Some reflections by Sr. Johanna

Matthew’s Call

 And Jesus said to him, “Follow me.”  And Matthew got up and followed him. (See Mt. 9:9).


The writers of the synoptic Gospels rarely relate the same episode in the same way.  One notable exception is the account of the calling of Matthew.  The three synoptic writers, Matthew, Mark and Luke, all have in common the fact that they tell the story in the briefest way possible.  Jesus just turned up at Matthew’s tax office one day, said two words, “Follow me,” (or the Aramaic equivalent) and Matthew did.  Immediately.

We know this text so well that its power to astonish us may have worn off.  I, in fact, have always found this text a bit skimpy on description, rather un-dramatic and a little flat.  I want to know more about the back-story, about Matthew’s state of mind on that day.  Consequently, I probably haven’t given the story enough of a chance to talk to me.  So I resolve today to slow way down and try to look at this text as though I’ve never seen it before.  This is what  lectio divina is about: diving down into a text’s deep pool and, through the grace of the Holy Spirit at work, both within the text and within my mind and heart, finding the story’s hidden meaning—and, yes, even its drama.  The exercise never disappoints me.  I begin, asking for the Holy Spirit’s guidance.

The first thing I notice, then, is that Matthew the tax collector was “sitting”  in the tax office.  We don’t usually get descriptions of body-language in the New Testament, but a quick flip through the pages of my New Testament confirms what I suspected: in all three synoptic gospels, Matthew’s physical position is given.  It must be important I think, but why?  Who cares that Mathew’s sitting down?

As I pray about this seemingly insignificant detail, it occurs to me that a sitting person is not only stationary but apt to be quite engaged on the interior level—more so, anyway, than when charging around busily, focusing on accomplishing tasks.  Matthew was sitting because his work usually required it; he’d have been at a desk or table, writing, counting money, adding up columns of figures, absorbed in his intellectual work.  He was occupied, even preoccupied, presumably not in the mood for a spiritual event of life-changing proportions. He was also doing things that would have been distasteful to a decent human being.  Was he a decent human being?  Many of the townspeople would have denied it roundly.  He was, after all, taking the tax money from his own people who could ill afford to pay it, pocketing a certain percentage of the proceeds, giving the rest to the Romans, and, even more scandalously, turning the screws on those who did not, or could not, pay.  But it was part of the job; he had to do it and he did do it.  I see him now, sitting, head down, counting, adding up, writing, not making eye contact with anyone, not smiling, brow furrowed in concentration.

I wonder what this was like for Matthew.  Matthew was a Jew in the employment of the Romans, the occupying political power.  He, like all the Jews, was in a difficult situation.  Matthew, however, had figured out how to manipulate the situation to his financial advantage.  But at what emotional and social price?  Of what use to him, he may well have wondered, was his financial security when he had no friends?  For any friend of the Romans, anyone who voluntarily did their dirty business for them—and particularly, any Jew who did the Romans’ dirty business—was doubly scorned by the other Jews.  Matthew was a traitor.  No one liked the tax collectors.  In Matthew’s case, he was probably intensely hated.  But this was a normal working day for Matthew, differing little from every other working day.  He was sitting down, adding up figures, getting on with it.   Or was it really a normal day for him?

Those who’ve read my reflections before know I’m apt to end a section and leave certain things dangling, telling people to come back twenty-four hours later so that they have time to pray over the text and perhaps ask questions of the Holy Spirit.  I hope you will do as I suggest and stop reading here and just think.  And pray.  But do come back tomorrow for the continuation of our meditation.



 And Jesus said to him, “Follow me.”  And Matthew got up and followed him. (See Mt. 9:9).

Something must have been going on in Matthew’s head that day that was different, that prepared him for Jesus’ summons.   Maybe he wasn’t as preoccupied as he seemed to be.  We’re not told what was in his mind, but I continue to reflect on the short text from Matthew 9:9.

We can assume that tax collectors were part of a crowd that could be generally relied upon to be cynically dismissive of Jesus, this idealistic rabbi who talked about a ‘kingdom’ of his own and travelled around with a group of scruffy, uneducated men.  But Matthew was different, or at least, he had the potential to be different, and Jesus saw this.  What did Jesus see in Matthew?  Looking at Matthew from the outside, as it were, and objectively, anyone might have seen a capable man who was good with numbers.  Matthew was, most likely, rather dishonest in the way most tax collectors were dishonest, raising the tax fees in order to skim off the extra for himself.  But, with unerring  judgement, Jesus intuited that this man, Matthew—Levi, as he was known at the time—wasn’t just a hard-boiled money-grabber.  He was inwardly ready for precisely the summons he received.  How do we know?  We don’t know yet, if we are taking this story step by step.  But in a few minutes we will see something astonishing.  Let’s wait for it, asking the Holy Spirit to inspire our imagination.  Jesus is just coming up to the tax office now.

Jesus knows that Matthew’s professional life did not make a promising statement about Matthew’s personal qualities, but Jesus tells us in precisely this context (see Mt.9:12-13) that he came for people like Matthew: the ‘sick’, who needed the doctor.  Jesus also knows the power of his own personality to bring about a change of heart in those who are truly ready to surrender themselves to him.  There is no false modesty in Jesus.   Again and again Jesus offers himself—he knows who he is, knows that he himself is the pearl of great price.  He knows he is the Son, the Son of God and very God.  Jesus sees what is good in Matthew.

Let’s come back to Matthew.  It’s quite possible that Matthew hated his job. But did he have an exit route?   That is highly doubtful.  No one liked tax collectors or trusted them  Even if he quit his job, who else would have hired him?  Matthew was trapped in a trap of his own devising.   But is that all?  Surely, there were a lot of trapped people around then, just as there are a lot of trapped people around now.  Jesus didn’t call them.  He called Matthew.  Why? Matthew’s unique readiness must have been apparent to Jesus, even though it was almost certainly hidden from everyone else, maybe even Matthew.

I’m beginning to answer my question as to Matthew’s back-story— at least to some extent.  Matthew was ready for change, fed up to the back-teeth with his life.  But let’s think: don’t we all know people who spend their life complaining about their situation and looking woebegone, but should the opportunity to make a change for the better actually be given to them, suddenly they are eloquent with excuses.  In fact, such people love their chains and cannot handle freedom and its responsibilities.  Jesus wanted to give Matthew the chance to show that he was emphatically not one of those.

Now, Jesus is standing there in front of Matthew.  By the power of his mere presence, he gains Matthew’s attention.  Matthew looks up from his task of adding columns of figures.  He’s looking at Jesus now, waiting for what Jesus will say.  Jesus utters the famous words, “Follow me.”  Let’s watch.  The text indicates that Jesus, after issuing his invitation to Matthew, does not hang around to chat or talk him into the idea.  He is abrupt. (Even Peter had been given a small sales pitch by Jesus: “Follow me and I will make you fishers of men”.)  Jesus  doesn’t even call Matthew by name. Or not yet.  By implication, we can be pretty sure that what Jesus does next is turn and begin to walk, giving Matthew the perfect view of his back.

Let’s leave Matthew here till tomorrow.  If you had been in his place, what would you have thought?



And Jesus said to him, “Follow me.”  And Matthew got up and followed him. (See Mt. 9:9).

Jesus’ sure-footedness here takes my breath away.  What a thrilling moment in Matthew’s life.  I find myself entering into Matthew’s thoughts, seeing him in my imagination.  He’s not adding up figures; he is sitting absolutely still.  He’s just heard Jesus speak to him.  Jesus said, “Follow me.”  Matthew suddenly has a huge amount of emotion to process in no time at all.  His head’s in a whirl.  Matthew, the despised tax collector, finds that Jesus—this radiantly good and kind man—has noticed him, really seen him, even ‘read’ him.  Matthew feels confused and flustered by this affirmation—he’s not used to it.  People rarely even look at him, and now this!  From a holy man!  He doesn’t quite know what to think.  He habitually kept his defences up in order to shield himself from the hostility that was directed against him every working day of his life, but now, this Jesus actually wanted Matthew to be around.  Most people couldn’t see too little of Matthew, but Jesus had just said, “Follow me.”  ‘Follow him where?’ Matthew thinks.  ‘Why?  To do what?  Nothing is adding up,’ Matthew thinks.  But then, in an overwhelming flash of insight in which he sees his entire life in an utterly new way, he realises that things don’t have to ‘add up’ anymore—and Jesus was getting away!  Jesus was walking down the road.  Hurry, Matthew!  Matthew rises from his seat, he stands.  He walks, he runs, runs right out of his hated tax office and races down the street following Jesus.

And Jesus?  Jesus’ methods are always surprising.  Here, Jesus actually gives Matthew an instant ‘open door’ into discipleship.  Jesus does not coddle, coax, explain or make lavish promises, but he wastes no time in realising his plans.  He says ‘Follow me,’ and then he gives Matthew himself to follow.  He turns.  He walks.  What was important for Jesus was to determine whether Matthew could really leave his chains.  Any hesitation on Matthew’s part would have signalled an addiction to his sad situation, a perverse liking for its misery and loneliness – perhaps because of the pseudo-importance it conferred.  And Matthew comes through the test brilliantly.  He was ready.  He follows as soon as he can scramble through the doorway.  He becomes a disciple.  Nowhere in the New Testament is it suggested that Matthew ever looks back.

Tomorrow, we’ll see what conclusions we can draw from these reflections.



I feel that this lectio period is reaching its end.  In this reflection I will be asking what Matthew’s  response to Jesus’ call teaches.

Matthew, as a person, has emerged in an entirely new light for me through this lectio experience.  I must admit, he didn’t have much personality for me before; now I see him as a dynamic man, capable of great insight and of quickly understanding the core truth in a situation.  I see that he grasped the fact that this invitation from Jesus was not going to be offered twice.  He grasped that the opportunity to associate himself with Jesus was more important than anything else.  Matthew saw that to fail to respond to the invitation issued by Jesus would be to consign himself to the deepest misery.  It would mean losing Jesus, letting him pass right out of his life.  This, Matthew realises instantly, was unthinkable – it would be tragedy.  I see that Matthew wants Jesus to lead.  He starts off in his discipleship seeing Jesus’ back and he knows he must keep it in view—the metaphor perhaps for all the unknowns which are an integral part of the experience of every disciple of Jesus.

What else has happened as I’ve reflected on this story?  I turn to my own life and look into my heart.  I am struck anew by the fact that it’s important not to play with Jesus. Matthew doesn’t.  Jesus’ invitation to Matthewand the way Jesus handles the entire encounter show clearly that when he calls, it is not a game.  It is the privilege of a lifetime. Matthew saw this.  Jesus will not tolerate shilly-shallying; he is God, and he expects a life-commitment.

As I look at my life now, I realise again that each day my discipleship will be tested.  Am I really ready to drop whatever I’m doing, leave whatever Jesus asks me to leave today, and put my whole heart into following him, without looking back?  I see that I cannot rest on yesterday’s good deeds (if there were any) or skate along on yesterday’s momentum.  Every day I must push off afresh, keeping Jesus’ ‘back’ in view—or, in other words, accepting all the unknowns that exist in my life with him.  Every day I must be like Matthew.  And the alternative?  The alternative is to lose Jesus, to see his back receding into the distance.  He moves quickly.

I return to the thought with which I opened this reflection.  Matthew was sitting down in the beginning of the story.  But now?  He is hurrying along the road, following Jesus.  He is never pictured in the gospel as sitting down again.  And I realise that discipleship is simply not a sit-down job.  Not for Matthew, not for me.  Oh, sure, we’re talking metaphor now, and not body language.  The Lord may ask one to spend time at a desk job working for the kingdom.  But on the most fundamental level, the disciple is always rising up from the inertia of the past, even if the past is only yesterday; the true disciple is always moving quickly to obey the Lord, ready to respond to the Lord’s exciting invitation, “Follow me”—today.