Monday, April 16, 2012

Matthew's Call

In Mark’s Gospel we read that “Jesus went out again by the sea.  The whole crowd came to Him, and He taught them” (2:13).  Jesus is near the sea of Galilee, and He is teaching.  “As He went along, He saw Levi, the son of Alphaeus, sitting at the tax booth.  ‘Follow Me,’ He said to him.  And he got up and followed Him” (2:14).  From Matthew we hear: “As Jesus went on from there, He saw a man named Matthew sitting at the tax booth.  ‘Follow Me,’ He said to him.  And he got up and followed Him” (9:9).  Luke writes that “After this, Jesus went out and saw a tax collector named Levi sitting at the tax booth.  ‘Follow Me,” He said to him.  And he got up and followed Him, leaving everything behind” (5:27-28). 

As we can see, the synoptics are essentially univocal in their witness to this event.  John, however, does not present the call of Matthew.  In all three narratives, the calling of Matthew follows the healing of the paralyzed man that had been brought to Jesus by his friends.  In Matthew, there is a significant textual gap between Jesus calling His first four disciples and the call of Matthew, and we do not see this gap in Mark and Luke, as the call of Matthew comes quickly on the heels of the calling of Simon, Andrew, James, and John.  Not only do all three synoptic accounts of the call of Matthew follow immediately after the healing of the paralyzed man, what follows the record of the call is nearly identical in all three as well.  With the differences to be found in these Gospels, as they frequently diverge in their order of presentation, this nearly identical presentation of three events in sequence, with minor differences in detail, is quite remarkable. 

Utilizing Mark’s narrative, we find that following Matthew’s (or Levi’s) leaving of the tax booth and following Jesus, that “Jesus was having a meal in Levi’s home,” where “many tax collectors and sinners were eating with Jesus and His disciples, for there were many who followed Him” (2:15).  The language suggests that Jesus either had many disciples following Him, or that Jesus was eating with many tax collectors and sinners because many tax collectors and sinners were following Him.  Combining the two, one could surmise that many tax collectors and sinners were disciples of Jesus (as we always keep in mind that there were more than twelve disciples---twelve were chosen and named because of the symbolic re-constitution of the twelve tribes of Israel, with Jesus leading a new exodus movement as a new Moses). 

Mark continues: “When the experts in the law and the Pharisees saw that He was eating with sinners and tax collectors, they said to His disciples, ‘Why does He eat with tax collectors and sinners?’  When Jesus heard this He said to them, ‘Those who are healthy don’t need a physician, but those who are sick do.  I have not come to call the righteous, but sinners.’” (2:16-17)  To this, Matthew adds a report of Jesus saying, “I want mercy and not sacrifice,” thus calling their attention to the entire story and prophetic work of Hosea, whereas Luke adds “to repentance” (5:32) to Jesus call to sinners.  These are minor differences in detail, with these being commensurate with the overall movements of the Matthean and Lukan narratives. 

Sticking with Mark, and even though they are at a meal, we next hear that “John’s disciples and the Pharisees were fasting.  So they came to Jesus and said, ‘Why do the disciples of John and the disciples of the Pharisees fast, but your disciples don’t fast?’” (2:18)  Keeping in mind that the setting for this question is a meal being hosted by Matthew, “Jesus said to them, ‘The wedding guests cannot fast while the bridegroom is with them, can they?  As long as they have the bridegroom with them they do not fast.  But the days are coming when the bridegroom will be taken from them, and at that time they will fast.  No one sews a patch of unshrunk cloth on an old garment; otherwise, the patch pulls away from it, the new from the old, and the tear becomes worse.  And no one pours new wine into old wineskins; otherwise, the wine will burst the skins, and both the wine and the skins will be destroyed.  Instead, new wine is poured into new wineskins” (2:19-22). 

So here, with Mark’s record adequately standing in for the three synoptic witnesses, we have gone from the final record of a called disciple to a feast where Jesus mentions a wedding and wine.  Why mention this?  Well, fascinatingly, and even though there is significant divergence between the synoptics and John when it comes to Jesus’ calling of His disciples, this is a similarity in theme, though not in detail, that does not pass un-noticed.  In the synoptics, Jesus calls Simon, Andrew, James, John, and Matthew.  In John, Jesus “calls” Andrew, Simon, Philip, and Nathanael.  In the synoptics, the final recorded call of a disciple is followed by a meal (or “great banquet” according to Luke), in which there is talk of wedding and wineskins.  In John, the final recorded call of a disciple is followed by Jesus and His disciples attending a wedding (which would have been accompanied by a meal or great banquet), at which Jesus will convert water into wine.    

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