"As Jesus passed by, he saw Levi, son of Alphaeus, sitting at the customs post. Jesus said to him, ‘Follow me.’ And he got up and followed Jesus. Mark 2:14
As Jesus begins his public ministry, he creates quite a stir. The Evangelist Luke has him going to his home town and preaching in the synagogue. At first, people are thrilled with his message, and then they turn against him (Luke 4:16 ff). The Evangelist John has Jesus attending a wedding feast with his mother, and he brought along his disciples. They run out of wine and his Mother Mary insists that he do something about it. Reluctantly, it seems, Jesus works his first sign, changing water into wine. The Evangelist Matthew, like Mark, whose account we read in today’s Gospel, has Jesus calling his disciples to follow him as he walked along the Sea of Galilee. Each Gospel gives us an image of Jesus that excites us, stirs us with awe and wonder and challenges us to be like Levi (who is identified as Matthew in the Gospel according to Matthew), to leave everything and follow Jesus. What a great way for Jesus to begin his mission.
Recently, I was talking to someone who is very excited about being a minister in his parish. While volunteering to help the parish at different Sunday Masses, he also goes to ongoing faith development talks when offered. He was telling me how exciting it would have been to have been alive during Jesus’ time and to have been part of his life and ministry back then. Many people feel the same way he does. They feel that if they were alive when Jesus walked the streets of Capernaum and Jerusalem, then they would be among the disciples that followed him. That could very well be.
However, more than likely, it would have been a difficult choice to make, because Jesus was a walking contradiction to his religious tradition. There were so many things that Jesus did that were contrary to the Jewish tradition that he quickly became the target of the hierarchy of his day. While some priests and synagogue officials welcomed him, the vast majority of them actively rejected him. Even in this account in today’s Gospel, Jesus’ invitation to a tax collector to become a disciple leads to controversy. Levi invites Jesus to his home for dinner along with other "tax collectors and public sinners." Scribes who were of the Pharisee tradition complained to Jesus’ disciples that they are eating with public sinners, putting themselves at risk for ritual impurity. For some, that was breaking the law. At that point, we bystanders would have had to start making the decision of whether to follow Jesus or the religious leaders of his day.
Today, like at the time of Jesus, there were many groups that claim some authority on what is acceptable and not acceptable as Jesus’ followers. Sometimes, following Jesus becomes more complicated and challenging when you are living the reality rather than seeing it from the outside. Since I was not there when Jesus called Levi to follow him, I cannot say with certain whether I would have approved or disapproved, if I would be sitting alongside Levi or be standing with the scribes criticizing Jesus. All I know is that Jesus is calling me today to follow him and as I do, I discover the decisions I make in doing so are difficult ones. I will put myself at risk for Christ and that will test me to my very core. We need to live in our present and make the right decisions for ourselves today.
Thank God that it is Jesus, the physician and healer, who has called me to follow him!
Fr. Clemente Barron, C.P. is stationed in San Antonio, Texas.