As Jesus passed on from there, He saw a man called Matthew sitting at the tax office; and He said to him, “Follow Me.” And he rose and followed Him.
Many of us remember the story of “The Tortoise and the Hare.” The hare (a fast rabbit) challenged the tortoise (a slow turtle) to a race. The hare was out so far ahead in the race that he stopped to rest under a tree and fell asleep. While he was sleeping the tortoise passed him and he awoke to see the tortoise crossing the finish line ahead of him. The moral of that story is “slow and steady wins the race.”
The theme of the Christian journey is that “it’s not how we start but how we finish that matters.” Many of us feel like the tortoise when it comes to our journey to salvation. We are so slow in growing and so bogged down by the weight of our sins (think heavy shell of the tortoise) that we can’t possibly compete with the hare—the person whose nose is in the Bible, who is in church each Sunday, who always seems to be doing the right thing. One thing we have to realize is that we are not competing against anyone for salvation. Salvation isn’t a race where there are winners and losers. Rather salvation is a journey, and whoever completes the journey is given a spot in the Kingdom of Heaven through the mercy of God.
If the journey to salvation is like a marathon (26 miles), there are some people that will join the race from their infancy. Others will join when they are teenagers. Some will come in as adults, and some, like the repentant thief we’ve already discussed, will come in at the very last moment, they will not have run every mile of the race. That is what is so great about God’s mercy—it’s important how we run that last mile.
The Seventh Gospel introduces us to a man named Matthew. Matthew was a tax collector. We’ve already met Zacchaeus, another tax collector of the time. We know from our discussion about Zacchaeus that tax collectors were dishonest and reviled. They were not considered upright or virtuous. And they would seem unlikely candidates to be called by Jesus to follow Him. In fact, when Jesus called a tax collector, it was usually cause for criticism, not rejoicing.
The encounter with Matthew is even more brief than the encounter with Zacchaeus. There is no speech about coming to the house today. It’s just a call, “Follow me,” and Matthew drops his work and his dishonest life in an instant and follows.
Jesus calls us in the same way. “Follow Me.” He doesn’t admonish us for what we’ve done wrong. He doesn’t tell us that He will accept us on a probationary status. He doesn’t even tell us we have to go back and start the race from mile one. He says “follow Me.” Jump in the race at whatever stage of life you are at. If you are 40 and you are going to live to be 80, then run the last half of the race well. If you only have a little while to live, jump in and run the last mile. If you are very young, you have more miles to run, you can be of more help in collecting others along the way, you can enjoy the benefits of this race, the cheering on by the angels and the saints from a younger age.
The story of Matthew began with him being a tax collector and ended with him as a Saint. Matthew was one of the chosen Twelve Disciples, even though he started out as an unlikely candidate to join their number. And Matthew is one of the four Evangelists, who wrote the Gospels which recount for us what Jesus said and did. His icon adorns every Orthodox Church. What a turnaround!
We can experience a spiritual turnaround simply by choosing to follow. We don’t have to join a monastery or go to the seminary in order to follow. We simply need to follow. We need to let Christ lead our lives so that we can follow. Once we’ve made the choice to follow, it’s the “race” of the tortoise that we need to run. We don’t need to be fast or a showoff like the hare. Spiritual strides followed by spiritual sleeping isn’t going to do it. It’s slow and steady that will get us across the finish line into heaven.
You, Who alone are wonderful and merciful to the faithful, grant Your grace from on High to Your servants, who are sorely afflicted, O Christ. (3rd Ode)
It’s how we finish that matters. And slow and steady is what wins the “race” to salvation!