On September 21 each year, it is good to reflect a vocation story from Matthew’s Gospel: the call and vocation of the evangelist in 9:9-13. Before Matthew became a disciple of Christ, he was a tax collector or “publican” in the town of Capernaum. Although Luke and Mark do say that Levi and Matthew are the same person, we can deduce the names refer to the same individual because of context. Matthew’s account of his call matches exactly the accounts of Levi’s call in Luke and Mark, both in terms of language and chronological placement. Also, it is not uncommon for a person to be given a new name after an encounter with God. Abram became Abraham, Jacob became Israel, Simon became Peter, and Saul became Paul. It is likely that Matthew (meaning “gift of God”) was the name Jesus gave to Levi after his conversion. The only Gospel that mentions Matthew’s former occupation as a tax collector is Matthew’s own – a rather a humble admission on Matthew’s part. Tax collectors were absolutely despised by their own culture because they worked for the Roman government and took advantage of others.
We read in this Gospel call story: "Jesus saw a man called Matthew sitting at the tax office; and he said to him, 'Follow me.' He rose and followed him." The incident is not mentioned in the Gospels because of the personal importance invested in the one who was called. The interest is due to what follows after the moment of the calling. Matthew wished to give a great banquet in his home, to bid farewell to his former business colleagues – publicans and sinners. He was a publican – a tax collector – and the story of his call to become an apostle reminds us that Christ excludes no one from his friendship. This is the heart of the "good news" which the Lord came to bring: the offer of God's grace to sinners!
Matthew does not tell us about something that Jesus did or said to somebody, rather what he said and did to him. It is an autobiographical page, the story of his meeting with Christ that literally changed his life. To imagine the scene described in the Gospel, we need to recall the magnificent canvas of the great Italian artist Michelangelo Merisi Caravaggio, housed in the Roman Church of San Luigi dei Francesi. I have visited this Roman church many times to admire that painting and pray before it.
What is so striking of this vocation story is Matthew's quick response to the Lord's call. The story teaches us that following Christ means leaving behind, sometimes at great cost, everything that is incompatible with true discipleship and embarking upon a new life. Matthew invites us to respond with joy to the "good news" of God's saving mercy.
Several pastoral strategies flow from the call of Matthew. First, Jesus welcomes in the group of his close friends a man who, according to those times was considered to be a public sinner. Matthew, in fact, not only managed money, considered impure as it came from people foreign to the people of God, but in addition collaborated with a foreign, occupying power in a historical period known for its arbitrariness, dishonesty and cruelty.
Second, Jesus excludes no one from his friendship. When seated at the table in Matthew house, and answering those who were scandalized by his frequenting such undesirable company, Jesus makes the important declaration: "Those who are well have no need of a physician, but those who are sick; I came not to call the righteous but sinners" (Mark 2:17). God's grace is offered to sinners!
Third, the Gospels present us a real paradox in this story: He who seems to be farthest from holiness might well become a model of acceptance of God's mercy enabling one to glimpse its marvelous effects in his life. The call of Jesus comes also to people of a low social level, while they are engaged in their ordinary, menial work.
Finally, Matthew responds immediately to Jesus' call: "He rose and followed him." In this quick movement, Matthew is telling us that he wishes to leave his old life behind and adhere to a new life that was just, upright, and in communion with Jesus. Matthew understood that familiarity with Jesus did not allow him to continue with activities disapproved by God.
Miserando atque eligendo
Since the beginning of his Petrine Ministry, Pope Francis has referred many times to Caravaggio’s painting of the “Call of Matthew.” According to Pope Francis, the centrality of mercy is Jesus' most important message. Pope Francis’ episcopal motto, Miserando atque eligendo
is a rich expression taken from St. Bede’s homily on the call of Matthew, the evangelist: "Having had mercy, the Lord called him
". Pope Francis’ gestures and simple words flow from his episcopal and now papal motto: “miserando atque eligendo
.” Jesus' gaze of merciful tenderness (miserando), shows this patience of God and God’s response to human weakness. Taken from St. Bede's commentary on the call of Matthew – these words express Jesus’ whole approach to people – having mercy on others and inviting them (eligendo) to follow him. These are the bare essentials of the Christian faith.