Profiles of Faith: Matthew - From Serving Mammon to Serving God

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Matthew - From Serving Mammon to Serving God

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We abruptly meet Matthew in the Gospel that bears his name: "As Jesus passed ... He saw a man named Matthew sitting at the tax office. And He said to him, 'Follow Me.' So he arose and followed Him" (Matthew 9:9). What more can we learn about this disciple?

The power of Rome was felt throughout the Mediterranean region, more so with the burden of taxes. This is where Matthew’s story begins.

At the time he met Christ, Matthew was a "publican," a tax collector for the Romans. Such men often made a good living off both the Romans and the Jews. Although the Romans tolerated the Jews who served them in such offices, they did not consider them equals. And a tax collector's fellow Jews often detested all tax collectors—and probably Matthew as well.

One day Jesus offered Matthew the opportunity of a lifetime: "Follow Me." At once Matthew left his disreputable but profitable profession and traded it for an extraordinarily different calling.

Rome and Judea in Matthew's time

Rome was the greatest power on earth at the time. Jerusalem and Judea lived under the cloud of Rome, chafing under a governor appointed by the emperor.

Rome ascended to world supremacy over many years. Its strength grew as it acted against any who threatened its position. Rome did intervene to help its allies, but, since human nature hasn't changed throughout the ages, "the lust for brutal aggression and exercise of destructive power soon took hold of the Roman mind" (Nahum Glatzer, Jerusalem and Rome, 1970, p. 11).

Nahum Glatzer, quoting the Roman poet Virgil, says: "This Rome has 'neither period nor boundary of empire,' but 'dominion without end.' From henceforward, the idea of Rome as the eternal City of Man is to endure, however transformed, in the historical and religious consciousness of Western humanity" (Glatzer, p. 13).

The power of Rome was felt throughout the Mediterranean region, more so with the burden of taxes. This is where Matthew's story begins.

The despised publicans

The Roman senate had found it convenient to farm out the job of tax collecting to the people they called the publicani. They granted contracts to the equites, the richest class of Romans, who then formed stock companies. Each company would appoint a managing director who would then appoint submanagers in the provinces. Under the submanagers were the publicans, who were in daily contact with the various classes of the population (Merrill Unger, Unger's Bible Dictionary, 1966, p. 899, "Publican"). It was this group to which the term "publican" refers in the New Testament.

For the Jews, to be taxed by Rome was detestable. But it was even more abhorrent to have a fellow countryman as one collecting the taxes. To the Jews the publicans were pests at best and traitors at worst.

Tax collectors were encouraged by their superiors to exact fraudulent claims as a means to unscrupulously amass more income. They were regarded as gougers, traitors and apostates, defiled by their association with the heathen, and willing tools of the oppressive Roman overlords. "They overcharged (Luke 3:13), [and] brought false charges of smuggling in the hope of extorting hush-money" (Unger, p. 899).

Publicans worked their shrewd minds overtime, finding creative opportunities to tax the people; creatively discovering ways to levy taxes "on axles, wheels, pack animals, pedestrians, roads, highways; on admission to markets; on carriers, bridges, ships, and quays; on crossing rivers, on dams, on licenses—in short, on such a variety of objects that even the research of modern scholars has not been able to identify all the names" (Unger, p. 900).

One particularly vexing practice perpetrated by some tax collectors involved stopping travelers, making them unload their pack animals, then rummaging through their packages, private letters and other belongings. The tax collector would leave the troubled traveler's belongings on the ground in disarray (Unger, p. 900).

No wonder publicans such as Matthew were held in such low regard. Jesus was castigated for associating with "tax collectors and sinners" (Matthew 9:11). Jesus Himself mentioned them in the same breath as grossly immoral people (Matthew 21:31).

Writer of a great book

Matthew resided at Capernaum, on the northern shore of the Sea of Galilee. At the time, a particularly large population lived and worked around the lake. Its fisheries were a source of livelihood; its surface was busy with navigation and traffic.

The Romans established a customhouse at Capernaum to collect taxes from the lucrative fishing industry as well as on goods flowing along the Via Maris ("Way of the Sea"), the major trade route through the region. Matthew was appointed the tax collector there. His must have been a profitable position.

By virtue of his office Matthew would have been fluent in Greek, the official language, and Aramaic, the local tongue. He was literate and competent in keeping comprehensive records and an educated writer and scribe.

But, where others saw a despised tax collector, Jesus of Nazareth saw the potential writer of one of the world's best-known and best-loved books.

Mark and Luke refer to Matthew by the name Levi (Mark 2:14; Luke 5:27). This indicates that Matthew was probably from the tribe of Levi, now largely absorbed into the tribe of Judah after the kingdom of Judah had been exiled to and returned from Babylon several centuries earlier.

By virtue of his office Matthew would have been fluent in Greek, the official language of the region—and Aramaic, the local tongue. He was literate and competent in keeping comprehensive records and an educated writer and scribe.

As a government official he also likely would have known a type of shorthand. Matthew's Gospel is notable for its long and detailed accounts of Christ's spoken teachings. Could Matthew have recorded Jesus' words on the spot using a form of shorthand? Notice what Carsten Peter Thiede, expert in early New Testament manuscripts, has to say:

"Among the disciples of Jesus, Levi-Matthew, the former customs official, would probably have had a working knowledge of tachygraphy [the shorthand of the day]. In consequence, scholars have suggested that he would have been able to transcribe the long Sermon on the Mount verbatim ... Needless to say, this notion—that we have a more or less authentic transcript of the Sermon on the Mount—infuriates those New Testament scholars who are convinced that St Matthew never wrote the Gospel and that this particular sermon is a late and unreliable compilation of scattered sayings drawn up by Christian communities. What should be appreciated is that there is no logistic, technical or logical reason why such an authentic text should not have been produced by Levi-Matthew ..." (Carsten Peter Thiede and Matthew d'Ancona, The Jesus Papyrus, 1997, pp. 158-159).

Matthew's calling

Matthew, Mark and Luke all recorded Matthew's calling. Let's notice Luke's description of the events of that day:

"After these things He [Jesus] went out and saw a tax collector named Levi, sitting at the tax office. And He said to him, 'Follow Me.' So he left all, rose up, and followed Him" (Luke 5:27-28).

Matthew was ensconced in a lucrative and powerful position, supported by the might of the Roman Empire. By the standards of those around him he was probably quite wealthy.

But Scripture implies that he was willing to give up everything, as Christ requires: "If anyone comes to Me and does not hate [that is, to love less or place in lower priority] his father and mother, wife and children, brothers and sisters, yea, and his own life also, he cannot be My disciple. And whoever does not bear his cross and come after Me cannot be My disciple" (Luke 14:26-27). Matthew's actions proved his faith (James 2:26).

A banquet with a spiritual lesson

Let's look more closely at the events leading up to and including a feast Matthew prepared for Jesus and other of His disciples and Matthew's friends.

"Then Levi gave Him a great feast in his own house. And there were a great number of tax collectors and others who sat down with them. And their scribes and the Pharisees complained against His disciples, saying, 'Why do You eat and drink with tax collectors and sinners?' Jesus answered and said to them, 'Those who are well have no need of a physician, but those who are sick. I have not come to call the righteous, but sinners, to repentance'" (Luke 5:29-32).

Matthew responded with joy at His calling by giving Jesus a great feast. That he also invited many of his tax-collector friends shows he was not fearful nor too selfish to share his calling with those with whom he associated. He was not reluctant to invite under his roof the most righteous man who ever lived with some who may have been among the least righteous.

But Jesus, and likely Matthew as well, heard the Pharisees and scribes complaining that Christ and His disciples were associating with others who had been invited. They pointedly asked Jesus, "Why do You eat and drink with tax collectors and sinners?" (Luke 5:30).

Their self-righteous attitude provided fertile grounds for Jesus' response: "Those who are well have no need of a physician, but those who are sick" (Luke 5:31).

Jesus drew a mental picture with which they could easily identify. They knew that people visited a doctor when they were ill. They would have associated "those who are sick" with the despised publicans.

Jesus continued, "I have not come to call the righteous, but sinners, to repentance" (Luke 5:32). Confident of their own goodness, the Pharisees and scribes naturally would have concluded that these other "sinners" needed to repent, but they had nothing that needed to change.

Matthew adds more of Jesus' words in this brief but telling conversation not found in Mark and Luke: "But go and learn what this means: I desire mercy and not sacrifice" (Matthew 9:13). These self-appointed teachers needed to learn a spiritual lesson. Jesus showed them to be unmerciful toward most other people, who could never satisfactorily measure up to their picky and legalistic standards.

Jesus quoted from Hosea 6:6: "For I desire mercy and not sacrifice, and the knowledge of God more than burnt offerings." He pointedly reminded them that God is far more pleased when we learn to emulate His characteristics of mercy, forgiveness and compassion than when we condemn others.

God loves all mankind. He sent His Son to die for everyone, not just for the few, nor for only those who think they are righteous.

A camel, needle, rich man and salvation

Since Matthew may have been quite wealthy, another spiritual lesson from Christ must have been particularly striking to him. Matthew tells of a rich young man who approached Jesus to ask what was required for eternal life. Jesus advised him to "keep the commandments" (Matthew 19:17).

The young man asked Him which ones He meant. Jesus responded by citing several of the Ten Commandments concerning how to treat others, plus Leviticus 19:18: "You shall love your neighbor as yourself." Why did Jesus quote these particular commands? One reason might be that Jesus wanted the young man to understand how important it is to share what he had with others when it was in his power to do so (James 2:14-17).

The man told Jesus that he had faithfully kept these commandments since childhood. Was there anything else that he might lack? Jesus responded: "If you want to be perfect, go, sell what you have and give to the poor, and you will have treasure in heaven; and come, follow Me" (Matthew 19:21).

The young man walked away dejected, "for he had great possessions" (Matthew 19:22). Jesus then turned to His disciples: "Assuredly, I say to you that it is hard for a rich man to enter the kingdom of heaven. And again I say to you, it is easier for a camel to go through the eye of a needle than for a rich man to enter the kingdom of God" (Matthew 19:23-24).

Jesus pointed out an important spiritual lesson that is perhaps far more applicable in our prosperous age. When we set our minds on the things that are important to us—material riches and goods—we can easily lose sight of what is important to God. We must be sure we retain the good sense of pursuing God's spiritual treasures.

Serve one master: God

Solomon wrote: "How much better it is to get wisdom than gold! And to get understanding is to be chosen rather than silver" (Proverbs 16:16). Mankind cannot effectively serve two masters—God and mammon—at the same time.

Matthew felt compelled to answer Jesus' call. His story began when he was a man successful by the standards of the world. Matthew's story ended with even greater success. God used him to write one of the four Gospels, the accounts of Jesus Christ's life recorded in the Bible.

Like Matthew, you and I are called out of the world, with its selfish and political ways, to a life filled with concern for God and humanity (Matthew 22:37-39).

Matthew, once a publican, was called to the high honor of becoming one of Jesus' disciples and original 12 apostles. He accepted his call immediately. Matthew witnessed and recorded not just the life and teachings of Christ, but His crucifixion, death and resurrection.

Like Matthew, many today are also called to be Jesus' disciples, representing Him on earth. Will you answer that call as Matthew did?

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