So Jesus goes over to Matthew, who, at that time, was anything but a saint. He was sitting at the customs post, collecting the required taxes. He was a Jew acting as a representative of the Roman occupation government. He didn’t have a fan club, to say the least. It wasn’t just that he was a tax collector – probably that would have been bad enough, but it was also that he was an employee of the Roman oppression government. It was almost like he was giving up his heritage. This is the Matthew who Jesus approaches and gives a fairly simple, two-word command: “follow me.”
We could be in wonder about why Jesus would pick such a man, and plenty of homily time has been spent examining that issue, I think. What has me in wonder these days is Matthew’s response. “And he got up and followed him.” That’s it. He left the table, didn’t even clock out, left all the money there, and took off to follow Jesus. He didn’t cash out the register or finish up with the customer he was working with, or even take a minute to record the current transaction in a spreadsheet. He followed right then and there. He left his whole considerable livelihood behind. And that livelihood was as rich as he wanted to make it, since all he had to return to Rome was the tax that was prescribed. Anything else was his to keep. But on the strength of a two-word command, he gets up and leaves his responsibilities to his employers, his family, and all he ever knew behind.
What was it that caused him to do such a thing? It certainly wasn’t some kind of solidly-worded argumentation or beautiful preaching or rhetoric, because all Jesus said to him was “follow me.” So did he know Jesus before this? Had he indeed heard him preach before and experienced a stirring in his heart? Had he witnessed one of Jesus’ miracles and always wanted the opportunity to know more about this man? Was there something going on in Matthew’s life that was calling him to make a change? Was he unmotivated by his current situation or had he felt God tugging at his heart? Of course, we don’t know the answers to any of these questions. All we do know is that Jesus said “follow me” and Matthew did. Simple as that.
Yesterday I was at the Cathedral of St. Raymond in Joliet, for priesthood ordinations for our diocese. Three young men were ordained for service to the Church of Joliet. They, of course, looked elated, and had an excitement that I clearly remember myself. This past week, I received a letter from a young woman I knew from the parish where I served my internship back in my third year of seminary. She has finished her first year of formation for service as a Dominican nun. Her letter told me about the richness of her experience of formation, including classes, prayer and ministry experiences. Just a couple of weeks ago, we celebrated the forty years of wonderful service that Fr. Ted has given our diocese, including his work for the last six years at our parish. In his homily at his celebration Mass, he reflected on the many experiences he had over the last forty years, and said that if he had it to do over again, he would enter the priesthood again “in a heartbeat.” Later this year, we will have the opportunity to celebrate the fifty years of service that Sr. Anne Hyzy has given as a nun. She is a woman whose faith and spirituality have been a beacon for so many of us, and we look forward to celebrating her anniversary. And just this past week, I celebrated my second anniversary as a priest. So this has been a time when I have had the opportunity to reflect a bit on God’s call.
What is it that gets any of us to respond to that call: “follow me?” Because – and let’s be very clear about this – every one of us gets that call in some way, shape or form, at some point in our lives. We are called to rich vocational lives in so many different ways. Some are called to be priests, deacons or religious. Some are called to the married life and give of their lives as parents. Some are called to the single life, sacrificing the promiscuity and worldliness of our current culture to be a witness to God’s power in the world. We may be church workers, or doctors, or lawyers, or construction workers, or grocery store clerks, or any of a million different things. But the one thing that unites us – our baptism – also unites us in its effect: we are all called by our baptism to do something specific, something heroic, something very significant for Christ. To all of us – every one of us without exception – Christ is saying: “follow me.”
In a perfect world, it should be enough for us that God has forgiven us of our sins and made us one with him in baptism. It should be enough for us that Jesus says, despite the myriad of ways that we are unworthy of any kind of call, “follow me.” It should be enough that we are forgiven, and graced, and called, and loved to respond just like Matthew did, giving it all over so that we can follow the Lord wherever it is that he is leading us. But lots of times, that isn’t enough. Because we are sinful people who are afraid of commitment or are too bogged down in the world, or have turned away for so many reasons. Sometimes, it takes a while for that “follow me” call to work its way through our hardened hearts and restless spirits. I should know: it took thirty-six years for me.
So what about you? Is there a customs post that you need to walk away from? Is there a call to “follow me” that you’ve been hearing from the Lord for some time now that you have not had the courage to answer? Because I think the real question is not what is it about Jesus that would make someone follow him with just a simple command. No. The real question is, what is it about us that would turn down the life of grace and happiness and adventure and joy that Jesus has in store for us? I can’t possibly imagine how terrible it would have been to say “no” to Jesus at this point in my life. I always tell people that if you really want to be really happy, then you have to do what God is calling you to do. Nothing else will make you that happy. And I should know, because the last two years of my life have been the most wonderful I can remember.
Jesus comes to all of us today, in the busy-ness of our lives. Right in the middle of taking the customs tax from a traveler, we are called: “follow me.” What does that call look like for you? Are you ready to get up and follow him, without another word being spoken? If you’ve been on the fence, consider this homily the sign you’ve been looking for. God is calling. “Follow me.”