He was a Tax Collector called by Jesus to be a Disciple

He left his Tax Office and became one of the Twelve Apostles

"Follow me" Jesus said.

"And he rose and followed Him." With these eight words Levi-Matthew relates the most important day in his life.

The other Gospel writers, Mark and Luke, do not mention his vocation as a tax collector. Matthew, however, does not shy away. He tells us that he was a "publican" that is, an agent of the Roman occupation collecting taxes.

Nobody likes tax collectors and in Isreal, at that time, it was worse. Tax collectors were classed with the lowest levels of society, with thieves and murderers. They were not welcome in the local synagogue. Regarded as cheats and liars, their testimony was not allowed in court.

Jews regarded tax collectors as traitors to Israel and to their religion. Hired by the Roman occupiers, the tax collector purchased his position for a price and was authorized to collect a certain total of taxes each year. Anything above that amount which the tax collector was able to extort from the populace was okay. The Tax man, therefore, extorted more than the tax table allowed. This extra tax was what made the publicans, as they were called, even more despised.

On one of his trips to Jerusalem, Jesus healed a man with the palsy. During the healing Jesus told the man that his sins were forgiven. The enemies of Jesus objected strenuously. They said that Jesus was claiming that he was able to absolve someone of their sins. But only God can do that, they claimed. Jesus answered with a question, "Which is easier to say, 'your sins are forgiven' or to say 'rise up and walk'"

Today when someone reads the quoted words of Jesus a person may be confused. The confusion is probably caused by reading the passage outside of the fact of the miracle. Jesus had shown that he was able to cause a super natural healing of a man born with palsy. The fact of the healing was the proof that the words of Jesus were able to accomplish what they promised.

Taken in that context, Jesus is taunting his distractors. He refers to their accusation that his proclamation of absolution of the man's sins is merely words. So he asks which is easier to say...The emphasis in his taunt is on the concept of "saying". Namely, any person can say something, like "Be well" or "Stay healthy". However, just saying it does not convey the power for it to be done. The proof of the power of Jesus to forgive sins is shown in his power to heal the body. By inference, Jesus agrees with his enemies that only God can forgive sins! They get the point and are outraged.

Perhaps Levi heard about what had happened? Maybe he wondered what this Jesus was all about? His questions were answered on the day that Jesus passed by Levi's tax booth and said, "Follow me."

From that day, Levi was no longer known as Levi but as Matthew. Matthew means "gift of God."

The first thing that Matthew did was invite Jesus to his home. Jesus accepted the invitation and Matthew filled his home with guests (Mark 2:14; Luke 5:27-29). It seems that Matthew's invitation to Jesus was not merely a social invite. It was for the purpose of introducing Jesus to the kind of people Levi-Matthew knew well. They must have comprised a very different gathering. These were the outcasts of "regular" society. These were the collaborators, the publicans, and the like."

The Pharisees critcized Jesus. They complained that Jesus was keeping company with sinners. Jesus replied by quoting Micah 6:6-8. "Go and learn what this means, 'I desire mercy and not sacrifice.' For I came not to call the righteous but sinners."

Not much is known about Levi-Matthew's ministry after the Ascension of Jesus. One tradition has him preaching in Ethopia and in Persia. Another tradition says he went to Syria and Macedonia. The Church proclaims him a martyr but Clement of Alexandia claims that he died a natural death.

Whatever Levi-Matthew did after the Ascension of Jesus, he did it for the Jesus who called him from a life as an outcast to a life as one of the inner members of the exclusive group known as Apostles. This included Matthew's ability with the Greek language, a requirement surmised from his being a tax collector. An ability that would make him a good chronicler of Jesus' life and ministry.

Matthew reports most of the same things we find in Mark. But there is some additional material.

  • Matthew alone reports the visit of the tribute collectors for the tax. His telling of the story includes Jesus' lesson to Peter. Matthew 17:24-27
  • Matthew includes the parable of the eleventh hour laborers, even to the details of the oral labor contract. Matthew 20:1-16
  • Matthew gives the details of Judas' contract for the betrayal of Jesus, details interesting to a tax collector. Matthew 27:3-10.
  • He tells the parable of the unrighteous servant. Matthew 18:23-35.
  • Matthew relates the parable of the king's wedding banquet. Matthew 22:1-14.
  • Finally, Matthew is the only Gospel writer to include this quote from Jesus, "Come unto me, all who labor and are heavy-laden and I will give you rest. Take my yoke upon you and learn from me; for I am gentle and lowly of heart, and you will find rest for your souls. For my yoke is easy and my burden is light."

  • There have been many, like Levi-Matthew, who mistakenly believed that money could buy everything important in life. But instead of success, Levi-Matthew experienced the lost of all the things that make life meaningful- his good name, his friends, his public esteem, his place as an accepted memeber of the community.

    There are many people who dispair until they meet Jesus. They are people merely moving through life without focus, without meaning, without a significant purpose. Life is not a joy but a drudge.

    The message of Jesus to the man with palsy was that his sins are forgiven and your body is healed. The message of Jesus to the Levi-Matthews of today is "Follow me." The Message of Jesus to us is to come unto Him and he will give rest to our souls.

    James the Less Andrew Simon-Zealot MatthewsGospel