthew became a saint. He didn’t start out that way. When we experience grace, we begin to obey God because we want to, not because we are afraid of being punished. St. John says that “Perfect love casts out fear” (1 John 4:18). They more we experience God’s perfect love for us, the more faithful our response will be. This is what we learn through the liturgy. We gather on Sunday, the first day of the week, to remember that Jesus has us to follow him. We gather to receive grace: the body and blood of our Lord Jesus Christ which was given for “thee.” The whole of the Christian life, pursing holiness and doing the good works that God has prepared for us to walk in, are nothing more—or less—than our response to grace: the good news that God accepts us as we are.
If we want to be faithful imitators of our patron, we ought to celebrate our election and calling—and today seems like a good day for just such a party! Though we may laugh about eagerness to make merry, the habit of celebrating redemption is deeply rooted in the Bible. Consider this passage from Deuteronomy which details one purpose for the tithe of the grain:
You shall spend that money for whatever your heart desires: for oxen or sheep, for wine or similar drink, for whatever your heart desires; you shall eat there before the LORD your God, and you shall rejoice, you and your household (14:26).
There are several passage like this that, essentially, command God’s people to celebrate what God has done for them. The party of God’s people is not like the party of the world. We do not celebrate to drown our sorrows, kill our pain or escape our misery. We gather to celebrate the life we have together in Christ. We gather to rejoice in the grace of God. It is the party of the New Creation. And, as with Matthew, there is a missionary component to our party. We want invite others to come and meet this Savior, who is willing to have people like us as followers. We want to new open doors of entry through which other sinners can enter. We want to make seats available at the table so that other sinners may come and eat with us in the kingdom of God.
As Jesus said, “I desire mercy and not sacrifice. For I did not come to call the righteous, but sinners, to repentance.” (Mathew 9:13).