Jesus calls the least likely person to follow him by his choice of a tax collector. As a tax collector under the hire of the Roman occupation force, Levi was not permitted to enter a synagogue nor to go up to the temple. He was banished from social contact with faithful, law-abiding Jews. This does not mean that God chooses those who are not good enough for religious leadership. But that He whose word penetrates the divide between soul and spirit, joints, and marrow. “Judges the thoughts of the heart,” and recognizes potential in people whom others too quickly discard. There may be many whose growth we have stunted by failing to second their ideas or show trust in their ability. Other people may have seen in Matthew only the taxman, the non-observant, half-pagan Jew, serving the foreign oppressors, but Jesus recognized someone with a compassionate heart, hopeful towards others – the very dispositions attributed to God himself as He led the Israelites out of Egypt and prepared for the covenant on Mount Sinai.
An Ideal Apostle
When thinking about our hopes for effective leadership in the church, the most basic quality, surely, is a strong desire for sharing faith and love. Leaders ought to recognize and encourage the good qualities in others. Jesus not only calls Matthew (formerly Levi) but also accepts Matthew’s invitation to dine in his home with all his friends and fellow tax collectors. The training period is underway, friendship is being deepened, and relationships are being established. As Pope Francis memorably said, this would be a pastor in touch with ordinary people. “A shepherd with the smell of the sheep on him.” Like Jesus our High Priest, who shared the very depths of our human experience, the good church pastor will understand the range of emotions and even temptations experienced by people today. The Scriptures combine a pure insight into ideals. Also a compassionate view of human nature, two essential qualities for religious leadership.
The Good News
The good news is that the story reminds us that Christ is happy to be in our company. Even if we have fallen short of what is expected of us. Even when we are far from being all that we can become. Our failings and weaknesses do not hinder our relationship with the Lord. Rather, his presence to us in our failings and weaknesses lifts us up. We always come before God in our brokenness, and He never forsakes us. His open arms await us. And there is always a place for us in Him, regardless of where we are at in life.