MATTHEW THE TAX COLLECTOR
By Pastor Glenn Pease
Someone said, you never could take your money with you, but some can remember when the government would let you keep some while you were still here. It is hard for many to believe that our country was founded partly to avoid taxation. As bad as taxes are, however, only two classes of people ever complain-men and women. Taxes are nothing new, however. The Romans had just about every tax we do today, and they were heavy. Rome needed taxes because she built the best road system the world had ever seen. Some of the roads built in New Testament times are still in use today. Trade was booming because of the road system. Soldiers patrolled the roads to protect travelers from bandits. To maintain this system and highway patrol protection, plus build government buildings, town halls, baths and stadiums, there was a need for many taxes.
They taxed one tenth of crops of grain, one fifth of produce of wine, oil, and fruit, plus they had an income tax of one percent. On top of this, they had a poll tax for men 14 to 65 and women 12 to 65. This was one denarius a year, which was the wages of an average man for one day. Then, of course, there were the import-export taxes, the road taxes, the harbor taxes, and the tax for the use of the market place. Custom officers were stationed everywhere to collect these taxes, and they had the power to be very unjust. It is known that some levied taxes so high the trader could not pay, and so the tax collector would loan him the money for his tax at a high interest rate. It was literal highway robbery.
This tax burden and the abused power of the tax collector have survived into the modern day. Charles Brown, the dean of Yale Divinity School, went to Palestine years ago when it was under Turkish control. He talked to a farmer in Jericho who told him he was required to place his harvested crop of wheat in ten stacks. He made them as even as possible because the tax collector had the right to come and select one of the ten for the state. To get the tax collector to come and make his selection he had to give the collector another of the ten stacks for his personal fee. Then to get a paper signed permitting him to thresh his crop he had to give another stack in final payment.
This same kind of oppression was going on in New Testament days, and the Jews despised it, and everyone connected with it. The Jews were not opposed to taxes, but, as a theocracy, they felt only a God appointed man had the right to collect taxes. They did not mind supporting their government, but the objected to the support of a foreign government. Those who cooperated with the Romans were considered traitors to Israel. They were so hated that their money was not accepted in the temple. Their word was of no value in court, and they were listed by the Jews along with harlots and murderers. Even the Romans themselves did not respect the tax collector. Cicero said that it was a trade unbecoming to a gentleman, and it was vulgar. Lucian listed them with an adulterous, informers, and moneylenders. All in all it was a class of people highly unlikely to contribute anyone to a religious movement, and yet Jesus chose one of these tax collectors to be one of His 12 select men.
Matthew the publican was chosen long before the only Pharisee Jesus ever chose as an Apostle, which was Paul. Matthew, or Levi as he is called, also had potential which no one else would have ever tried to discover, but Jesus not only discovered it, He developed an used it. When Matthew left his tax booth he took his pen with him, and was used of God to record words of Jesus, which we would otherwise not have, and be much the poorer. The Sermon on the Mount being just one of the major examples.
In 1844 a New Testament scholar visited the monastery of St. Catherine on Mt. Sinai. While there he saw some papers in a basket. His eye detected Greek characters, which turned out to be the famous manuscript of the Bible called Codex Sinaiticus. It was a copy that dated back to the 4th century. To the monks there it was just an old Bible of no value, but to the scholar it was a priceless discovery. So it was with Matthew the publican. To his own people he was a worthless Jew; a disgrace to his nation, and of no value at all, but to Jesus he was so precious that he chose him to be one of the foundation stones of the New Israel-the Church.
Jesus did not select His 12 according to any standard of social acceptance of His day. He chose men of any class or position who had depth of character and commitment. In His selection of Matthew we noticed that He chose a man who was successful and wealthy. We know this because he had a house and was able to throw a big party in it for Jesus and His disciples, plus a large number of old friends who were publicans and sinners. The Scripture stresses how big this affair was. It was probably the largest social event Jesus ever attended, and the news of it spread so that the Scribes and Pharisees complained of his eating with tax collectors and sinners. In Luke 5:29 we read, "Levi made him a great feast in his house, and there was a large company of tax collectors and others sitting at table with them."
Matthew was obviously a leader among his class of despised people, and he was well liked if they would all come to his party. The point we want to notice again is that Jesus did not call a dozen loafers to be His key men. He called men who had already demonstrated their ability in the secular world. Matthew had achieved success in his profession, as did Peter, Andrew, James and John in the fishing business. As far as we know everyone of the 12 were in middle and upper middle class of the society of that day. Often we like to emphasize that Jesus took a bunch of poor nobodies and turned them into dynamic leaders. He can and has done it, but when He chose men for the foundation of His church He chose the best He could find. We are not being honest with the facts of Scripture if we do not recognize that the men Jesus chose were sharp men in their field.
Another factor that is common in the selections Jesus made is the way He chose sets of brothers. Peter and Andrew were brothers; James and John were brothers, and now we come to Matthew who also had a brother who was one of 12. In Mark 2:14 we read, "As he passed on he saw Levi the son of Alphaeus sitting at the tax office, and he said to him, follow me, and he rose and followed Him." Mark gives us the same quick picture of a call to discipleship without any detail as to the background just as he did in the call of the fisherman. We know, however, from John's Gospel that a great deal of background took place beforehand. We can be confident that this was true with Matthew as well. We don't know the story of that background, but Jesus must have had frequent contact with Matthew and his family, for Matthew is called the son of Alphaeus, and the other Apostle named James is in Matthew, Mark, Luke, and Acts, always listed as James the son of Alphaeus.
This is no doubt to distinguish him from James the son of Zebedee and brother of John. It also links Matthew and this James together as another set of brothers. It is not impossible it is only a coincidence that they both had fathers of the same name, but the pattern of Jesus makes it probable that Jesus got into that family and won both boys to Himself, just as He did with other families. Jesus seemed to specialize in brothers. The result was that He had a close knit group from the start. He had a natural loyalty to build on from the beginning. What a joy this must have been to Alphaeus the father of Matthew. Remember that Matthew was a despised outcast by the establishment, and the majority of respected citizens. Matthew had sold his patriotism down the drain because he wanted to make money at any cost.
Matthew represents the millions who long to make a fortune, and are willing to forsake all other values to do it. Matthew was money hungry, and the path he took cut him off from his people, and alienated him from the institutions of Israel's faith. Matthew said the religion of Israel irrelevant, but making money and friends in the world, and getting somewhere is all that counts. Yet, though he made his decision, and was doing quite well, he was not satisfied. You can just imagine Matthew at that big feast giving his testimony. There can be no doubt that he did so, for he was leaving his old life to follow Jesus, and he wanted to tell his old gang why. He had gained all he could ask for in terms of wealth, success, and fame among his class of people. Yet, he was empty. The story of Matthew is repeated in lives everyday.
Boswell said to Johnson as they went through the mansion of Lord Scarsdale, "One would think the proprietor of all this must be happy." "No sir," replied Johnson, "All this excludes but one evil-poverty." That is the only evil Matthew escaped, and it cost him more than it was worth, and he knew it, and Jesus knew that he knew it. Jesus knew that sometimes your best potential is in people outside the institution of the church. Sometimes a rebel is so valuable just because he has broken away, and found the world so empty, and is hungry to find his way back into the real experience of commitment. Matthew was not in the pigpen like the Prodigal, but he was just as empty and hungry.
Matthew was a rebel who had fulfilled his dream in the world, and who realized it was not satisfying. He calls himself the publican, however, in his Gospel, because he rejoices that he is a trophy of grace. He had quite a testimony in his giving up success in the world to follow Jesus. Matthew's Gospel reveals clearly the author's personal experience. Matthew is the only one who records the parables of the hidden treasure and the pearl of great price. These so fit him that he could never forget them. The story of a man hunting for something, and then finally finding it in Christ, describes Matthew perfectly.
It is also in Matthew that we find such text as, "You cannot serve God and mammon." That was the decision he had to make. "Seek ye first the kingdom of God and all these things shall be added unto you," is only in Matthew. How it fits him. Or, "What is a man profited, if he gain the whole world and lose his own soul." That is the very thing Matthew almost did. How it must have poured out of him as he wrote for others to read the words of Christ which had been so relevant to his own life. There are many more that reveal the author was very conscious of the dangers of the love of money.
Matthew became a zealous Bible reader, for his Gospel has 65 quotes from the Old Testament. It is the first Gospel, and it bridges the gap between the Old Testament and the New Testament. Tradition says that for 15 years Matthew preached to the Jews. He is the most Jewish of the Gospel writers, and aims at Jewish conversions. Matthew forsook Israel to get rich, but Jesus called him to forsake his riches to be a missionary to Israel. He had already learned to be hated by the Jews for being a money hungry collaborator with Rome, so he had no problem in adjusting to be hated for being an Apostle of Christ. All the hate and ridicule he faced in his old life prepared him to be a bold witness for Jesus.
It is interesting how little things can reveal a factor in a man's character. Matthew was a humble man, and one who, no doubt, felt inferior to the other Apostles who had never deserted Israel as he had. In Mark and Luke the Apostles are listed with Matthew and Thomas, in that order. But in Matthew's Gospel it is Thomas and then Matthew. This is an incidental witness to the author's humility. You need to know the author of the part of the Bible you are studying, for this gives you the perspective from which you are seeing his revelation.
Traditions vary as to where and how Matthew died. Some say in Arabia, and others in Ethiopia. Some say he died by the sword, but the Greek Church uses fire as a symbol of Matthew, because they believe he died a martyr by burning. All we know for sure is that this ex-tax-collector became a profitable servant of Christ; teaching us to never underestimate the potential of any worldly person for the kingdom of God. Whenever you see an ambitious, materialistic, money hungry man, remember Matthew, and do not despise him, but pray and labor for his conversion. Like Matthew, he can become as zealous for the Master as he formerly was for money.