St. Luke 5:27-32
Today’s Gospel reading tells us about the calling of St. Matthew (Levi). A Jewish tax collector in ancient Israel would have been the epitome of a social outcast. It was abhorrent to the Jewish people that some of their own would cooperate with a foreign, pagan occupier. Add to that the fact that such cooperation involved unjust and extortionist tax measures. Rome had to pay for their conquests somehow and it was usually from the nations they forced into subjugation
For Jesus to call a tax collector to be one of His disciples is quite extraordinary when to even associate with such a person was considered practically defiling oneself (making unclean and unfit for Temple worship and sacrifice, to be outside the camp of Israel). The Pharisees are quick to jump on this. “We thought you were supposed to be a holy man of God,” we can imagine them thinking or perhaps even saying to Jesus. To top it off, Jesus even attends what seems to be quite a feast with Matthew’s crowd!
If we are honest, we can sympathize with the Pharisees here. What would we think if our priest or pastor was hanging out with a group of people who committed high treason against the United States? What would we think if we saw a friar sitting with drug addicts or alcoholics, having a good time? Our first response might be scandal. Again, if we’re being completely honest with ourselves.
The major key to understanding Jesus’ action is found in the verse before today’s Gospel (in the order of the USCCB liturgical readings). Ezekiel 33:11 reads “I take no pleasure in the death of the wicked man, says the Lord, but rather in his conversion, that he may live.” When Jesus answers the Pharisees, we are to see that there is no limit to the love of God and no limitations on the call to repentance. The prophet Isaiah very clearly informs us that God is not like we are (Isaiah 55:8-9). In the absence of divine grace, our natural compassion and sympathy has limitations. God is not limited.
We would most likely be scandalized by Jesus' conduct as the Pharisees were. This would cause us to miss something profound. Like the prodigal son, there is no one so far off from God that He forgets or forsakes them. Those who are sick, racked as we are with sin, hatred, bitterness, and the like are in desperate need of medicine. The medicinal grace of God is offered freely to all, no matter where they find themselves. Whether we are in a tax collectors booth in ancient Israel, on skid row in modern Los Angeles, or anywhere in between, the Lord is calling us to repentance. He is calling out for us with the cure for what ails us. As always, the question remains whether we will follow the example of Matthew and say ‘yes’ or turn away to our own devices.