After the passage from Passion Week to Pentecost, which for us this year has been made the more intense by the death of Pope John Paul II and by election of Pope Benedict XVI, we return to the round of ordinary Sundays. Ordinary, that is, if we forget, or are inattentive to, the drama which is contained in the gospel narrative in every section of its writing.
Before the vocation of Matthew, Jesus has passed from the east side of Lake Galilee, where he had cast out a chaotic mass of devils which were inhabiting the soul of a pagan on the east side of the lake into the unclean place where they wanted to go: into a herd of pigs, which then hurtled down a slope to drown themselves in the lake. In the silence which followed this spectacle, the men of the place, filled with fear of the unknown, constrained Our Lord to leave the region.
He crossed the Lake to Caphernaüm, to be presented with a paralysed man to be healed. But there was more to the story than that. His paralysis came from secret sins, and the need he felt to try and conceal them. His soul could not support the play-acting, and his body refused to function properly. Jesus made clear to the man and to everyone else that his first need was for his sins to be forgiven, which Jesus proceeded to do. Enemies among the crowd understood the implicit claim to have that divine power.
The man walked away, the paralysis and the sin thrown off. And here, somewhere near the little port centre of Caphernaüm, where taxes could easily be collected, he confronted a Jew who, with his local knowledge, was co-operating with the Romans to collect their taxes. Levi, a man from the priestly tribe, who describes himself here with the adopted name of Matthew, presented a quite different irregular moral situation, a quite different pastoral concern.
But Our Lord looked more deeply into his heart than at the level of that problem. He saw under the surface a good heart, with the profile of an apostle and a gospel writer. He said simply: "Follow me!" Matthew understood him perfectly; he made no objects and followed him.
Here was no diabolic possession, but someone who had deliberately chosen an unpatriotic profession. Here were no pathological consequences of sin, but a rational choice that as a tax-collector for the Romans, his future companions would be people like himself. Equally mocking of Romans and Jews. The Romans might smile at them, the other Jews might detest them, but at least in the uneasy balance of social forces they were safe. They talked intelligently, and were without the anxiety of soul of the others.
And Our Lord played it their way: he went to a feast which Matthew gave. The other exactors felt they could talk to him as men to Man, and they were present in considerable numbers. Here was a man who understood the stuff of life, yet who was not cynical like them. The depth and intensity of his transparently pure conscience made him an object of intense attention. His total honesty spread itself over their dishonesties. The signs are that the company began to share the release from the burden of guilt which Jesus's call to Matthew had begun. They were finding ease, as his presence alone was healing them: giving them the beginnings of a profound heart-ease.
They were coming into order. It was the Pharisees who were present who emerged as difficult, and whose heartless comportment set them aside as strangers. They protested about his presence among such people to the disciples, but Jesus answered for Himself: "You go through the form of offering sacrifice for the reconciliation of sinners. But you do not understand the nature of mercy. Do you not believe that God is merciful if sin-offerings are made in accordance with your Law? Do you not think that the sin must always weigh on the one-time sinner? What then do you expect from those ritual sacrifices? Can you not see that I am making myself a minister who goes into the heart of a sinful situation in order to bring it to an end? For I can give that freedom from sin which they crave." Amen.