“So, what do you do?” It’s a question all of us are asked when we meet someone new, as though we can be defined by our work. Today’s first reading emphasizes that how we go about doing what we do is just as important, if not more so, that what we’re doing. The fruits of the Spirit; such as humility, gentleness, and patience, enable us to be loving community members, whether that community is our roommates, family, coworkers, or intentional community.
Matthew was a Jewish tax collector employed by the Romans to extract taxes from his fellow Jews. Tax collectors were not paid by the Roman government; rather, they made their living by charging above and beyond what must be sent back to Rome and keeping the margin. They were hated for living off the labors of others and seen as traitors to their own people, and thus alienated. Matthew’s friends were probably also tax collectors.
What must have gone through Matthew’s mind when Jesus said “follow me”? The Gospel simply recounts “and he got up and followed him”. Would you or I have done the same? Did he hesitate, sensing his life was about to change forever? Or was he feeling trapped by his current way of life, and eagerly embraced the opportunity for a complete change, even if it meant giving up all of his earthly possessions?
Jesus of course uses Matthew, the despised tax collector to continue his mission and spread the Good News of God’s love. And he dines with Matthew’s friends, an intimate act of solidarity, as the Pharisees look on judgmentally. Jesus’ admonition to the Pharisees, ‘I desire mercy (also translated ‘steadfast love’), not sacrifice’, is still relevant today. But Jesus doesn’t let the tax collectors off the hook either; he calls them sick and sinners.
Am I the self-righteous pharisee who needs to practice steadfast love, or the tax collector invited to turn away from exploitation toward a new, healing relationship with God and others? Let us all pray for the grace to live and love as one Body in Christ!
- Moira Reilly (PVI-Jamaica ’06-’07) is a caretaker at Bethlehem Farm, a Catholic community in Appalachia that transforms lives through service with the local community and the teaching of sustainable practices. We invite volunteers to join us in living the Gospel cornerstones of prayer, simplicity, community and service. www.bethlehemfarm.net