It seems so odd and unbelievable that we are quick to dismiss what happens when Jesus calls Matthew to follow him. When we read this story from the New Testament, we regard it with the same suspicion and skepticism that we reserve for the other outrageous and supernatural miracle stories in the Bible:
“A big fish swallowed Jonah?”
“Moses split the Red Sea?”
“Jesus turned water into wine?”
“Matthew left everything to follow Jesus?”
“Whatever,” we mutter. None of those things are even remotely believable.
Jesus adds to our incredulity here. Just before the story where he calls Matthew to follow him, Jesus gives us several examples of individuals who do not wish to drop what they’re doing to follow Jesus. Each person is willing to follow Jesus, but just not at that specific moment.
One particular individual will gladly follow Jesus but wishes first to bury his father. Sounds reasonable to me, but Jesus thinks not. In fact, he’s curt: “Follow me, and let the dead bury their own dead.”
So yes, it seems unrealistic that Matthew would leave his place of employment that moment to follow Jesus. But that’s precisely what he did. Many of us who read this passage are grateful that this moment happened in ‘Bible Times’ so that we don’t have to face it today. Think about it: If we were approached by Jesus in the middle of our work day, or while on the way to tackle an important matter, would we drop everything to follow Jesus?
Some of us will remember that Matthew was a tax collector and that he was manning a booth on the road outside of Galilee. Local merchants and fishermen would saunter by him, trying to avoid eye contact with the Roman official. But in the end, with the force of the empire behind them, the tax collector would wind up with a portion of the sojourners’ money or goods. Tax collectors were universally despised. They were stooges to Rome and took people’s money. It worked this way: the tax collector would first pay a year’s worth of tribute up front and at the beginning of the year out of their own wealth, and would then work to collect it back by taxing the locals in their district the following year. If they wanted to break even on their ‘investment,’ they would work hard by securing money from the people who trafficked by their booth. If they wanted to pull a profit, they would simply ask more from these same people. Clearly, many tax collectors wanted to make quite the profit.
And just like that you can see why tax collectors were despised.
When Jesus asks Matthew to follow him, the tax collector freely surrenders his investment and chooses to lose money rather than extort it from his fellow Jews. Jesus doesn’t demand that Matthew do this in order for him to become a follower. Jesus simply extends Matthew grace and mercy by inviting him to be a part of his team. In turn, Matthew chooses to extend grace and mercy to those he had been cheating.
Zacchaeus, another tax collector from Luke’s Gospel, responds much the same way. Jesus announces to the diminutive tax official that he will be staying at his house that same day. This great honor causes the local onlookers to grumble. How could Jesus extend such an honor to one such as Zacchaeus?
Right then and there, the tax collector pipes up and says: “Look, half of my possessions, Lord, I will give to the poor; and if I have defrauded anyone of anything, I will pay back four times as much.”
This, Jesus announces, is how salvation comes to Zacchaeus’s house!
Jesus is merciful to individuals who are not deserving of it. And in response, the person who benefits from his mercy chooses to extend mercy to others. Zacchaeus even quadruples the amount of reparations due his ‘customers.’ Mercy begets mercy.
This is why Matthew, and Jesus’s other followers and disciples, could just up and leave everything to follow Jesus. Their truest, most authentic response to Jesus’s invitation to follow him was to stop defrauding others and to become his disciples. Almost immediately, both Matthew and Zacchaeus began to make things right. Mercy is contagious that way. When we experience it firsthand, we are far more likely to share it with others. Because when we experience mercy, it feels like a breakthrough. It feels like a second chance. It feels like salvation.
Who would have thunk it? Mercy feels downright miraculous.