As Jesus was walking along, he saw a man named Matthew sitting at his tax collector’s booth. “Follow me and be my disciple,” Jesus said to him. So Matthew got up and followed him. [Matthew 9:9 (NLT)]
Although Mark and Luke call him Levi, there is no doubt that Levi and Matthew are the same man. He may have had two names, as did John Mark or was known by two different names as were Peter (Simon), Thomas (Didymus), Jude (Thaddeus), and Nathanael (Bartholomew). It simply may be that, like the Apostle Paul (Saul), he was known both by his Greek name of Matthew as well as his Hebrew one of Levi.
When considering how Jesus can change a life, I think of Matthew as the poster boy for rebirth and change! It’s in Capernaum that we first meet the man who would become the writer of the gospel bearing his name. Sitting in his tax booth, he is known as Levi the tax collector. In 1st century Judah, tax collectors (called publicans) were the lowest of the low and fiercely hated by their countrymen. Acting as revenue agents for Rome, Jewish tax collectors were considered collaborators. Since they could demand more than what was required, they also were thought of as thieves! Some even accepted bribes from rich businessmen to overtax their competitors and drive them out of business. Their decisions were backed up by Roman soldiers and the people were at their mercy.
Jewish philosopher Philo of Alexandria (c. 15 BC-50 AD) vividly described why Jews hated their countrymen who became publicans. Philo explained that the Romans “deliberately choose as tax collectors men who are absolutely ruthless and savage, and give them the means of satisfying their greed. These people…leave undone no cruelty of any kind and recognize no equity or gentleness…as they collect the taxes they spread confusion and chaos everywhere. They exact money not only from people’s property but also from their bodies by means of personal injuries, assault and completely unheard of forms of torture.”
Even though the Torah prohibited borrowing, lending, or being a party to a transaction that involved charging another Jew interest, a favorite device of the tax-collectors was to advance money to people unable to pay their tax and charge exorbitant interest. The publican became a loan shark and the tax became a private debt to him, which may explain Philo’s mention of the injuries they inflicted.
While none of us like the internal revenue, put in the context of 1st century Judah, we can understand why publicans were despised in Jesus’ day. The Babylonian Talmud ranked them alongside “murderers and robbers.” Tax collectors weren’t allowed to exchange their money at the Temple treasury and were excommunicated from the synagogues. The rabbis taught that tax collectors were disqualified witnesses in court, society outcasts, and disgraces to their own family. They even considered it lawful for a Jew to lie in almost any conceivable way to avoid paying the tax collector! It’s no wonder that the religious leaders were outraged by Jesus’ association with publicans.
Nevertheless, in spite of (or because of) Matthew’s unsavory reputation and unpopularity, Jesus called the publican to follow Him and that’s exactly what the tax man did! This was such a scandal that the 2nd-century anti-Christian philosopher Celsus actually used the fact that Jesus had “scum” like Matthew among his disciples as evidence against His divinity.
We don’t know if Matthew was as evil as some tax collectors; at the same time, we can’t reconcile his choice of career with being upstanding and righteous before meeting Jesus! While we’d love to know why he so readily deserted his tax booth, we don’t. We do know that by abandoning his business to follow Jesus, Matthew gave up wealth, job security, and his few friends and co-workers. The disciples who’d been fishermen could always return to fishing if following Jesus didn’t work out for them but Matthew had no Plan B. If he returned to Capernaum, he would be jobless and penniless. Already a pariah in the community, the publican couldn’t expect a warm welcome home from the people he once exploited! When Matthew recorded Jesus’ words about releasing our grasp on earthly things, losing our old lives, and picking up the cross, he knew exactly what our Lord meant by those words.
Jesus says, “Follow me!” to everyone. Are we as willing as Matthew to do just that?