And Jesus went forth again by the water's edge, and all the crowd kept coming to him, and he taught them. And as he was passing along, he saw Levi, the son of Alpheus, sitting in the tax-collector's place, and he said to him, "Follow me." And he arose and followed him. (Mark 2:13-14)
THE ANGEL WHISPERING over Levi's (Matthew's) shoulder in Rembrandt's painting might be saying to him, "Forget about keeping the columns in your ledger, there's another story for you to record." Matthew's left hand seems to be indicating, "Who me?" Have I ever felt that way before God?
The gospel has told us that Jesus went back to the seaside town and that would have been a good place for Matthew to take up his station as lots of people would be coming and going ~ reason to collect new taxes. Matthew is a Jew who collects taxes on behalf of the hated Roman enemy who occupied the area. So we can image that Matthew had no friends among his own people. In the verses following we'll see that his only friends were low-enders. So of course, as Jesus speaks to him with courtesy he'll have that "Who me?" look on his face.
The account suggests that Jesus saw Levi first, as with Zacchaeus, another tax collector who had climbed a tree to get a look at Jesus (Luke 19: 1-10). But there it is: in Christ, God has found us long before we had any thought of him.
Matthew was a betrayer of his people, and perhaps thought of as a scoundrel, padding his pockets with the little extra he could swindle out of people. He might well have been an unhappy man. A lot of people are unhappy or dissatisfied in some place - often un-examined, undisclosed, even to those closest to them. We don't know what Matthew knew about Jesus, but what could possibly motivate someone to get up out of his chair and leave everything behind to answer the invitation "Follow me."
I've met parents and teachers who celebrate everything a child does that sends the message, "You're great" "You're fine just the way you are." Awards, prizes, trophies for showing up, citations, high-fives, certificates, stickers, applause for everything, "Nice walking, Johnnie!" But truth be told, we need a doctor for what really ails us. We can be moody, acquisitive, selfish, prideful, pretending, minimalists, cynical, indifferent, dishonest, aggressive, hateful. Maybe Matthew knew this about himself.
There are Christians who ask others, "Have you taken Jesus as your personal Lord and Savior?" But that's not what Jesus requires. Jesus only says, "Follow me." That's what he wants from us. It's a fundamental message of the gospel, "Follow me and then see, we can change!"
Can I (more importantly, will I )name the old treasure that I've been so attentive to and protective of, and out of that place look up and, sharing Matthew's surprise, find a new joy in Christ. We might sit for awhile, actively placing ourselves in the scene - sit in Matthew's chair - and now let the story play out.