Commentary on Matthew 9:9-13, 18-26
Jesus typically calls busy folks. He was not known for recruiting lollygaggers. Throughout the scriptures he comes upon people in the daily routines of their lives and calls them to discipleship. In Matthew 4:18-20 he calls the first four disciples—Peter and Andrew while they were casting a net into the sea, and James and John in the boat with their father mending their nets. In Matthew 9:13, Jesus takes the initiative once again and calls Matthew, a toll/tax collector to follow him. Jesus sees him working at a sheltered counting desk or booth placed strategically near the route out of the area of Galilee where fishermen would transport their catch.1 Jesus calls people out of the ordinariness of their lives. It is not that they don’t have anything else to do, it is that they don’t have anything more important to do than to hear and heed the Savior’s command. The call makes a compelling, life-altering claim. It says in effect “Since there is nothing more important for you to do, drop what you are doing and follow me.” The most fitting response to such a command is: “And he got up and followed him.”
It is important to note that Matthew did not choose Jesus, Jesus chose Matthew2. And Jesus did not ask him if he would take some time to think about the possibility of considering going along with him. The call to follow is in the imperative mood, which is the mood of command. At the command of Jesus, Matthew got up and followed him. The German title of Dietrich Bonhoeffer’s much beloved book, The Cost of Discipleship, considered to be a classic of Christian thought, consisted of one word in its original 1937 publication: “Nachfolge.” Translated into English, nachfolge literally means “following after.” The Germans understand the word to mean “discipleship.” The four-word title, familiar to most Americans, was a later addition to the English translation. Jesus calls Matthew to “follow after” him (nachfolge). In a simple act of obedience, Matthew obeys. He calls us to do the same.
The call from Jesus does not involve a multiple-choice test. The command is simple, yet profound and the answer is: “yes, I will” or “no I won’t”. The import of the call is what compels us to answer immediately and obediently. The call is action-oriented, for it requires us to live now as if the rule and reign of God had come upon us in its fullness. It requires us to live now as if the lion and the lamb were already lying down together. To live now as if adversaries had already beat their swords into plowshares and their spears into pruning hooks. To live now as if justice had already begun to roll down like waters and righteousness like an ever-flowing stream (Amos 5:24). Prep time to heed the call is minimal. On the job training is the preferred modus operandi.
There are benefits and burdens to obedience. Tryggve Mettinger’s In Search of God,3 speaks of two different types of call narratives in the Old Testament. In the first type of call narrative, the one who is called accepts their commission without objection and answers immediately and obediently, for example, Isaiah. In the second type of call narrative, more typical of Moses, the person protests against the call, choosing instead to engage God in a dialogue. In every call one has to count the cost; one has to measure the benefits and the burdens. There are those who can never bring themselves to say yes to God’s call and claim on their lives for they, even at first blush, consider the costs of the call to be too high. The rich young ruler is a case in point. He rejected the command of Jesus to follow after him “for he had many possessions” (Mark 10:22).
Jesus calls this man of unacceptable status and he gets up and follows after him. Implied in Matthew’s following of Jesus is the leaving of his desk, the symbol of his profession and the root of his sinfulness.4 God never calls us to something, without first calling us away from something. Some people will never fully come into discipleship because they find themselves unable to let go of commitments in which they are oftentimes legitimately engaged before the call of God comes into their lives. In Genesis 12, God calls Abraham to “Go from your country and your kindred and your father’s house to the land that I will show you” (Genesis 12:1). To answer the call, Abraham must leave his past behind and trust God for his future. But before Abraham can get to that place yet to be named by God, he must let go of where he is and march forward into God’s promised future. You can never get to the next thing that God has for you until, in an act of simple obedience, you let go of where you are and follow after him.
The call of God is a far ranging, far reaching call. Jesus calling a tax-collector is a controversial call. In far too many churches there are still those who tell us, and apparently also God, who can and cannot be called. Tax-collectors were despised for they were often believed to cheat the people whose taxes they were instructed to collect. They were considered to be no better than swindlers and murderers; they were believed to be guilty of flagrant moral offenses. It is likely that Matthew was indeed a customs official, counted among those of such ill repute.5 Yet Jesus extends the call to him. It is not so much what Jesus sees in us that makes us worthy, but rather what he puts in us when we obey his command. Follow me, Jesus often said, and I will make you become fishers of people. “Yes, I will,” or “no, I won’t”!
1. Mullins, Michael. Gospel of Matthew (Columbia Books: 2007) 237
2. Luz, Ulrich. Matthew 8-20: Hermeneia (Minneapolis: Fortress Press, 2001) 31
3. Mettinger, Tryggve. In Search of God: The Meaning and Message of the Everlasting Names (Philadelphia: Fortress Press, 1987), 22
4. Mullins, Michael. Gospel of Matthew (Columbia Books: 2007) 237
5. Snow, R, and Ermakov, A. Matthew: A Commentary in the Wesleyan Tradition: New Beacon Bible Commentary (Kansas City, MO: Beacon Hill Press, 2019) 142