About 10 years ago I had a brief dalliance with the idea of getting fitter and I started jogging. You can tell that it didn’t last long and wasn’t hugely effective, but for a few months I gave it a go.
Two things I quickly discovered. Firstly, it’s not very helpful to compare yourself with others. Watching runners twice your age go speeding past doesn’t do much for your morale. Secondly, the way to get round your gruelling ½ mile circuit is just to aim for the next lamppost or tree. Thinking how impossibly far the finishing line is will defeat you, but “I’ll just make it to the next tree” gets you there, and then of course, you aim for the next one.
In thinking about St Matthew, I’m wondering if he felt the same about being a disciple. Did he feel that his credentials as a tax collector put him firmly in the slow lane? Like my old plymsoles compared to everyone’s Nike outfits? Did the other disciples shun him, remembering a rejected tax return or outrageous VAT demand from the past? Maybe he had to grit his teeth and make it to the next milestone without much encouragement from the others. Maybe he too learnt not to compare himself to the Galilean fishermen, but just to hold on to that encounter with Jesus – the look in his eyes when he said, “Follow me.”
We can be pretty sure that he found the self-belief he needed (unlike me and my jogging), because the gospel he has given us is a testament to Jesus’s call to him to be a witness – a calling as valid and crucial as all the other disciples.
The reward for reaching the next tree, of course, is not to lean against it and have a good rest, it’s to see the next tree ahead and set off for it. Jesus’s call wasn’t – and never is – “Follow me because I need you to write me a beautiful gospel”. It’s “Follow me, and we’ll see what comes next as we go.”
It’s easy to get disheartened at the moment, with all the disappointing news about Covid infection rates. Back in March, we were pretty much expecting it to be over by August latest. But anticipating the finishing line is not the way forward. Staying steadfast and holding on to all that is good is our calling today and every day. And that never changes – and never will.