The Gospel passage for the Feast of Saint Matthew is Matthew 9:9-13:
As Jesus passed by,
he saw a man named Matthew sitting at the customs post.
He said to him, "Follow me."
And he got up and followed him.
While he was at table in his house,
many tax collectors and sinners came
and sat with Jesus and his disciples.
The Pharisees saw this and said to his disciples,
"Why does your teacher eat with tax collectors and sinners?"
He heard this and said,
"Those who are well do not need a physician, but the sick do.
Go and learn the meaning of the words,
I desire mercy, not sacrifice.
I did not come to call the righteous but sinners."
The Feast of St. Matthew recounts the call of Jesus to the tax collector Matthew in the Gospel which tradition attributed to him. I love the sparseness of Jesus’ call: "follow me." Whether this is the sort of attribution which was shaped over time by the oral tradition into its simplest form or whether Jesus was always this terse, the reality is that every disciple of Jesus must respond to this command, each and every day. This, it seems to me, is the issue with which the Pharisees struggle. There is no question that the Pharisees were attempting to live according to God’s Law. And as such, they made distinctions between those who seemed to be truly on the path to righteousness and those who had wandered far from it. Everyone knew who they were: tax collectors and sinners. How would you like to be identified primarily as "the sinner" or "a sinner"?
The question that the Pharisees ask of his disciples, then, is both apropos and far from the point - "Why does your teacher eat with tax collectors and sinners?" From the point of view of the Messiah, from the divine point of view, that is, what option does Jesus have but to eat with sinners? That is a reality that the Pharisees now seem not to consider, that we are all sinners in need of God’s mercy, even the Pharisees themselves. Jesus is able to see everyone not simply as sinner, but the beloved of God, each one created in his image. I used to be troubled when I was younger by the final phrase of this passage, "I did not come to call the righteous but sinners," because I could only see it as exclusionary. Why could the righteous not be called by God? I see now that we are all sinners, called by God, and that our necessary response to God’s mercy is to hear always Jesus’ call to "follow me." Whenever we drift toward sin, God calls us back to righteousness. We need to hear the call and respond.
The call is issued and heard in a variety of circumstances, but on this day, my wife Tabitha’s 40th birthday, I reflect on it in the most concrete of realities: her. Most of us have such a person, one through whom Christ’s call is heard and who sees us not as sinner alone, but one who is called to righteousness. Many years ago when I met her, at a time when I had an academic grasp of the Scriptures but was spiritually hollow, she called me back quietly and gently. Her quiet desire to live a righteous life, without need of attention or glory, gave me a constant model to imitate, a lifeline to Christ’s call "follow me." For all these years she has whispered it through her words and her deeds. I hear Christ’s call through her each and every day, and I am thankful that God has given me such a gift. May we all be attuned to those who are issuing Jesus' call to us to hear and to respond.