On Thursday, September 21, the Feast of St. Matthew, I celebrated Mass at St. Matthew’s in East Syracuse on the occasion of the 100th Anniversary of the rebuilding of the church. The readings for the feast direct our attention not only to Matthew’s call but to ours as well. The homily I preached on that occasion is printed below.
“As Jesus passed on from there, he saw a man called Matthew sitting at the tax office; and he said to him, ‘Follow me.’ And he rose and followed him” (Mt 9:9). I have always liked this passage. There is something special about God calling an unlikely person to accompany Him as a disciple. A tax collector, as Matthew was, is an unlikely choice. To make matters worse, Jesus shares a meal not only with Matthew but also with “many tax collectors and sinners” (Mt 9:11). This is too much for the Pharisees who complain, “Why does your master eat with tax collectors and sinners” (Mt 9:11)?
In his article, The Mystery of Matthew, Tax Collector and Evangelist, Father Ronald Witherup comments on a famous portrayal of the calling of Matthew which hangs in the French Church of St. Louis in Rome. Painted by Caravaggio, “Matthew is portrayed as a bearded Renaissance-looking man, sitting at a table counting coins, surrounded by young colleagues. He looks towards Jesus, with his left hand pointing to himself and a quizzical look on his face, as if to say, ‘Who, me?’”
Tax collectors usually do not win popularity contests. No one likes them. “In Jesus’ day, they were even more despised because they earned their living by charging extra fees that they laid on top of the government taxes.” The extra fees landed in their pockets (Cf. Give us This Day, p. 180, September 2017)!
The tax collectors were among the outsiders, similar to the gentiles and sinners, who according to the religious leaders of the day should not be included among Jesus’ friends. They were outcasts, often avoided and ignored. They were “not worthy” to be called by Jesus. They were “not worthy” to share a meal with Him. Matthew’s call fits Jesus’ portrayed tendency to invite outsiders into His inner circle.
All of us are called by baptism to follow Jesus. In baptism and the years that follow it, Jesus calls us by name and invites us to follow Him. Sometimes like Matthew we may think, “Who, me?” Jesus calls me? Really?
St. Bede, writing about this passage, tells us, “Jesus saw Matthew, not merely in the usual sense, but more significantly with his merciful understanding of men. He saw the tax collector and, because he saw him through the eyes of mercy and chose him, he said to him: ‘Follow me’” (Office of Readings, Feast of St. Matthew).
This is the way that Jesus sees each of us. He sees us with eyes of mercy. No one is worthy to be a disciple. No one is worthy to sit at the Lord’s Table. We are called because God loves us. As St. Paul tells us, “It is precisely in this that God proves his love for us: that while we were sinners, Christ died for us” (Rm 5:8).
We are not worthy to sit to the Lord’s Table. We come because we are unworthy and need the saving grace that heals us. Jesus’ response to the complaints of the Pharisees regarding His table companions is meant for us. “Those who are well do not need a physician, but the sick do. I did not come to call the righteous but sinners” (Mt 9:12). All of us fit in that category!
St. Matthew is the patron of the Church’s mission. Called in his own life to follow Jesus, he closes his Gospel with Jesus’ Great Commission: “Go therefore and make disciples of all nations.” Pope Francis has a special affinity for Matthew’s call and for the Great Commission with which he concludes his Gospel.
Pope Francis’ motto, meaning “lowly and chosen,” literally “by having mercy, by choosing him,” comes from the homily of St. Bede mentioned above. It was on the Feast of St. Matthew in 1953 that a young seventeen-year-old Jorge Bergoglio was touched by the mercy of God and felt the call to religious life in the footsteps of St. Ignatius of Loyola.
How often our Holy Father reminds us we are missionary disciples. A disciple does not just walk after Jesus. He imitates the pattern of His life. “Whoever says he abides in Christ ought to walk in the same way in which he walked” (1Jn 2:6). A missionary disciple “goes forth” and “reaches out” to others by spreading the good news.
We are all agents of evangelization. Quoting Pope Francis, “Each of us should find ways to communicate Jesus wherever we are. All of us are called to offer others an explicit witness to the saving love of the Lord, who despite our imperfections offers us his closeness, his word and his strength, and gives meaning to our lives” (The Joy of the Gospel, 121).
The 100th anniversary of your church is a fitting time to renew your commitment to Christ. Listen for His voice and open the door of your hearts to hear Him calling you to follow Him. When you open the door of your hearts, Christ will come and make His home in you. He will refresh you by the light of His presence. Open your hearts. Hear the Lord calling you as He called Matthew, “Follow me.” Then “go forth” and joyfully share the good news of God’s everlasting love and mercy.
If you have a prayer intention you would like me to consider during the weeks ahead, please mail it to my attention at 240 E. Onondaga St., Syracuse, N.Y. 13202.