As Jesus went from there, he saw a man named Matthew sitting at the tax collector’s booth. “Follow me,” he told him, and Matthew got up and followed him. (Matthew 9:9 NIV)
He woke with the funk of sour wine on his tongue
and all but gagged on his own first breath
as he rolled up to the bed side, spat,
and ran his hands through what was left of his hair.
He pulled his face all out of shape, trying,
without much success, to find his eyes,
to free them from the heavy flesh of waking,
to scrub off the film of self-loathing that settled,
like filthy dew, out of dreams he would just as soon forget.
His feet hooked sandals out from under the bed.
In the courtyard he could hear his slave
hauling water from the well and, yes,
there were already buckets heated
in the shadow of the door curtain.
Not that hot water could do what his hands had not.
The slave and the hot water,
the fresh bread and fruit, figs and pears,
on the shelf across the room,
the new wine in its jug,
this house with its cedar beams and wide windows,
the robes of fine cotton and linen from Egypt,
were compensation, of a sort—
all he had, in fact, to show for the bitter stares,
the hard words, the turned eyes and faces of
his neighbors who could not see him
as anything, anymore,
more than the tax collector for Rome:
a jackal slinking behind the mangy imperial wolf.
Oh he knew he was being too generous,
with them and with himself.
They saw him, when they would look at him at all,
as a rat feeding off the remains of the jackal’s dinner,
as a carrion crow, half tame, collared, wings clipped,
snatching what he could from the corpse of Israel,
while the indifferent Eagle, the great scavenger himself,
Not for the first time he wondered how it had come to this.
How had all his training, his mother’s hopes,
his father’s pride, produced this travesty?
When had he made the choice to sell himself to Rome?
He could not remember the day or hour.
He could not remember ever being asked to choose.
It had just happened. A scribe needed: someone who can count.
To make sure we are not cheated, at least, one of our own.
And when he had stopped being “one of our own”?
He knew himself as a good scribe, a good servant,
one who took care of his master’s business,
but in this business,
how could he not take care of himself as well?
They expected him to steal:
both his Roman masters and his own people.
There was no provision for an honest tax collector:
No pay beyond what he could take,
no hope of promotion, no respect on either side.
If he had known
he would have told them to find another scribe.
There were people who could enjoy this life.
Maybe. Maybe people hard enough not to care
how the salve and the house were paid for,
how his neighbors, his own family, saw him,
or that they didn’t see him any more at all,
that he was a non-person to both his employers
and those whose money and goats, sheep
and grain, he claimed in the name of Rome.
He stood, wrestled feet into the sandals,
and flopped, long laces tangled and threatening to trip,
to the shelf for his first jar of wine to great the new day…
and not the new wine either.
Hours later he sat in the shade of a porch,
his money box before him,
counting the coins pinched in farmers and fishers’ fingers,
when something like a breeze, like a strong wind off the sea,
entered and swept the courtyard
He put a hand, reflexively,
on the stack of papers in front of him,
but there was, in fact, no wind. All was still.
Every face was turned to the door where a man stood,
outlined in sun.
He could see nothing against that light,
except long hair, long robes,
and a hint of a crowd behind.
But he knew the man.
Even before he spoke, he knew the man.
This was the seven day wonder,
the great miracle man, the healer,
the one they were butting all this messiah talk about,
Matthew was a Galilean himself, when he remembered.
And that was not much better, come right down to it,
than being a tax collector.
Still, he was somewhat shy of this man this close…
it seemed he did, somehow, move in stink of holiness,
that rumor was not the only thing to precede him,
that all that light was not, perhaps, the sun.
And then they all spilled through.
Y’shua, in crossing the courtyard,
stopped before the table.
He ran his regard down the line
of waiting farmers and fishers.
He turned and looked Matthew in the eye.
“What are you doing here, son of Levi?
Come. Follow me…”
He sat back from the table,
and braced his arms,
looking up at the standing Y’shua.
Y’shua smiled. “Come. Follow me…”
Matthew laughed again, shorter this time,
uncertain where the joke was,
if it was on him or on Y’shua.
“Follow you…” he asked?
Matthew looked at the line in front of the table,
the dead stares, the bent heads,
the barely suppressed anger and open hate.
He looked at the crowd around and behind Y’shua,
happy, laughing, expectant
(not to mention, dirty, unwashed, infected, unlettered and ignorant),
and thought, “I wanted a choice.”
Something in him, something wild and untamed,
something still alive despite all his attempts
to drown it in wine, rose up at the sound of Y’shua’s voice,
at his presence, at the mere possibility of being,
by his choice, by both their choices, someone else…
and he closed the box, set it on the stack of bills,
came round from behind the table and stood next to Y’shua.
Y’shua reached out and grasped his shoulder.
“Come.” was all he said, and Matthew followed,
not looking behind even once to see what the incredulous fishers
and farmers left standing there in line made of it all.
Honestly, something had happened in that touch.
Honestly, he was not quite sure who he was anymore.
Something had fallen away,
been stripped away in the absolute honesty,
in the complete acceptance, of Y’shua’s eye,
in the fact of being chosen despite it all,
of being asked, of being called,
and by the time he left the square he was indeed a different man,
turned inside out, all the hidden hopes,
the abandoned dreams, exposed,
and he was somehow ready to believe in himself again.
It was a gift he never expected.
A gift he didn’t deserve and it made him just a little wild,
just a little reckless, so that before he knew he what he was doing,
he had invited everyone he knew to his house,
every familiar face,
every passing and past acquaintance in a long afternoon.
“Y’shua will there. I am with Y’shua now.”
he had said, a hundred times, a thousand maybe,
but he was past caring. Let them all come.
He was with Y’shua now. Y’shua was with him.
He had no idea what it meant—
just that it did mean something wonderful,
something liberating, something wild and unexpected,
something to be grasped with both hands,
something to be given away wholesale,
and so he had invited everyone.
“Come, we feast tonight at my house.
Come and join us. Y’shua will be there.
Come. Come.” and not even the obvious hesitation,
the sometimes evident distress,
of those closest to Y’shua could dampen his enthusiasm,
as long as Y’shua was with him, and Y’shua never said no,
never said he wouldn’t come, and so they found themselves by evening,
staining the good will of the slave and the servants,
sitting down to such a feast as the house had never known.
In a lucid moment, he realized that he didn’t know half the people there,
that there were many who would not, yesterday,
have been seen eating in a tax-collector’s house,
and many more who looked like they hadn’t had
a decent meal in a generation or so.
Among his friends, those who had come
for his sake and not Y’shua’s, there was not one
who he would willingly have been seen in the street with,
women of questionable morals,
men who had long ago traded trust for ease,
spent their good names on immediate gratifications,
but, and here was the miracle, he was still with Y’shua
and Y’shua was still with him,
and that made the whole house holy,
made the whole house ring with joy and throb with well-being.
He couldn’t imagine anyone there not feeling it,
not knowing it all flowed from Y’shua beside him,
not knowing they had been chosen and had
chosen to come, and how good a thing that was.
Still he couldn’t completely ignore the discomfort of Y’shua’s followers.
Some barely touched the food.
Across the room one, the one called Simon,
was huddled with a nest of Pharisees,
looking more than a little unhappy.
Suddenly he seemed to reach decision
and scuttled through the reclining guests to his master’s side.
Though he tried to keep his voice for Y’shua’s ear,
the general din made it difficult,
and Matthew could not help but overhear.
“Those Pharisees want to know why we are eating in this sinner’s house?
“Don’t you know this man?” they say,
“He is a tax collector, a thief,
the right arm of the greed of Rome.
And look about you. Look at these people.
How can your master, a holy man,
eat in this house, with these whores and idlers,
with these who scoff and mock both law and decency?”
Y’shua turned to this Simon.
“Since when have fisherman been so particular
about their company? Does it bother you Simon?”
Simon pulled back sharply.
“Well it is a good question, that’s all.
An obvious question. One people are asking.
You have a reputation to think of.”
Y’shua turned to Matthew and held his eye a moment,
then turned to the Pharisees in their corner.
He timed his words to a lull in the conversation and music
so that everyone in the room could hear:
“Who do you call a doctor for, the healthy or sick?
Who needs healing?
I have not come to call the upright,
but to pick up the fallen, and offer them a chance at a changed life.
These folks know they are down. They hear me when I invite them to stand,
to walk, to run, to dance,
far better than any who already think they are on their feet.”
One of the Pharisees stood at that.
There was open challenge in his voice:
“John’s disciples fast when they pray,
and so do ours, but yours are always eating and drinking,
and in the houses of those who know no better.”
Suddenly it was absolutely still in the room,
every ear tuned to what the seven day wonder would say:
“So,” and Y’shua swung his arm to take in the room,
the house, the guests, “is this not like a wedding feast?
The groom is still in the house.
If we make free with the wine and bread,
who will blame us?
Certainly not the friends of the groom
for they are celebrating with him.
Later, when he is gone, and they realize his absence,
when it is time to clean up and straighten up without him,
then they will fast as needed. But not now.
Now we enjoy each other’s company as we were made to do.”
He turned to the room at large, and caught,
it seemed, every eye and ear.
“Who would cut up a brand new cloak to patch an old one?
Why, you would have two spoiled cloaks, the new with a hole in it,
and the old looking more shoddy still for its mismatched patch.”
They were all listening, and from the nods around the room,
some, at least, were hearing.
“You don’t take new wine and poor it into old skins.
The wine sours, the skins break, and all is lost.
No, you put new wine in new skins, so they age together.
Yet there will always be those who only have a taste for the old wine,
who think it is better, because it is old, and who can not stomach the new.
They are used to the old; you can not convince them the new is any good.
I am here with new wine for new skins.
Are you ready for that?”
Simon slunk back to his place, and looked hard at his cup.
The Pharisee party packed themselves into their robes
and left in a huff, and Matthew,
whose own cup had gone unnoticed and untouched
since his first sip hours ago,
picked it up and poured the old wine out on the floor,
then tossed the cup over his shoulder to break against the wall.
“New cups,” he called to the slave and servants,
“and bring out the new wine.”
Y’shua laughed, and so did half the room.