He was a tax collector, but most of them were thieves. They had such a reputation that if you wanted to shame a person, you could call him a tax collector. People put them in the same sentence with the sinners, definitely low-life. Not only were they robbers, collecting more taxes than they were supposed to, but they were employed by the Roman government. People hated paying taxes to the Romans, and that a Jew could work for them meant total rejection by his race. The only friends Matthew likely had were men of the same profession, if you could call it a profession. They sold their soul for money. And they often got rich, but other Jews knew how they made it and despised them.
So Jesus came walking by. He was not afraid to associate with rejects. He was one of them. Isaiah wrote that “he was despised and rejected by men” (53:3). Those are the kinds of people he hung with, not the upper end of the social food chain. They were usually not interested in what Jesus had to say, but tax collectors, full of sin and brokenness, were sometimes all ears.
Two surprises that day. First, that Jesus said to Matthew, “Follow me.” Catch what he didn’t say: “Clean up your life.” He could have dug up plenty of sins to shame him. Jesus “knew what was in man” (John 2:25). He knew Matthew’s past. Just so you know, prophecy is not focusing on people’s past as much as calling them to their future. It brings “encouragement, edification, and comfort” ( I Corinthians 14:3). I used to think that it was supposed to make people feel guilty, like, “I can see your heart. You have a problem with porn. You’ve been staying up and watching things you shouldn’t.” Jesus could have nailed Matthew, but the merciful Son of God was calling him to a rich future, setting him free from a shameful past. Jesus wants to do the same for us.
The second surprise was that Matthew got up. Shocker. And when he walked away from his desk, he said goodbye to yesterday and never returned. Powerful. I suspect that some of his friends saw the massive change and joined him. They might have even started a club–“Tax Collectors Anonymous.”
Why would a Jew who hated Rome work for that government? Two possible reasons:
- Love of money. That might have been Zacchaeus. The Scriptures say three things about him: he was small. Maybe he was teased for it: “Hey Shorty, is your dad a midget?” He was rich. A third thing: “He wanted to see who Jesus was.” Good for Zac. He is finding out that money doesn’t satisfy.
- Need for money. You lose your job farming or building, and you are desperate to feed the family. They did what they had to do. And they lost friends in the process.
But not Jesus. He spent time with them–and called one of them into the inner ring. Paid off. Thirty years later he penned one of the greatest stories ever written, called “The Gospel According to Matthew.” What a destiny! Way to go, Matt! Way to go, Jesus!