Recently, I attended a writers' conference in which the beauty, glory, and power of the written word was celebrated and extolled. Once again, I was reminded of the way in which a carefully crafted story communicates far more than we often imagine. One of my favorite seminars involved a reading from the author's work, hearing her written words wash over me and sweep me up into another time and another place. My imagination fully engaged, I was able to hear her story, place myself in her narrative more than if I had simply read her story for myself.
I often think about reading the gospel narratives in this same way; reading them aloud in order to hear the narrative flow and to be swept up into the world of the first century. It is not difficult to do with the parables of Jesus. Yet, how often do we do this kind of reading with the descriptions of events in this life of Jesus and his disciples? It might be helpful to try.
They both trod along the dusty streets of ancient Jerusalem: one as an outcast and traitor and the other as a would-be hero. One used his position to cheat and extort his own people. The other carried a dagger under his cloak to swiftly exact vengeance on agents of government extortion. Neither man would have hoped to meet the other. Yet, a stranger from a backwater town would bring the two of them together. In fact, this most unlikely pair would not only meet, but serve alongside each other. All that had previously defined them would give way to a new understanding and a new path of life.
On that most unexpected day, Matthew was collecting taxes from the people. He made sure to extract more than what was necessary to fill his coffers with unlawful profits. The stranger who came by the tax office that day looked like any other man, so it likely came as quite a shock to Matthew when the stranger called out to him, "Follow me." No one from among the people of Israel would even desire to speak with Matthew—yet this stranger called after him and invited him to follow. To where, he did not know, but his welcoming invitation was irresistible. That very night, Matthew invited the stranger to his home for dinner and they reclined at the same table. Even to Matthew, it would have been a radical sight. Seated among the most despised members of society, didn't the stranger know how deeply this company was hated? How was it that he had come to Matthew's house, a man hated in all Israel for being a sellout to the Roman government? Yet, here was this intriguing stranger eating and drinking with outsiders and sellouts.(1)
The day that Simon the Zealot was approached would be no less surprising. The Zealots sought any and all means to overthrow their Roman oppressors. As revolutionaries, Simon's political affiliates hated all that Matthew's kind represented. For Simon, Matthew was nothing but a colluder with those who sought to oppress the people of Israel. Yet this stranger from Nazareth called both of these men to his side. "Follow me," he asked. So along with a group of fisherman—Simon Peter, the sons of Zebedee, James and John—and this wretched tax collector, Simon the Zealot was invited to follow this stranger who gathered a most unexpected group of followers.(2)
Why would anyone call such an eclectic collection of people to become his followers? What kind of leader brings together people who for all practical purposes are at opposing ends of the spectrum with regards to their views of the world?
The man was Jesus of Nazareth. And his call to "follow" would upend all their expectations, replace all previous affiliations, and transform their views of the world. This unlikely group would follow Jesus beyond personal expectations and goals, as well as their expectations of him as their leader. The nature of his teachings and his form of radical hospitality would not only change their own lives and views, but transform the world. Jesus called Matthew as well as Simon, sellouts and revolutionaries alike. And the power of Christ's message is displayed in the fact that a tax collector authored one of the four gospels, and the Zealot most likely gave his life, not as a revolutionary hero, but as a martyr for the gospel.(3)
Jesus proclaimed good news good enough to bring together a tax collector and a zealot, men from entirely opposing camps, the poor and the rich, the outcast and the sellouts. Indeed, he declared that anyone who does the will of God is his brother and sister and mother. The good news was also given to a former blasphemer, persecutor, and violent aggressor. But this is not what we remember the apostle Paul for either. We remember him for his efforts to take the good news throughout the Roman world.
The gospel story has a way of reaching out and adopting into the family of Jesus a most unlikely group of characters. But Jesus continues to call them to follow him—together—as the gospel goes forth into the utmost parts of the earth.
This, then, is both the challenge and the opportunity of entering into the gospel narrative. As I place myself in the narrative, I hear an invitation broad enough, wide enough, and good enough to include even me; it also reaches out and welcomes those I might not expect and bids me to serve alongside. It challenges me to leave my preconceptions behind, as the door to the kingdom of God swings open to fellow sinners who will become saints. And it ushers us in a community of new allegiances, a body only God could create and a story too good and too true.
(1) See Mark 2:13-17.
(2) See Mark 3:13-19.
(3) Many later church traditions suggest that Simon joined Jude in apostolic ministry. Later tradition suggests that Simon was martyred by being sawn in two. See for example, The Golden Legend (Aurea Legenda) compiled by Jacobus de Voragine, 1275.