Feast of St. Matthew
Ephesians 4:1-7, 11-13;
Usually we like to put our best foot forward when we’re meeting someone for the first time, or entering a situation that is new to us. We dread making a faux pas or a remark that is out of place. This tendency of ours differs somewhat from what we meet in the biblical account presented today, on this feastday of the apostle and evangelist, St. Matthew.
We hear of his first encounter with Jesus, Who meets him "at the customs post", where Matthew, also called Levi, worked. In the Jewish circles of the times, given the volatile atmosphere surrounding it, this was probably not the place Matthew, who had likely already heard about Jesus, would have preferred to initiate his first meeting with so famous a person. Given that customs officials/tax collectors were on the Roman payroll, this didn’t set well with Jewish citizenry, who resented their subordinate status within their very own nation. But Matthew didn’t have much say about this event since it was Jesus, apparently, Who initiated the encounter.
Matthew, however, handled whatever embarrassment he may have suffered on that occasion with aplomb, as he proceeded to throw a banquet to celebrate his good fortune, and without more ado he invited Jesus to attend, along with his (Matthew’s) friends-more tax collectors and "sinners", as they are described in the account. Jesus, for His part, accepted. Apparently neither Jesus or Matthew felt it out of place to have the epithet "sinners" applied by Jesus to the whole motley group in a subsequent remark aimed at the critical Pharisees: "I did not come to call the righteous but sinners."
The tenor of this gospel is in line with a letter Paul, in later years, wrote to the church in Ephesus, which he had evangelized. It begins with the autobiographical remark: "I, then, a prisoner for the Lord…" It is likely that someone unfamiliar with the Christian scriptures, but coming upon these accounts for the first time, would wonder what manner of person the Christian is who reverences as religious/inspirational literature these snippets, revealing less than complimentary glimpses of persons cherished and revered by these Christians. Matthew’s status as a sinner and Paul’s situation as a prisoner don’t seem to speak highly of the leadership of the Christian community.
Of course, we could extend this surprising element to Jesus Himself, Whose final hours on earth were those of a criminal dying in shame and ignominy. It can serve as a powerful antidote to our own tendency to be on our best behavior, as we carefully groom our appearance and reputation to establish our true worth, both in the sight of God, and of others. As Paul goes on, in his letter to the Ephesians, to describe the manner of life worthy of the call we have received from God, and which he hopes will prevail in the church/the body of Christ, it suggests that whatever first impressions we might have of others, such as those presented above, don’t always capture the entire situation. And we are led to reflect on our own experience of first impressions, both those we give, and those we receive.
The axiom that we can know a person by the friends he or she has may call for us to reevaluate those whom we would like to have as friends-any room for sinners and prisoners?
Fr. Sebastian MacDonald, C.P. is a member of the Passionist formation community at Catholic Theological Union, Chicago.