Summary: "Jesus Sinners Doth Receive"
Jesus Calls a Sinner
St. Matthew had quite a reputation to live down!
The ’publicans’, or ’tax collectors’, of the Roman Empire were so crooked that the animosity toward the IRS today is partly because of them. Why should we be mad at the taxmen when it is Congress that levies the taxes and makes the complications in the laws that make the forms so unwieldy! Still, these poor public servants often have to take abuse, as they say, "of Biblical proportions."
The problem with publicans in the Bible is that they could alter the tax bills to line their own pockets. It wasn’t like today, where you fill out the form, look at the tax table, and know how much you owe; no, it was more like a non-recorded ’property assessment’ type of tax: the collector was the assessor and the clerk, and what he told you and what he told Rome didn’t have to be the same thing at all. Remember Zacchaeus, who certainly had a dramatic turn around when he saw that Jesus had come to give life even to such a despised man as himself. "If I have cheated anybody out of anything, I will pay it back four-fold!" he said, rejoicing that his treasure and his life no longer consisted in the abundance of his possessions.
Can we say the same of St. Matthew?
We don’t know. Certainly he, too, had a dramatically different life as an Apostle and Evangelist, from what receiving taxes was like, and it was certainly an unusual thing to have happen, to have been regarded as ’suitable material’ by a great rabbi (much less the Messiah!)...but was Matthew also a ’thieving publican’?
That, we can’t say. Perhaps he was the shining example of a righteous one, one who didn’t cheat...or, perhaps he made Zacchaeus look like a saint by comparison even before Zacchaeus believed and repented! The Bible doesn’t tell us. But we do know that his office alone carried such a stigma that he would have been a very unlikely candidate for the Office of the Holy Ministry, and that the enemies of Jesus would have used Matthew’s background and the evil practices of his co-workers--if not his own--against him and against Jesus. Yet, Jesus does not hesitate to call Matthew Levi, nor does he hesitate to follow Jesus when He calls.
It is interesting, against this background, to remember that it is in St. Matthew’s Gospel alone that we have our Savior’s prescription for dealing with both private and public offense. If some offense were given openly, that would call for an open rebuke and correction, as we see in Matthew 18:23-40 (quickview) , the parable of the unforgiving servant, and as we see Jesus doing when the Pharisees tried to condemn His followers. In this way, others are warned not to fall into an error similar to the one they’ve witnessed.
In Matthew 18:15-18 (quickview) , though, Jesus tells us that if there is something that someone has done against us that was not done in public, then we are to go to that person privately and seek to be reconciled--bearing in mind our Lord’s admonition in Matthew 5:39 (quickview) : "whosoever shall smite thee on thy right cheek, turn to him the other also."