Summary: A biographical sermon on Matthew (Levi), showing how Jesus can remake a poorly invested life.
Just in case you haven’t heard, this is a presidential election year. It looks like we know who the major candidates will be. Now, we are waiting for them to announce their choice of running mate, that person whom they wish to serve as vice-president, that person who will be a heartbeat away from the presidency. Years ago, when Nelson Rockefeller was chosen to be Gerald Ford’s VP, reporters asked him if he had given up on being president. He quipped, “Well, I’ve never been closer.”
Though we sometimes joke about how little the Vice-President has to do, we know it is an important position. The choice of a running mate may even influence who votes for or against the presidential candidate. You can be sure Senators McCain and Obama will try to find a running mate who is popular in his or her own right, who brings a kind of balance to the ticket, and, above all, who has no scandalous baggage, nothing to reflect negatively on the campaign. If that’s important when choosing a potential Vice-President, how important is it should you be choosing those who will help you start a spiritual revolution?
If avoiding negative opinion were the criterion Jesus used in choosing his closest associates, his apostles, Matthew would have never made anyone’s short list.
Nothing here or in Mark and Luke’s accounts of the event suggest Jesus had any previous contact with Matthew (also known as Levi). Jesus appears to have simply passed by the tax-booth where Matthew was working and said, “Follow me.” It’s hard to know which is more amazing, Matthew’s response or Jesus’ invitation.
Maybe we may assume Matthew had heard something about the remarkable Teacher and Healer who was making such an impact wherever he went. Perhaps that is why he was so eager to learn more. Whatever Matthew’s motives for closing shop and following Jesus, had we been living in that first century world we would have found Jesus’ invitation the most shocking.
Though we know they are necessary, most of us moan at least a little about paying taxes. We may complain that the government too many of our tax dollars much money studying squirrel dandruff and not enough keeping schools in repair, but most of us don’t believe the tax-collector is a reprobate.
It was a different story in first-century Galilee and Judea.
The word translated as “tax-collector” in the Gospels can refer to the officials collecting taxes for Rome or to those collecting custom taxes for Herod. Some Bible scholars believe Zacchaeus, of tree-climbing fame, worked for the Romans and Matthew worked for Herod. Either way, tax collectors were hated.
• Their methods were little short of extortion. They bled people dry to please their masters and enrich themselves.
• Their work financed the extravagant lifestyles of the elite, lifestyles that often involved immoral behavior.
• They were looked upon as traitors to the Jewish people, whether they worked for the hated Romans or for the half-breed usurper Herod.
In Jewish writings of the day, they were often associated with thieves, notorious sinners, and were considered “unclean” because of their work.
In short, a tax collector was just the kind of person you’d expect a religious leader to avoid at all cost.
Before we talk more about that, perhaps there’s question we need to consider. Why would Matthew, who also bore the unmistakably Jewish name Levi, become a tax collector? One commentator suggests the Jews viewed tax collectors the same way the French viewed Nazi collaborators during World War II. Why would he enter such a despised profession? We can only speculate on an answer.
• Like most of us, Matthew probably knew there are some things money can’t buy. But, like most of us, he probably also knew there are some things only money can buy. A tax collector could become wealthy. The story suggests Matthew may have done well in his profession. He could afford to host a banquet at a moment’s notice.
• Perhaps Matthew sought prestige. The local tax collector was a man of influence in the community. He possessed power. Some ancient writers report that tax collectors could have delinquent clients beaten if they didn’t pay promptly. That kind of power appeals to some people.
• Perhaps he liked rubbing shoulders with the authorities. Though he might have been a small one, he was, nevertheless, a cog in the machinery of government. Whenever the Romans or Herod built a new building, the tax collector could say, “My work helped make that possible.”
As I said, we’re just speculating. We don’t know what led him to become a tax collector, to flaunt the traditions of his people. We just know that he seemed content to remain in that profession until he met a wandering teacher from Galilee.