3rd Saturday of Luke
In today’s Gospel, we hear about the call of Levi, Matthew, one of the Twelve disciples and author of the first Gospel — the Gospel that appears first in the New Testament, at any rate — and like so many other parts of the Gospels — both the historical accounts and the Lord’s parables — it gives us a summary of the entire story of our salvation.
Jesus passes by and sees a tax collector. In the New Testament, the tax collector serves as the ultimate symbol of the sinful person because 1. they worked for the Romans and aided them in the oppression of the Jewish people, and 2. because they would use their authority to extort much more than the taxes Rome required of them, in order to enrich themselves and line their own pockets. So the tax-collector symbolises both humanity’s general servitude to the enemy, to the devil, as well as our personal sinfulness and passions.
And this tax-collector is sitting at the tax office, symbolising the fallen world. Just as the tax-collector is bound to the office by his profession, so humanity was bound through sin to the fallen world with its death and corruption.
But when Jesus passes by, when the Word of God comes to earth as a man, he grants us immediate redemption from that bondage. He asks of nothing in return, the only condition is that we accept that free gift of grace. “Follow me”. In the same moment Matthew met the Lord and heard his call, he was free to get up and leave everything behind.
It’s that simple. God is that generous. What makes spiritual life difficult is not what the Lord asks of us — he is offering us freedom without seeking anything in return — but the fact that we refuse to get up, refuse to let go. We choose to turn everything on its head, seeing slavery as freedom, and freedom as bondage. Christ tells us, “my yoke is easy, and my burden is light”, he hasn’t come to weigh us down but to lift us up; and so every hurdle we encounter in our spiritual life is one we’ve placed before or own feet….because we don’t let go, and we don’t get up.
The Pharisees in the story represent a different type of sinner, but ultimately plagued by this same problem. Whereas the tax-collector symbolises what we often call the passions on the left — obvious things like theft, violence, fornication, dishonesty — the Pharisees symbolise the passions from the right — spiritual pride and self-satisfaction, hypocrisy, petty legalism, judging others. These are people who have answered God’s call to follow him, but only partially, who in many ways are struggling — they fast, they pray, they go to church, they give alms, they abstain from various sinful activities — and yet they remain far from God, unable to understand him, and in particular unable to understand the mercy and love He shows to sinners. Rather than rejoicing when Jesus and his disciples reach out to sinners in order to bring them to God, they murmur and complain.
We see the same thing in the parable of the Prodigal Son. The loving father receives the younger son with open arms and holds a feast for him, but the elder son — who has always stayed at home and obeyed the rules — is resentful and jealous.
These are people who have gotten up, but haven’t let go. They’ve decided with their minds to follow God, but their heart still desires sin. And so instead of seeing letting go as casting off the shackles of slavery, throwing off the heavy burden of corruption, they see letting go as an act of sacrifice and following Christ as a burden.
As the Lord says, “Where your treasure is, there will your heart be also”. If our treasure is of this world, then leaving it behind will bring us no joy. We’ll be like the rich young ruler who became “very sorrowful” when Christ asked him to sell all that he had and distribute it to the poor. If, however, the Kingdom of God is our treasure, if our heart is with God, then we will meet Christ’s call to follow him with joy, and we will leave behind anything that keeps us from Him without hesitation. And when we learn to see that letting go as redemption, as freedom rather than sacrifice, then we will be able to rejoice in the freedom of others as well.
Fr Kristian Akselberg