Matthew sat, nervously drumming his fingers on his table, at his booth next to the entrance of the forum in Capernaum. His nervous energy was a byproduct of the incredible news he had overheard this morning.
“Jesus is back in town, did you hear?” one old woman had hissed to another as the pair scuttled by Matthew, trying not to notice him.
“You mean that Nazarene they say has been healing people?” the other women had replied. Matthew hadn’t been able to hear any more of their conversation - people always moved away from him as quickly as they could - but he hadn’t cared.
Matthew had been following the news about Jesus of Nazareth since the man had arrived in town a few weeks ago, and the news was hot. Every day, there were stories about someone the prophet had healed or a demon he’d cast out, or some new teaching that had the pharisees hissing and spitting. When Jesus had left Capernaum a few days ago, sailing away across the Sea of Galilee, Matthew had become surprisingly depressed by the thought that he had missed his chance to see the prophet perform a miracle or listen to him teach. He had promised himself that if Jesus ever came back, he would go to see the man. But that day had come sooner than Matthew had expected, and now he found himself too nervous to leave his booth.
This is just like last time. Nearly a year ago, Matthew had made the trek to the Jordan River to hear John, the preacher who had been baptizing there. Most of his fellow tax collectors cared more for the law of Rome, which enabled them to do as they pleased, than for the Law of God, but Matthew had found his interest in the teachings of his youth rekindling these past few years. They wouldn’t let him in the synagogue, of course, but the pharisees did tend to argue rather loudly in the forum (and on the streets and by the gates and in the inns). And so when Matthew had heard about this radical new preacher who admonished even the pharisees for their sins and baptized anyone who came to him, he had been very interested. But when he stood by the river, he hadn’t had the courage. Facing up to your sin, your failings, admitting the ways you had wronged a holy and righteous and wrathful God, repenting and starting over; these things took courage, and Matthew had found that he just… didn’t have any.
Matthew groaned and rested his head on the wooden table in front of him. What’s the point anyway ? What did he think he could accomplish by going to see Jesus? The man was a prophet . He wouldn’t give Matthew the time of day, even if Matthew did manage to show up. The best I could hope for is a brief glimpse before the someone recognizes me and pushes me out of the way. No, there was no point in rushing off haphazardly after Jesus of Nazareth. Matthew was already doing the best he could. He was trying to be fair when he collected the taxes; he was certainly keeping better records now than he had in the past, not that any of these high-and-mighty Jews noticed or cared. He had been travelling to Jerusalem for the Passover and to sacrifice as the Law commanded. He had even begun trying to memorize passages of the Law, as he had when he was a boy. All he could do was do his best and hope that God cared.
Matthew lifted his head off the table as the noise of large crowd came closer. What was going on? He was distracted for a moment by a group of five men walking past, laughing and joking with one another. They looked familiar - he could have sworn he had seen them this morning, but working together to carry that man with the rolled-up mat. Then he heard the people around near the gate begin to gasp.
“Jesus! It’s the Nazarene! The Teacher is coming!”
Matthew craned his neck in the direction of the excited crowd, hoping against hope to catch a glimpse of Jesus, but as the knot of people grew he only became more depressed. He sank back into his well-worn chair as edge of the group reached his booth and began skirting around it, leaving a space that Matthew was all too accustomed to. Matthew’s energy and excitement left him. It was inconceivable that Jesus, the learned teacher who daily astonished the people with his knowledge of God, would have anything to do with a man like Matthew. The words of a familiar Psalm echoed through his head. Surely I was sinful at birth, a sinner from the time my mother conceived me. It was true. There wasn’t a day in his life when Matthew didn’t break several dozen of God’s Laws. When he was younger, Matthew had cheated people out of their money indiscriminately. He had made himself rich off of the profits of others, not caring if he hurt them. That sin, that greed and pride, ran deep. There was no way he could truly atone for it.
The crowd was all around him now, but still they put some distance between their ritual purity and Matthew’s evident sin. Matthew slumped down in his seat, wishing he could disappear. Rather than hoping for a glimpse of the miracle worker, Matthew now only hoped that Jesus would pass him by without singling him out for a well deserved rebuke.
The crowd grew suddenly quiet, and Matthew slumped down even further, keeping his eyes on the grain of the familiar table in front of him. A shadow fell over him and he closed his eyes, afraid to look up. Then he heard a voice.
“Matthew, come follow me.”
What? The voice was gentle and kind, the words astonishing, but the command was firm. Matthew raised his eyes, almost against his will, and looked into the face of the Teacher. The man could have been anyone, just another Galilean that Matthew passed on the street, but there was no doubt in Matthew’s mind that this was Jesus of Nazareth. His eyes held the wisdom of eternity, but it was tempered with an incredible kindness as he locked eyes with Matthew. Matthew gaped at the prophet. How did he know my name? What else did this holy man of God know about him? Matthew felt a blush of shame creep up his face. He could feel the judgement of the crowd, could hear the whispers of the teachers of the Law. But as he looked at Jesus, all of that fell away.
“Follow me.” Matthew suddenly realized that there was nothing else he wanted. His house, his wealth - none of that seemed important now that Jesus was here. Let the people whisper and turn their backs - God knew Matthew deserved it - all that mattered now was that Jesus wanted Matthew to follow him.
“Ah- Yes! Yes, Rabbi, I'll follow you!” In his eagerness to get to Jesus, Matthew found himself climbing over his table. Jesus grinned, his smile full of honest mirth as he offered his hand to help Matthew down. Matthew took the hand without thinking, and as he touched the prophet he felt the warmth and peace of Jesus's smile enter his heart and soothe his soul. As Matthew set his feet on the ground, he knew that he had made the right decision.
Jesus began to walk and Matthew hurried to follow, but he wasn’t so blinded by what had just happened that he missed the way the people of Capernaum turned their faces from him as he passed. Matthew looked at the dust-covered ground by his feet. Who was he kidding? There’s no way I can do this. He would only end up bringing shame to the prophet. But as Jesus bent down to heal a little girl with a twisted leg, a hearty clap on the back shocked Matthew out of his dark thoughts. Matthew spun around to find a grizzled bear of man who smelled like fish grinning at him.
“Welcome, brother!” the man exclaimed, enveloping Matthew in a hug that left him a little winded. The man stepped back and rested his hands on Matthew’s shoulders, his smile still broad. “It’s Matthew, right?” Matthew nodded, his head spinning a little. The man’s smile somehow became even wider. “I’m Simon- or, well, the Rabbi said he wanted to call me Cephas, so I suppose I’m Cephas now. This is my brother, Andrew.” Cephas gestured to a man behind him. “And this is Philip, and his brother Nathanael, and that’s the other Simon.” The men behind Cephas gave Matthew encouraging smiles as they were introduced. “And over there is James and his brother, little John and Thomas and-” Cephas’s list of names stopped short as his stomach growled loudly. Several of the men behind him laughed good-naturedly, and a thought sprang into Matthew’s head.
“Ah, Rabbi, sir?” Matthew asked the prophet in front of him. “Would you like to eat at my house? I have enough food for everyone, ah, if it’s alright”
“That’s a kind offer, Matthew. I would be delighted to eat at your house.” Jesus turned to Matthew with that same kind smile, then stopped in front of a door and went inside. Matthew followed him in, Cephas and the others right behind him. He blinked as he realized that Jesus of Nazareth had already led them to Matthew’s own house. Matthew smiled in wonder and shook his head. Following a prophet would take some getting used too, but Matthew felt like he was ready. This day, this encounter with Jesus had changed his life. Matthew couldn’t wait to see what the Teacher would do next.