The Calling

”I used to work for Matthew, back then he was a collector of taxes, a sort of civil servant working for Herod Antipas .Not an easy job I can tell you…

Those high and mighty Jewish people, called us the scum of the earth. They’d  cross the road to avoid us – afraid even a touch of our cloak, or walking in our shadow would pollute them. But we were Jews too; well we were born Jewish, but what had religion done for us? Apart from make us pariahs in our own community?

We had to do business with everyone, including the Greeks and Romans and those Torah-bashing Jews hated that. They sneered at gentiles and anyone who associated with gentiles.

My boss, Matthew always said, ‘Gentile money buys just as much as Jewish money’. He saw through their hypocrisy. But according to The Law, tax collectors were, well, still are – considered ritually unclean – as polluted as you can get, both inside and outside of our dirty, despised, dishonourable, bodies. Not only were we expelled from the synagogue, but the Pharisees taught that telling lies to a tax collector was fine – a good thing to do in fact; because we didn’t deserve respect or honesty, not from anyone.

It was all because we worked for the ‘other side’; The invaders, so by gosh you developed a thick skin.

Deep down though… whenever someone spat on you or turned their back… well it just chipped off another little piece of your humanity. We got to believe what they said about us – that we were the vultures,  bloodsuckers, outcasts.

Of course we pretended not to care, but who wouldn’t be affected by such loathing? Tax collectors are still people, even if the Pharisees don’t think so.

So it became easier to fight hatred, with hatred, and so we justified our reputation, fighting back against the hostility.

If only they’d understand that we had no choice but to take the taxes Herod demanded. He’d got his pet projects see, and these taxes his way of funding his dreams. His own personal gold mine.

Of course we’d add a little bit extra on top of his demand. Heck, you’ve got to make a living somehow! There were essential luxuries to help to ease the tension at the end of each day. Comfort costs money you know, especially when we have to pay for ‘comfort’, well you don’t need the details; but those women weren’t cheap… not in that sense of the word…..

It’s not exactly a career choice. unless you’re born into it, like Matthew. He and his brother James followed the family profession.The family were all outcasts anyway, might as well be paid well for the inconvenience!

Funny how both the brothers did that and then they both became part of Jesus’ closest circle. Alphaeus, their dad became a believer later on too. Strange though… those he chose, the worst of the worst…..

Anyway, Matthew and I were often sitting in our tollbooth on the main road, the one that runs past Lake Galilee. Such a busy road, a good place to catch everyone travelling between Damascus and the sea ports. All the locals from down Capernaum used that road too, and we knew all about the locals. We knew who’d had a good crop, who’d had a rich harvest, who’d received a bonus in their pay packet. It was our insider knowledge that made us useful to the authorities. A nod here and a wink there, we knew who to tap up for that bit extra.

Until that one day. Jesus the Rabbi; he’s been around for a while, teaching and stirring things up. Some said he did miracles. Some said he was a prophet; some said he was a blasphemer or even the devil in disguise. What I did know was that wherever he was, huge crowds followed. He caused a lot of trouble, a LOT of trouble. The Pharisees seemed to hate him, sometimes more than they hated us.

Then suddenly there he was, just a few paces from our booth surrounded as usual, by a heaving mass of people.

He stopped; stopped his walking and talking, stopped speaking to his friends and he looked over to us.

 Everyone held their breath, waiting…looking…between us and him. This bird screeched in the distance as a rumble started to ripple through the crowds. I think they were expecting him to do what rabbis always did. Sneering God’s judgement upon us, condemn us for treachery and sin. But he didn’t.

He stood. Just stood.

We tried to ignore him. 

‘Perhaps he’s come to pay his taxes,’ I muttered to Matthew. He’ d done that before, paid his Temple Tax. But he just stood there, looking at me and Matthew. Really looking as though he could see right into our soul. I crumbled under his gaze and slipped away and wangled my way to the back of the crowd, no one noticed me go, they were all fixed on Jesus who was still looking at Matthew

I peered back, through the crowd and saw Matthew finally look up, half way through filling in his accounts; like he could feel Jesus watching him as he worked. I saw Matthew trying to dodge his gaze. It was as if the love in Jesus face was so pure, Matthew didn’t know how to deal with it. He wasn’t used to kindness.

Then Jesus made this kind of gesture, taking in the whole scene. The booth, the piles of coins, the scrolls, the globs of  spittle on the table top, a look which seemed to say, ‘Is this the life you want?’ ‘Is this what you’re made for?

There is so much more…

With a kind of shrug, he gestured as if weighing up two options that seemed to offer Matthew a choice .

This……. Or…….?

It was as if, in that moment, his life was held by a thread, in balance pending a decision

Then Jesus stepped towards him  and with barely a whisper, I saw him speak two words.

Just two words – but that’s all it took.

‘Follow me.’

And Matthew stood up, his eyes fixed on Jesus and turned his back on the table and followed him.”

I’ve written this narrative, a story based on the account of the calling of Levi in the bible, Mark 2:13-14.. It’s too easy to think of those first disciples asn being special and good and chosen- but they, like all of us, had to take that first step of faith.