Matthew — His calling
Due to the fact of where Matthew worked and lived (in Capernaum), it is a good possibility that he may have seen Jesus or even met him before his calling. In both Mark 2:14 and Luke 5:27-29 Matthew is referred to as Levi. We know that Jesus was accustomed to changing people’s name to reflect the purpose of the work they would perform in the Lord. Many of the apostles had their names changed to emphasize who they were to become. When Levi worked as a “publican” or a “tax collector” most likely he would have joined (the meaning of his name) himself very closely with the Roman government. Jesus changes his name to Matthew in order that he could use his God given talent as a writer and so likewise become Matthew (“the Gift of God”).
I find the calling of Matthew quite intriguing. There is no dialog between Levi and Jesus at all; it was just a simple “Follow Me. And he arose, and followed him.” There was no hesitation on the part of Matthew at all. We might take a second and think about our own calling. Was it like this? Luke 9:62 comes to mind when I think of his response. “And Jesus said unto him, No man, having put his hand to the plough, and looking back, is fit for the kingdom of God.”
It appears that Levi was ready to make that change and put his hand to the plow and not look back, but serve the Lord with all his might. I can imagine that Matthew already understood the principle, “Thou shalt Love the Lord thy God with all thy heart, and with all thy soul, and with all thy strength, and with all thy mind; and thy neighbor as thyself.” Even knowing all this, he knew that it was necessary to take the next step. This is where the Gospel of Luke adds the comment, “And he left all, rose up and followed him.” At that very moment, he left everything behind. The first thing he had to do was walk away from a very lucrative job as a tax collector and eventually put everything behind him in order to be an apostle of the Lord Jesus Christ. This was the first test of his faith.
As was already mentioned, Matthew’s name before his calling was Levi. In Mark 2:14 Levi’s father is identified as Alpheus and that is all we are told about his family. Another apostle, James the son of Alpheus, had a father with the same name. It is doubtful that the two were brothers or we would have been given some other Scripture to back this up.1 As a speculative thought, I wonder if Levi was born into the tribe of Levi? It was common in the Jewish world to name the young men according to what tribe they were born into, especially if they were exceptional children. If indeed Levi was a Levite by birth, his life and career up to this point was a reflection of how far the children of Israel had removed themselves from the principles that God had laid down for them to follow in the laws that were given to Moses.
Living in North America all my life, I find it hard to comprehend the occupation of a publican during the time period in which Matthew lived. The Roman practice of placing the burden of tax collection on individuals or groups was later referred to as ‘tax farming’ or ‘revenue leasing.’ In essence, these individuals or groups paid the taxes for a certain area and for a certain period of time and then attempted to cover their outlay by collecting money or saleable goods from the people within that area. If this occupation does not merit the title of ‘licensed extortioner’ I don’t what does. One of the spiritual pitfalls of the occupation would be to let greed get the best of you. If the economy was doing well you could see how easy it would be to take advantage of those passing through your tax office if you had an “evil eye.” John the Baptist gave this advice to the publicans:
“Then came also publicans to be baptized, and said unto him, ‘Master, what shall we do?’ And he said unto them, ‘Exact no more than that which is appointed you’ ” (Luke 3:12-13).
John’s response to the publicans was simple and Godly advice. “Do good to all men, especially those of the household of faith,” and don’t be greedy. Be content with the things that God has given you.
The only modern day example that I can share that even comes remotely close to Matthew’s occupation is one of a trip that my wife and I took to the Bahamas. It was in the spring of 2001, and we took a trip to Treasure Key, one of the barrier islands. When traveling to foreign countries you must pass through customs when entering and leaving the country. They want to know the purpose of your visit, and so forth. Entering is sometimes easier than leaving. When departing they want you to declare any and all goods that you have purchased during your stay. I had heard of the trafficking of illegal goods in the 70s, 80s, and the 90s in the Bahamas although I had never been to the islands. The customs agent that waited on us was in his sixties and had probably worked in this position for quite some time. My guess was that he had traded for some of the jewelry that he was wearing, turning a ‘blind eye’ to goods that passed through his gate. The Rolex watch, the 18-karat gold chain around his neck, and the gold ring that weighted down his right hand, I doubt came from his paycheck as a ‘customs agent.’
This is the impression that I have in mind of how the Jewish people felt about ‘publicans’ during the time in which Matthew worked. They were viewed as crooks, swindlers, and classified with some of the worst ‘sinners.’ Who would want a job like that? It is possible that Levi chose this career because the Levitical Priesthood had fallen apart, and he noticed there was money to be made if you were a savvy-minded businessman and one could put up with the public humiliation. It also appears that the ‘publicans’ had formed a society of their own, maybe something like a guild. Based on some of the comments from the scribes and the Pharisees it was necessary for them to band together in order to survive those troublesome times:
“And it came to pass, as Jesus sat at meat in the house, behold, many publicans and sinners came and sat down with him and his disciples” (Matt 9:10).
There are only two publicans named in the New Testament, Matthew and Zacchaeus. Both of these men, it appears, experienced very lucrative careers as tax collectors. Both men also had a sense of hospitality. Both men gladly received Jesus into their house, fed him and his disciples, and treated them like honored guests (Luke 19:1-9). Here is a curious thought! Who washed Jesus’ feet when he entered the house as a guest? We know from our history studies that it was customary for someone to wash the feet of the house guest. The only thing that I could compare that to today, would be to ask your guest if they need to freshen up and to offer them something to drink. In today’s world, we might refer to this behavior as having good manners and being hospitable.
The motive of both Matthew and Zacchaeus in dining with Jesus was to learn more about him and to see if he truly was the Messiah. We are told that many publicans were looking for the Messiah based on Luke 7:29. “And all the people that heard Him (Jesus), and the publicans, justified God, being baptized with the baptism of John.” Maybe this is how Matthew and Zacchaeus knew about Jesus. We might contrast Luke 7:36-50 where “one of the Pharisees” invited Jesus to dine with him. Remember this is where Jesus chastised Simon, the Pharisee, for not washing his feet, nor greeting him with a holy kiss, nor anointing his head. Where was his hospitality? It appears that he had an agenda, and it did not seem to be on a spiritual plane. This is when we are introduced to a woman referred to by Simon as “a sinner.” Some translations call her a harlot, and some mention that this could possibly be Mary Magdalene. Either way, it is interesting that her vision of Jesus was very clear. Jesus emphasized the point that all men are sinners and this woman had sinned much, (v. 47) “her sins, which are many.” Although this was true, because of her great Faith, her sins were forgiven and Jesus tells her, “Thy faith hath saved thee.” I wonder if this woman came to Matthew’s house when he held the feast just before he set off on his mission work as Jesus’ disciple/apostle. This is another probing thought. Are we hospitable?
Matthew 18 has always been one of my ‘go-to’ chapters whenever I am in the midst of conflict, or if a friend is seeking advice about conflict that they are dealing with. The chapter revolves around being converted and developing a child-like spirit if we desire to enter into the Kingdom of God. One aspect that Matthew dwells on is offences and how to repair the breach. This is where I can see how his career as a Publican became a useful tool in writing this gospel message. No doubt Matthew had encountered rebuke, offences, conflict, and many other negative responses when he told them what the tax was going to be if they wanted to pass through his collection booth. Matthew 18:15-17 provides us with simple spiritual advice on how to handle trespasses. None of the other Gospel writers seem to address this matter in this way. Matthew gives us a step-by-step recipe to follow that only requires us to be honest, loving, humble, and forgiving. If we choose to skip one of these critical steps for reconciliation the results can be disastrous. Matthew concludes his thoughts with the remark:
“But if he neglect to hear the church, let him be unto the as an heathen man and a publican” (Matt 18:15).
Thank you, Matthew, for this thought. He knew what it was like to be treated as a publican by the world, and now he knows how Jesus treated the heathen and the publicans. Forgive them 70 times seven is the advice that Jesus gave Peter just minutes later. I can hardly wait to ask Matthew about some of his other encounters as a tax collector that helped to prepare him for his new life as a disciple of Jesus Christ.
Randy Davenport (Orlando, FL)Notes: 1. [Editor]: It is normally assumed, both within and outside our community, that in fact the two were brothers.