Life’s circumstances are full of episodes that allow us to encounter divine Love. Some of these we recognize, but many just pass us by. Suppose that one time, God literally comes by you wherever you may be, and finds you doing whatever it is you are doing; and simply tells you, “Follow me.” What would you do? What would you say to Him? How would you respond to that invite? All the synoptic Gospels record one such incident as happened to a man called Matthew (cf. Matthew 9:9-13, Luke 5:27-32 & Mark 2:13-17).
It is of interest to consider how these writers describe this man. St. Mark refers to him as Levi, the son of Alphaeus, who was sitting at the customs post. This description looks at both Levi’s parentage and family line, but also considers what he was doing. St. Luke is outright blunt in calling him a tax collector sitting at the customs post. This description gives observation to the fact that tax collectors and all who associated with them were somewhat social misfits. St. Matthew refers to this character as Matthew. Given that he is reporting firsthand what was going on there, St. Matthew seems privy to the change that has already happened or is happening in the man named Levi, such that the man sitting at the booth on this occasion is no longer the one who was preoccupied with his full money bags and meticulously kept account books. For him, the man sitting at the customs post deserves to be called Matthew (not Levi).
God is Interested in Man’s Doings
We know that Matthew certainly had a care for accuracy and detail as evidenced in his gospel. This means he oft times delved deeply into his work, perhaps to shut out all the negative vibes that surrounded him. The point is that all three gospels indicate that the taxman was going about his usual activities, counting his money and being immersed in his job of keeping records of who has or has not paid, and what is owed by whom. He definitely was not liked by the people. Being obviously a keen businessman, he must have been a wealthy and perhaps rather lonely man. This may have contributed to his efficient, methodical manner of doing his ordinary job. Anyway, this is the character of the person who, on this occasion, had the attention of the Lord Jesus.
Then, here comes the Lord Jesus, who is out and about, doing that which He knows how (cf. Acts 10:38). We know from St. Paul that Jesus is the image of the unseen God (cf. Colossians 1: 15). So, whatever it is that Jesus is going about doing, is what God Himself is out about doing. St. John says that God is Love (1 John 4:8) and love is of God (1 John 4:7). Jesus’ passing by shows that Divine Love is active and steadfast; always searching for humanity (fallen man).
God’s View vs Man’s View
All three writers report that Jesus “saw”; which means He looked at the man with divine Eyes. St. Matthew recognizes in this “seeing” God’s identifying love; that God’s recognizing love which sees God’s distorted image in the man named Levi, but recognizes the new man Matthew who is open to the love of God (cf. Matthew 9:9). St. Mark gives credence to God’s knowing love, which identifies this man as Levi, son of Alphaeus, sitting at the customs post (Mark 2:14). This identifying personal love of Jesus knows what resentment and rejection can do to a tax collector. But, He also knows Matthew has great potential, which is going to waste by his continued serving at the customs post. His divine eyes see a man at work, trying to make an honest living; but is unfortunately drawn into doing things wrong by being in the wrong place at the wrong time. This situation must have caused Levi to have a heart that is full of sadness, distortion, sourness, hardness and embittered; a heart that perhaps the new man Matthew wishes to let go of.
Jesus Manifests Divine Love
The Lord Jesus has compassionate love for this outcast, sinner, extortionist, and despised man whose family must be just as equally disgraced. He sees his heart, says to him, “Follow me.” The words, “says to him”, are loaded with God’s Love which communicates, instructs, accepts and cares for us. “Follow me” indicates to Matthew that the Lord does not exclude or isolate those who want to be His disciples. God’s inviting love calls us into a relationship with Him. Jesus’ invitation also suggests a guiding love; by saying, “follow me”, Jesus means that Matthew should learn to “do as I do”. The Lord Jesus offers Himself to help Matthew, and in so doing, he demonstrates a self-giving love. Despite Matthew’s past, Jesus shows a forgiving love that does not look at him as other people do.
Matthew responds to Jesus by immediately getting up and following Him (cf. Matthew 9:9, Mark 2:14, Luke 5:28). No hesitations; no looking back. The eye contact which happens when Jesus addresses Matthew fills a previously estranged heart with understanding because it was full of God’s welcoming love. It grants Matthew the grace to have a true and sincere repentance because God’s love is a convicting love. This moves him to obedience to the Word of God because God’s love draws fallen man to Him. God’s liberating love ensures that Matthew accepts the call with complete trust.
This is why he was able to leave everything behind (cf. Luke 5:28). The once pompously wealthy taxman embraces a spiritual poverty, and becomes completely detached from material things. He leaves behind a life of wealth and security to take on poverty and uncertainty. He abandons the pleasures of this world and goes for the promise of eternal life. And he is gifted with God’s grace because God’s love generously rewards those who choose to follow Him. He allows himself to be freed from the cares of the world, and adopts an attitude of total and complete surrender to God’s Love (cf. Luke 5:28). He becomes a disciple of Jesus, which makes him a new person because of the renewing and transforming love that Jesus pours into his heart.
Matthew Shares Divine Love
Matthew gives a great banquet for Jesus in his house (cf. Luke 5:29), demonstrating a celebrating love, that empties out sadness. And yes, Jesus honors him by attending with his disciples (cf. Mark 2:15). God’s love is a responding love; Jesus keeps His word by entering Matthew’s house and dining with him (cf. Revelation 3:20). Matthew honors Jesus with a feast, and the Lord Jesus rewards him with God’s presence. So it is that there were many at table with Him and His disciples, drawn by God’s sharing love. This fellowship love that brings us into a communion with others and with God, for God’s love is a faithful love (cf. Revelation 3:20). Matthew uses this opportunity to begin his evangelization mission by bringing many tax collectors and sinners to come and likewise encounter this rewarding Love. God’s inspiring love makes him to invite many who were like himself. He moves from collecting tax and remitting to the Romans to collecting souls and delivering them to the Lord Jesus. This would later motivate him to go further and write the Gospel for other outcasts like him.
Man’s Prejudging Excludes Others
The Pharisees and their scribes have a totally different response to Matthew’s conversion. One wonders where they were and what they were doing to have notice the goings on. They find it scandalous and offensive that one who claims to have authority on earth to forgive sins can immerse himself in a sea of sin. Thus they complain about the Lord Jesus and His choice of company, effectively judging Him to be as much a sinner as those with whom He associates. They can only see the negative aspects of circumstances, and protest against any good being done for others (even sinners). In the name of keeping their self-righteous state, they despise others and label them as sinners. They are quick to separate and isolate others from the love of God. This questioning of God makes them to be unable to respond to the call to repentance and faith in the Lord Jesus.
Divine love is attentive to every emotion. Jesus hears them, and replies to them (cf. Luke 5:31, Mark 2:17, Matthew 9:12) because God’s love responds to all. He does it with patience (uses patient love) so as to enlighten them (God’s enlightening love). He employs a chastising love in order to amend their misconceptions with correcting love (cf. Luke 5:32). There is something lacking in their lives. The quality of mercy is lacking in them (cf. Luke 6:36); so He rebukes them to “go and learn the meaning of…” (cf. Matthew 9:13). He emphasizes God’s promising love for the sick who need a physician, encouraging them to come to love (cf. Mark 2:17). He teaches them how to show a merciful love by loving willingly, and not as a duty in response to a law. This especially because sacrifice without mercy means nothing (cf. Hosea 6:6). Thus Jesus’ justifying love explains why it is proper for Him to mingle with sinners. He finishes by suggesting a sanctifying love, stating that He came for sinners like these, to call them to repentance.
We Have Received the Call to Love
In the way that Divine Love does not prejudge, neither should we. When we remember that the Lord Jesus sees us not for what we are, but for what we can become, we also should do the same for others (cf. Luke 6:36). There is no one who is perfect, and this is why Jesus died on the Cross to save us. When we try to be better, to treat others better, we sinners shall become saints. This call to be better signifies that we are sent out to go and bring others in. We encounter love so that we also can love; we are loved so that we also can be love. There is no way we can grow spiritually if we isolate the weak and imperfect. We will grow only by helping them to also grow.
Although we must be separate (cf. 2 Corinthians 6:14 – 17), we must not isolate ourselves from those in the world (cf. 1 Corinthians 5:9 – 12). We cannot purport to be salt of the earth if we do not mix with the meat of the world (cf. Matthew 5:13). Likewise, we cannot be light of the world if we do not shine in the darkness of the world (cf. Matthew 5:14-16). We must be concerned about the influence of the wrong kind of friends (cf. 1 Corinthians 15:33), yet be willing to reach out to those who are lost. In this quest, we must desist from practicing religion (with many sacrifices) without love and mercy, for it is not pleasing to God!