The confrontations we noted last week wherein the scribes and Pharisees were incredulous that Jesus ate and drank with tax-gatherers and sinners stemmed from (on one occasion, at least) Jesus’ invitation to Matthew to follow him.1
But the Pharisees and the teachers of the law who belonged to their sect complained to his disciples, ‘Why do you eat and drink with tax collectors and sinners?’ – Luke 5:30, NIV-1983
As a result of Jesus’ call, Matthew “made him a great feast in his house, and there was a large company of tax collectors and others reclining at table with them.”2 To recline at table with a person is viewed as something of an endorsement of them.3 It validates them as a person. Few in this society would engage Matthew the way Jesus did, and his doing so brought on the disapproval of the religious community.
Who is Matthew?
Matthew’s original name was Levi. He was a Publican, a collector of public taxes for the Roman Empire and, as such, he was a man detested by his kinsman, an outcast among his own people. He was not allowed even to participate in the activities of the religious community.4 Levi was a Jew, living in the city of Capernaum, but working for Rome, and Rome represented a boot of authority on the neck of the Jewish nation. Levi sat, day after day, callously collecting taxes from his own people, a Roman soldier standing behind him equipped with spear and sword as a representation of Rome’s authority over the subjugated Jewish nation.
Given his name, I suspect Levi was a descendant of that very tribe, the priestly Levite tribe, the tribe that interceded with God on behalf of the nation. Levi’s gospel is replete with Hebrew scripture. He quotes the Old Testament more than any other gospel writer. As a Levite, he would certainly be well versed in the scriptures, thus it makes sense for him to quote them extensively in his writing.
It is a dramatic shift, bordering on traitorous, for a man of Levitical descent to abandon that divine appointment to become a collector of Roman taxes. Perhaps Levi became frustrated and disillusioned as he observed what had become of his people. He saw their lack of devotion to spiritual purity, even among the “holy” men. He saw the temple of God turned into a marketplace, a place where thievery was so commonplace that it had gained widespread acceptance as a daily practice. He saw the utter hypocrisy that was carried out in the name of God, and something within him snapped as he watched what was once holy and meaningful degrade into something empty, worthless, and misleading.
In his frustration, perhaps Levi resigned himself to getting as much as he could out of life, and he did so with the backing of Rome. We see much in today’s church that resembles what Levi saw as he looked at the religious system of his own day, and people today, understandably, hold similar disdain for the institutional church and its religious systems. I share in that disdain.
As a gatherer of tribute for the Roman oppressors, Levi had a quota of taxes to collect each month and anything he could collect beyond that quota was his to keep.5 With the authority of Rome behind him, I suspect this was not an overly difficult task and that his business was quite lucrative. His greed and national betrayal fueled the fires of hatred from Jews and Gentiles alike.
Another man lived in Capernaum at that time, a man named Simon, later to be called Peter, meaning “Rock.” Simon is the brash, hot-tempered apostle who steals our hearts with his patriotic passion and devotion. Sometimes called “the Apostle of the apostles,” tradition holds that Simon was crucified upside down at his own request, because he considered himself unworthy to be put to death in the same manner as his Lord and Savior. Undoubtedly, Simon was familiar with Levi, the tax gatherer.
Yet another man also made his home and headquarters in Capernaum, for a time at least, and that man is Jesus. It is highly likely that Levi was familiar with Jesus, and Jesus with Levi. It is almost a certainty that Jesus passed Levi’s tax booth on a regular basis, and it is reasonable to suppose he paid his own taxes there. I have little doubt that Levi had heard this young rabbi teach from time to time, and he may even have witnessed some miraculous healings, as we know that many of those healings took place in the city of Capernaum.
As Levi watched and listened to this amazing rabbi, he saw lives dramatically impacted. He saw something real, something dramatically different than the hypocrisy-infused religious systems of his day. Levi, steeped in the Hebrew scriptures, fearfully yearned for what Jesus seemingly represented. It rang true. It appeared to be free of everything Levi despised in the religious authorities of his day.
The time came that Jesus walked by Levi’s booth, and we are told that he saw “a man,”6 not a collector of taxes, not a sinner, not a thing to be hated. Jesus said to this man two simple words, “Follow me.”7 In response to that, Levi abandoned his lucrative income and his plush life, and he did exactly what Jesus called him to do. He followed, and Jesus gave him the name Matthew, which means, “gift of God.”8
Jesus did not tell Levi to clean up his life, to pull himself together, to accomplish great feats in the name of God, before joining the band of disciples. He said, “Follow me.” That is what we are called to do as well, and when we do that, the rest will flow naturally within us, and from us.
So profound is the impact of Jesus on the life of a man or a woman that he can bond the traitorous Matthew with the impetuous, impulsive, patriot-minded Peter, in the same family of disciples. This is like putting Minister Louis Farrakhan9 and David Duke10 on the same team. The Christ-devoted man and woman are able to similarly embrace common goals and bond with those radically different from themselves.
We will continue this discussion next week, and possibly the week following. Until then . . .
1. Luke 5:17-31 14:9
2. Luke 5:19, ESV
3. Martin, J. A. (1985). Luke. In J. F. Walvoord & R. B. Zuck (Eds.), The Bible Knowledge Commentary: An Exposition of the Scriptures (Vol. 2, pp. 217-218). Wheaton, IL: Victor Books.
5. Vincent, M. R. (1887). Word studies in the New Testament. (Vol. 1, pp. 282–283). New York: Charles Scribner’s Sons.
6. Matthew 9:9
7. Luke 5:27
8. Elwell, W. A., & Beitzel, B. J. (1988). Baker encyclopedia of the Bible (p. 1422). Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Book House.
9. Louis Farrakhan has been the head the “Nation of Islam” since 1977. He preaches a somewhat bizarre, fundamentally anti-white theology. Farrakhan is a notorious anti-Semite who routinely accuses Jews of manipulating the United States government and controlling other venues of world power.
10. David Duke is a public figure of the extreme American radical right, a neo-Nazi, longtime Ku Klux Klan leader and is currently an international spokesman for Holocaust denial.