And as Jesus passed forth from thence, he saw a man, named Matthew, sitting at the receipt of custom: and he saith unto him, Follow me. And he arose, and followed him.
So, there was Matthew, sitting in the tax booth. Let’s break that down a little bit. Matthew’s business was run in the seaside city of Capernaum, where Jesus preached and even lived off an on during his earthly ministry. While the text doesn’t say exactly what Matthew(also called Levi,) was collecting, it’s likely he was collecting taxes related to commerce in that city. It may have been taxes and fees on fishing commerce, dock fees, or any number of things.
The account is fairly simple in its description of what happened, but there is likely more to the story than that. Jesus has lived and preached in Capernaum, so at a minimum Matthew had heard him preach; he may have already been a believer in the Messiah. Again, we can’t say for sure.
As a tax collector, Matthew had issues, to say the least. Matthew would have had societal issues, as tax collectors were hated by the Jews more than any group of people. While the Romans were certainly hated, the tax collectors who collaborated with them were hated even more. It’s very telling that in the accounts of Matthew’s call, we see the phrase, “publicans and sinners,” used several times. What sort of person has an entire category of badness assigned to them? One has sinners, and then one has publicans. Sinners on steroids so to speak. As a Roman collaborator, Matthew would have been ostracized and even excluded from normal Jewish society. He likely was no longer even allowed in the Synagogue, as his status as a tax collector made him unclean. It was about as likely to have a pork BBQ in the synagogue as it was to see a tax collector there.
In reality, Matthew probably was a bad man. That was the nature of tax collection. He would have already “purchased” the right to collect taxes by bidding for and paying the tax for in his area of responsibility in advance. What happened after that would determine the success of his business. He could go bust, break even, or make a profit by collecting revenue above and beyond what he had paid. He had the full backing of Roman law and Roman law enforcement to make this happen. I have heard tax operation in Roman territories as similar to a Mafi operation. Matthew was a bad man, for sure.
Yet, when Jesus called, Matthew followed. Why? What was in his head? Was he tired of being on the outside of society looking in? Had his heart been pricked by the preaching of Jesus, place him under conviction and convinced him of his need to repent and believe? Was he perhaps a nominal disciple before Jesus called him? That is all hard to say, but fun to think about. What really matters is what happened next.
While in his own account, Matthew just relays it as he followed Jesus, we see additional verbiage elsewhere. Luke reports, “And he left all, rose up, and followed him” (Luke 5:28). Did you catch that? Matthew left all. We don’t know if he literally just bailed out on his tax operation, or made arrangements to leave things in good hands. We do know that at that moment Matthew turned his back on his previous life and began a new one. He would never go back to what he was, as that’s just not how things worked; his career as a tax collector was finished. This thing that has likely generated some wealth for him was finished.
Matthew told his friends! In both the Mark and Luke accounts that Matthew hosted a big feast in his home and celebrated with his new Lord and his old friends. What did Matthew tell them? What did Jesus tell them? What did they all think about what was going on? All that is fun to think about, but what really matters is what Matthew did; he told it. He knew what had happened to him, he was excited about it, and he told it.
After this, we don’t really hear anything else from Matthew. Of course, his Gospel account is a pretty big deal, but he never seems to leap into any position of leadership, prominence or note during the rest of Jesus’ ministry. How many of us would give up our entire lives only to fade into the background? How many of us would even give up half of what he did to follow Jesus?
The Lord calls people today, as His work still continues. I can’t imagine Matthew the tax collector expected Jesus to personally call him to ministry and service, yet our Lord did. We might be next. How will we respond?