There are some people who are anxiously waiting to hear the undiluted version of the Gospel. They just want the straight truth about God no matter how unpopular certain doctrines are or how difficult being a follower of Christ may seem.
They are fully aware of their limitations and as such they suffer no illusions about the false promises this world holds out to them. These God-seekers may be full of wrong ideas about religion and morality but when they are confronted with the truth, they commit to it promptly and with all of their strength. One such man was St. Matthew.
In many ways, St. Matthew was a male counterpart to St. Mary Magdalene. Both sinners fell out of favor with society and with the inner-religious circles at the time of Christ. Not only did they know what it meant to be a sinner but they experienced being labeled as such by a good number of people.
St. Matthew was tax collector at the customs post before he was called upon by Christ to follow him. Indeed, he was a man who worked on behalf of the Roman administration to collect taxes. Quite often such an occupation lent itself to usury and personal profit. Hence, the mere association with such greed was enough to have him banished from religious and social circles.
Nevertheless, when Jesus Christ, the great lover of souls, came walking past him, St. Matthew immediately saw that that he was different from the other rabbis. Evidently, our Lord’s words, “Follow me!” resounded deeply within the heart of this tax collector. Without skipping a heartbeat, St. Matthew went from collecting taxes on behalf of the Romans to harvesting souls on behalf of God.
Several centuries later, when St. Bridget prayed at St. Matthew’s tomb at Malphi, she heard these words from the Apostle himself:
“It was my desire at the time I was a publican to defraud no man, and I wished to find out a way by which I might abandon that employment, and cleave to God alone with my whole heart. When therefore He who loved me, even Jesus Christ was preaching, His call was a flame of fire in my heart; and so sweet were His words unto my taste, that I thought no more of riches than of straws: yea, it was delightful to me to weep for joy, that my God had deigned to call one of such small account, and so great a sinner as I to His grace. And as I clung unto my Lord, His burning words became fixed in my heart, and day and night I fed upon them by meditation, as upon sweetest food.” (Lapide’s commentary on the Gospel of Matthew)
Like St. Mary Magdalene, who was deemed to be a “sinful woman,” St. Matthew was despised by the religious establishment of his day and counted the least of all. Our Lord Jesus had to remind his critics that "those who are well do not need a physician, but the sick do." He then said, "Go and learn the meaning of the words, I desire mercy, not sacrifice. I did not come to call the righteous but sinners." Yes, fulfilling our religious obligations is absolutely necessary. But if mercy towards our neighbor and the needy does not flow from the observance of rituals i.e. attending Mass, tithing etc., then our good works will be wanting.
Notice that our Lord was not constantly surrounded by his religious peers or with only those who were held in high esteem by the people. Without compromising his relationship with his heavenly Father and without conforming to the ways of sinners, he ventured into those social circles that were condemned by society. By doing this, he made his religious cohorts angry. The result was such that he fell out of their favor. But he did it anyways! He stooped down and gave a helping hand to those who had fallen from grace. But Jesus could only do this because he wasn’t overly concerned with what his religious peers thought of him.
In the 19th century, Cardinal James Gibbons of Baltimore wrote a book entitled, The Ambassador of Christ. He wrote it for seminarians and priests. The good Cardinal knew that if anything hinders the mission to save souls it is the vice of human respect; that is, being too concerned with what others may think of you. The following passage from his book is eloquent and to the point:
"The vice opposed to self respect is human respect. Human respect is a base condescension by which, from the fear of offending others, or from the desire of acquiring their esteem, a man says or does what his conscience conceives to be unlawful. It is not easy to exaggerate the baneful influence which this moral cowardice exerts on mankind, especially on impressionable youth, under the alluring guise of friendship and love of applause...God has established in your breast the sacred tribunal of conscience by whose dictates you are bound to decide. But in yielding to human respect, you act the part of a temporizing judge like Pilate, who pronounced sentence, not in accordance with the evidence before Him, but in obedience to the clamors of the multitude. You sacrifice principle to expediency, you subordinate the voice of God to the voice of man, you surrender your Christian liberty and manly independence, and you become the slave of a fellow creature."
There is at least one man who is eternally grateful that Jesus Christ did not yield to human respect. And that man is St. Matthew. When his number was called, St. Matthew was willing and ready; willing to follow Jesus and ready to endure adversity for the sake of his Gospel.
* Catholic News Agency columns are opinion and do not necessarily express the perspective of the agency.