Matthew identifies himself as a tax collector, which means that he was a collaborator with the regimes of Herod and Caesar who ruled the land of Israel. Tax collectors were not simply viewed as civil servants, but as traitors to not only the people of Israel, but God. This means that the call of Matthew comes to him as a total surprise.
Further, the call of Matthew further highlights the strange manner in which the Lord Jesus identifies himself as the Messiah of Israel. He is, oddly enough, a Messiah who will call Israel’s enemies into a relationship with himself, rather than destroy them- a move that confounded both his supporters and his opponents.
And this really is the mystery that is revealed in today’s Gospel- it is about the identity and mission of Christ as the Messiah, about the kind of Messiah he is and what he is going to do. The Lord is demonstrating just how he plans on dealing with the enemies of Israel; he would rather these enemies be drawn into communion with the God of Israel and share the benefits of that relationship than treat them as eternal outcasts and plot their demise.
It is the purpose of the Gospel to let us know that this is the kind of Messiah the Lord Jesus is- and we have a decision to make in regards to his identity and his mission. He is making it clear that he will not hesitate to call people like Matthew into his service, and he knows full well that some may not like this and will even reject him as a result.
The lesson for us might be a reminder that the purpose of the Church is to make saints out of sinners. This means that there are always going to be a lot of sinners in the Church, and we have to adjust our expectations as a result.
The Church as a perfect society exists in heaven, but on earth, saints and sinners are all jumbled together. For some, this is distressing, even repellent. For others, it is a relief- for if the Church can include sinners, it can also include folks like ourselves.
Movements to reform the Church will always be needed, but movements to purify the Church of sinners, outsiders, outcasts, ne’er do wells, and people we just don’t like need to be opposed. We also have to discriminate carefully between the call to conversion and reform, and the call to kick those bums out who don’t meet our ego driven expectations.
The words of Christ the Messiah are an affirmation of the former and a rejection of the latter.
And in regards to the latter, that desire to exclude from the Church the very people Christ intends the Church for: we would do well to attend to the word of the Lord himself: “I did not come to call the righteous, but sinners.”
Father Steve Grunow is the Assistant Director of Word on Fire Catholic Ministries.