Levi Matthew

“As Jesus passed on from there, He saw a man named Matthew sitting at the tax office. And He said to him, “Follow Me.” So he arose and followed Him” (Matthew 9:9).

Jesus Christ often kept bad company for a good reason. When He encountered Levi Matthew, the tax collector, He was in bad company. Jewish rabbis considered them unclean for three reasons:

Ceremonially they were unclean because their job constantly brought them into contact with Gentiles.

Politically they were unclean because they were employees of the occupying Roman government.

Morally they were unclean because they were dishonest extortioners who exploited the people for personal gain.

Matthew, like most of the others who were Christ’s apostles, was a most unlikely candidate for apostleship. He was a bad dude. Understandably critics asked others, “Why does your Master eat with tax collectors and sinners?

Jesus overheard the question and answered Himself. “When Jesus heard that, He said to them, ‘Those who are well have no need of a physician, but those who are sick'” (Matthew 9:12).

The Great Physician had found a chronicle sick sinner.

Matthew was known as Levi. Jesus evidently gave him the name Matthew. It means “gift of God.”

Matthew was the brother of James the Lesser, cousin of James and John, as well as cousin of Jesus Christ.

To the public he was the man everyone loved to hate. He was looked upon about like a drug dealer who is a child abuser would be looked upon today. The term “scum bag” could have been coined for him.

Romans sold the right to be tax collectors. The tax collector collected the tax prescribed by the Romans plus all else they thought they could get out of the people. There were two basic types of taxes: statutory and customs.

Statutory taxes were one tenth of the grain, one fifth of the wine, one percent of annual income, and a poll tax equal to one day’s pay.

They often collected custom taxes, tolls, and tariffs as high as 12% of the worth of the goods. They were legal extortioners. People hated them.

Cicero (146-43 BC) listed trades most unbecoming of a gentleman. Number one was a tax collector.

Of tax collectors Christ said, “Assuredly, I say to you that tax collectors and harlots enter the kingdom of God before you” (Matthew 21:31). He grouped them in pretty sorry company. In recent times there have been horror stories about how IRS agents have treated some persons. Such would be considered acts of kindness compared to the extortion people like Matthew imposed.

Matthew was one of the most educated of the apostles. He had to be in order to deal with the Romans and manage the book keeping. His writing skill became a blessing when the Holy Spirit guided him to write our first gospel: “Matthew.”

Matthew wrote his gospel in his native language of Hebrew. There are more of Christ’s words in Matthew than any gospel. He wrote of Christ as the Messiah King of the Jews. It was the gospel directed primarily to the Jewish mentality.

Augustine chose the lion as a symbol for Matthew for it is the Lion of Judah, the Messiah, about which he wrote.

Not all of the apostles were illiterate poor people. Fishermen and tax collectors did very well financially.

Jesus was just beginning to get a hearing from the public. His “movement” was gaining popularity. For Him to take into His inner circle a tax collector was a risky thing to do. It would have caused Romans and Jews alike to have increased suspicion regarding what Christ was trying to do.

It was risky also because Simon the Zealot was also a member of the apostle band. This insurgent had just as soon put a knife in the back of a tax collector as in the belly of a Roman soldier. For Matthew and Simon to get along was a miracle. It is an example to all opposites in the church to the fact we are to co-exist in love with Christ.

Both of the men needed forgiveness and needed to forgive. Two little boys were taught the Lord’s prayer using the phrases, “forgive us our trespasses as we forgive those who trespass against us.” They visited another church where they used the verbs “debts” and “debtors.” When they got home they told their parents that church had a different Lord’s prayers which went like this: “Forgive us our debts as we forgive those who are dead set against us.” That we must do.

Matthew was not respected by the Romans for he had sold out his own people and was in effect robbing them for the Romans. The Jews detested and feared him as a collaborator with the enemy. His word was worthless in the court of law. He was shunned by his fellow citizens and unwelcome at all social functions. He was even unwanted at the synagogue. He was an outcast from society. When he heard Jesus speak it must have touched a responsive cord in his life. He was a lonely man when invited by Jesus to follow Him.

Not only was he a lonely man he was a guilty man. The message of repentance being preached by John the Baptist was well known in the region. Matthew would have heard of it. “Repent” he could do and needed to do. But how?

Then Jesus came to Capernaum to preach. Envision Matthew along the fringe of the crowd listening to the message of hope preached by Jesus. For the first time in his life, he began to have qualms about his work. It was what he, a hopeless man, needed to hear.

Almost immediately after Jesus healed a paralyzed man at Peter’s house in Capernaum Matthew encountered Him. Jesus spoke to him, “Follow Me!” He did.

Luke described the first thing Matthew did. He gave a big fish fry: “Then Levi gave Him a great feast in his own house. And there were a great number of tax collectors and others who sat down with them. And their scribes and the Pharisees complained against His disciples, saying, ‘Why do You eat and drink with tax collectors and sinners?’ Jesus answered and said to them, ‘Those who are well have no need of a physician, but those who are sick. I have not come to call the righteous, but sinners, to repentance'” (Luke 5: 29-32).

The first instinct of a convert was acted upon by Matthew. It is inherent to a new life to want to tell others and he did.

Observe the emotion in the text, “Jesus…saw a man called Matthew sitting at the tax office” (Matthew 9:9).

Others saw him and despised him for what he was.

Jesus saw him and loved him for what he could be.

That is the way Jesus looks at all of us. We need to look at ourselves like Jesus does. We need to recognize the potential the Lord has put within us and ask Him to develop it as we surrender it.