One of my seminary teachers would often say that when people asked him if he was a teacher, he would reply “Well, that depends on whether any of my students are learning.”
You might guess that Vince was a philosopher, but anyone who has ever been a student knows exactly what he meant. If no-one in the class is learning, the problem is certainly with the teacher.
Today’s liturgy offers a psalm that presents God as the teacher and ourselves as students asking: “Teach me your ways O God … that I may be faithful.”
That’s a good preparation for hearing today’s gospel reading in which Jesus calls the tax collector Levi (Matthew) to “Follow.” Levi’s response is immediate and enthusiastic: “Leaving everything he got up and followed him” and threw a party to celebrate his new direction in life.
The party drew attention since Jesus and his followers were dining at the house of a sinner with many well-known sinners in attendance. Jesus winds them up even more adding “It is not those who are well who need the doctor, but the sick. I have not come to call the virtuous, but sinners to repentance.”
That’s where we get stuck. We don’t always recognise that the restlessness, struggle, anxiety, stress etc that we feel is exactly what Jesus means by sickness. The other word we rightly use for this dissatisfaction, this ennui in life, is sin.
Sin is not primarily about the breaking of rules but rather sin is our half-hearted (sometimes quarter-hearted) engagement with life which is what causes us to disregard any kind of life-giving discipline.
We are right to fight against this sickness of sin in all its forms. Life is not meant to be this way.
So how do we change this? How can we find greater peace, joy and satisfaction in life?
Let’s learn from Matthew – probably a successful guy in the eyes of those who use numbers to measure success. Like all of us Matthew would have been struggling to find meaning in life. Jesus enters his life, calls him and Matthew responds by becoming a disciple, that is, a student of Jesus the teacher.
Like Matthew we need to acknowledge our powerlessness and our sinfulness, which, when acknowledged, becomes our capacity for God.
And the rest for Matthew, as they say, is his-story.
Matthew is a favourite saint of Pope Francis since it was on the feast of Matthew (21 September) in 1953 that young Jorge Borgolio had his faith-wake-up call. Later as pope Francis chose as his motto a phrase from the Office of Readings for the feast of St. Matthew “to be shown mercy and chosen.”
A young friend said to me a few months ago, “John, you know the problem with the Church?” I waited and he continued: “There are not enough sinners in church – people feel as though they have to be good to go to church, but I want more people like me there when I go to church, more sinners!”
Matthew will be known for all time as the one who had the courage to enter whole-hearted relationship with Jesus Christ, and who only then found the abundant life he sought.
It is central to note that the turning point for Matthew was his acknowledgement of his need, his sickness, his sin, and realising that Jesus was not just an inspiring teacher, but the saviour, the one who could free him from his unsatisfying existence.
This humble posture is the starting point for all great life-stories. Our life really begins when we admit that we are powerless to make ourselves, and when we acknowledge that only Jesus can give us the life we seek.
The last word today is adapted from the First Step Prayer of AA.
I admit that I am powerless…
I admit that my life is unmanageable when I try to control it.
Help me this day to understand
The true meaning of powerlessness.
- We often hear that God calls us with a general call which all people receive. But today’s gospel focus on the particular calling of the tax collector Matthew reminding me that Jesus is speaking directly to me and pointing me out in the crowd:” John! Follow me!” I sometimes answer yes. Sometimes no. Sometimes I give a “maybe” or “later”. But I know I am happiest when I say yes and follow.
- Take a moment to imagine Jesus pointing you out in the crowd, speaking to you and using your name, and calling you by name to follow. How do you respond in this moment?