Matthew 9:9 is a favorite Scripture passage for vocation promotion events. I’ve heard it read at such gatherings at least a dozen times in the last 10 years: Jesus “saw Matthew sitting at the customs post. He said to him, ‘Follow me.’ And he got up and followed him.”
What has always struck me about this passage is Matthew’s immediate yes to Jesus’ invitation. “And he got up and followed him.” Just like that. The first time I heard this, I rather flippantly wondered whether the author had left out some crucial bits of the story. A lot must have happened between the time when Jesus said “follow me” and when Matthew finally decided to do it. What about Matthew’s lengthy discernment, his eight-day retreat at an oceanside house of prayer, his numerous meetings with his vocation director, his trip to World Youth Day?
I’m kidding, of course. And yet I’m not. Who would just get up and go? During these initial years of my priestly ministry, I am stumbling into an answer.
The Second Vatican Council reminded us that the “books of Scripture must be acknowledged as teaching solidly, faithfully and without error that truth which God wanted put into sacred writings for the sake of salvation.” In other words, we can trust that the most important part is there on the page—namely, that Matthew “got up and followed him.”
Perhaps all of the “stuff” that might occur between God’s invitation and our definitive yes is not really the point; it certainly wasn’t for Matthew. St. Ignatius reminds us that deeds are more important than words, especially in acts of love, which are the most important acts of faith. A vocation then isn’t an idea about how to live our lives, but the active gift of our lives to others and ultimately to the person to whom Matthew responded with such daring and hope.
It cannot be any other way. Who among us would leave everything we have for an idea? Well, quite a few of us, I suppose, if history is any guide. But if the information age teaches us anything, it is that ideas are plentiful and therefore cheap and, apart from ultimate truths, maddeningly fleeting. I know I could not leave everything for an idea; I simply lack the courage.
What stands in the way of most people’s yes to God, however, is not their fear but rather their shame, the sense that they are somehow unworthy of the yes. I’ve certainly said to God: “I cannot do this. I am a great sinner. I wish I could say that my greatest sin is collecting taxes.” Then, as surely as there is a balm in Gilead, God usually responds: “Matthew, son of John, you are my beloved son in whom I am well pleased. Now cut the crap. You wonder whether you are worthy? Well, wonder no more: you’re not. You are unworthy not because you are the worst among my creatures but simply because you are the creature and I am the creator. And the difference between those two things is the difference between something and everything. And that difference is totally a gift.”
Now some of that may sound a little harsh, but it’s actually quite freeing. “I did not come to call the virtuous, but sinners,” Jesus tells us. Amen to that. I do not need to be God or even general manager of the universe. I don’t need to be perfect; I can’t be perfect. I simply need to live out of the truth of who I am: created and redeemed by a God who loves me without a because, without conditions, simply because of who God is—this God in Christ through whom I become a gift to others, not in spite of all I have done and failed to do, but precisely because of it.
“And he got up and followed him.” O.K., now I get it.