Matthew: From Publican to Apostle
27 After this Jesus went out and saw a tax collector named Levi, sitting at the tax booth; and he said to him, “Follow me.” 28 And he got up, left everything, and followed him. 29 Then Levi gave a great banquet for him in his house; and there was a large crowd of tax collectors and others sitting at the table with them. 30 The Pharisees and their scribes were complaining to his disciples, saying, “Why do you eat and drink with tax collectors and sinners?” 31 Jesus answered, “Those who are well have no need of a physician, but those who are sick; 32 I have come to call not the righteous but sinners to repentance.
There is not an awful lot told us about any of the disciples of our Lord. Christ is central in the scriptures and they speak of him. But they give little glimmers of some of these first followers that intrique us. And Matthew or Levi, as his other name was, has always intrigued me since I became acquainted with the gospel credited by tradition to his name.
The Publican Described
What was Matthew like before Jesus met him? For one thing we know that he was an accomplished thief. You had to be a thief to be a tax collector. The system of that day was one that left a tax collector wide open to stealing. The Roman government would sell the right to collect taxes to the highest bidder. And Matthew had apparently bid the highest for the area of Capernaum. He had to pay Rome the amount he bought the franchise for, but then he could tax the people whatever he could get out of them. There were no newpapers to tell the people what their taxes were. They had to believe the word of their tax collector. And so of course he charged them whatever he thought they could pay. If a man could not pay his taxes, most tax collectors were quite willing to loan him money. Of course at a high rate of interest.
But he had other opportunities of robbing. A rich man not wanting to pay taxes could bribe the collector to pass him by and let him be tax-exempt. Most publicans became thiefs and extortioners automatically upon getting the job.
But this is not the only thing that made the people hate tax collectors. No one likes to be stolen from, but even less did the Jewish people like the idea that they had to pay money to conquering Rome. And anyone that helped Rome was seen to be a traitor.
For a man to take this job, he must have gotten rid of any trace of patriotism and love of country, as well as any self respect. As soon as a man became a publican he was excommunicated from the temple, and forever classed with prostitutes and criminals When Jesus met Matthew he was hated and treated as the off scouring of society.
Then Jesus Came
One day Jesus was walking along the main street in Capernaum, and he came to this man sitting at his usual post collecting taxes from the incoming boats and caravans. Jesus stepped up to his booth and simply said, “Follow me.”
And Matthew dropped what he was doing and began to follow him.
We know that when Jesus said to James and John and Peter and Andrew “Follow me” it was not the first time that they had met Jesus. They had been disciples of John the Baptist and had met him there. I think it safe to presume that Matthew had met or heard of Jesus before. He wasn’t unaware of who Jesus was. After all Caopernaum was Jesus’ home town. Perhaps he had heard him say, “No man can serve two masters… You cannot serve both God and money.” I suspect that as Matthew sat in his toll booth that he thought often of the teacher’s sayings.
Then another factor no doubt influenced Matthew’s choice as he left his booth to follow Jesus. His name, as most Jewish names, was significant. He had two. The one that is used most by others is Levi.
Levi was the name of the third son of Jacob the patriarch. His was the family that was to be priests in Israel. This was the name given to a child whose parents wanted him to serve God. His other name is Matthew and that means “the gift of God”. I wouldn’t be surprised if he had praying parents, who had been grieved to see their son turn traitor and thief. But for this renegade son perhaps they had not ceased to pray for him in spite of the evidence. And it’s a lesson for parents, that when a son or daughter is rebelling and not listening, the prayers of Godly parents may prevail.
And perhaps as Matthew is remembering his childhood, and the words of the Galilean stranger, when Jesus approached him and said, “Follow me.”
That was a miracle. No one else could see much good in this man that had sold himself for a few coins. He had reached the bottom rung of the social ladder. Most people would have kicked off the dust from their feet long ago, upon seeing him. But Jesus came up to him, because he saw something most others did not see. And he offered friendship to a man that the rest of society scorned.
Jesus was taking an awful risk. This man was enough to ruin Jesus’ reputation and kill the movement before it started. And because of this, Jesus would be criticised because he was seen to be a friend of publicans and sinners. But Jesus in spite of this said, “Follow me.”
And Jesus looks at us and he is fully aware that most of us seem to be liabilities. We are not bursting with usefulness. When we take on his name and say that we are following him, he takes an awful risk that we will reflect against his name. But Jesus is willing to befriend anyone, because he knows that the grace of God can transform us and can make us useful. And so he says to us as he said to Matthew, “Follow me.”
When Jesus called, Matthew responded. The Luke’s Gospel says, “He left everything.” And it means just about what that says. Of all the other disciples Matthew gave up most. He, of all the disciples, literally left all to follow Jesus.
Peter and Andrew and James and John could always go back to their boats. There was always fish to catch and always the old trade to which to return. But Matthew burned his boats and bridges behind him. With one action, in one moment of time, by one swift decision he had put himself out of a job that he would never get back again. There were too many other greedy people waiting for a chance to make quick money. When Matthew left that day, he left everything.
But, the next phrase says, “He rose up!”, and no doubt the writer was not thinking in the same terms that I am, but when Matthew left that monied booth he rose up out of the degredation of selfishness and found a new plane of life. He rose out of obscurity to become one of the most famous names in history. He rose from guilt and shame to a life of purpose. It cost him a lot to follow Jesus, but the gains far out weighed the temporal loss. And the same pertains to us. God calls on all of us to leave behind anything that militates against spiritual health. He wants us to abandon that which harms ourselves and others, and that is not always easy. But what he offers is freedom to entrer a renewed life that brings us peace. Matthew gained far more than he lost.
The Transformed Life
From that moment Matthew became a transformed man. He immediately went home and made preparation for a great feast. For a man who loved money, that was not easy. He had loved money so much before that he would pay any price to get it. Now he begins to spend it in the provisions for a great feast. No doubt that was a feast of celebration to commemorate his new life in Christ. There were joy bells ringing for that ex-tax collector that evening.
But it wasn’t a feast of celebration alone. Look who he invites. He invited fellow publicans and others, but especially publicans. His old friends, symbols of his life up to that day. That meal became a testimonial to them of what had happened to him. He wanted to confess to others that there had been a change made. It was a confession to the world that he was now a follower of Christ.
Martin Luther did that very thing. As a young law student he had a frightening experience on the road in a storm where a bolt of lightening knocked him to the ground. In the fear of those moments, but also in an act of thanksgiving Luther vowed to become a monk and serve God. He was resolute. He knew it would be no good to tell his friends because they might try to dissuade him. So Martin Luther made a great feast for his fellow university students and they were soon having a wonderful time of singing and talking. He sat at the head of the table joining in but not telling them yet his decision. Then towards the end of the evening he stilled the laughing and said, “Friends, I want to tell you one thing before you go. This is the last night you and I shall meet as boon companions. Tonight, this very hour, I enter the monastery. Tomorrow I shall be a monk.”
Matthew no doubt called this great feast to make a similar declaration. That banquet served another purpose, because not only was Matthew there to celebrate his new found life, but he had also nvited Jesus there, so that his friends could hear the teacher. His was an act of outreach to men who were as lost as he himself had been.
Matthew was a transformed man. A man in whose heart there was an increasing concern for others.
I want to say one other thing about the transformation of Matthew. I said that he left everything that day and followed Jesus. I made a mistake. I suspect that he took one thing with him that day. He took his pen. This man who was literate, took his pen, and after Jesus had ascended, would take that pen and consecrated it to God’s service, and write for those that would follow, the story of Jesus the Christ. And, because Matthew responded to Jesus, we, 2000 years later, can know so much about the life, death, resurrection and the teachings of Jesus of Nzareth.
The wonderful thing about Matthew’s Gospel is that we believe it was written primarily for a Jewish audience. Matthew, under the transforming grace of Christ, became the patriot. A man who loved his own people.
This is the call that comes to all of us. God wants to transform our lives so that we will love our fellow sinners and love all the peoples of the world. The call of Christ, comes to each of us and says, “Follow me.” How shall we respond? Let us leave behind all that damages or hurts us, and rise up and follow Him.