Episode 59 - The Calling of Matthew - Opening Up the Gospels

In episode 58, I developed two specific miracles in Jesus’ early Galilean ministry – the healing of the leper and the healing of the paralytic. With the leper, Jesus showed His overwhelming compassion in not only healing the leper but touching him. This would of course have made Jesus ritually unclean. But I think more importantly, Jesus showed a deep concern for him by physically touching him – and that was something he probably hadn’t experienced in a long time. And then with the paralytic, Jesus said that his sins were forgiven in the face of Pharisees and teachers of the law from all around Israel. This would have been a massive offense to their understanding of who Jesus was, because, as they said, only God alone could forgive sin. Jesus continues to confront the system and expose the true heart condition of the Jewish people. And not only that, He continues to reveal His true identity as the God of Israel to the authorities. In this episode, we’ll move forward to the next event the Gospels tell us about, and that is the calling of Matthew. Let’s read from Mark 2: “He went out again beside the sea, and all the crowd was coming to him, and he was teaching them. And as he passed by, he saw Levi the son of Alphaeus sitting at the tax booth, and he said to him, “Follow me.” And he rose and followed him.” (Mark 2:13–14 ESV) So Jesus is still up in Galilee, having just healed the paralytic in Capernaum, and Mark says he’s now out again beside the sea of Galilee. Crowds are coming to Him as usual, and he teaches them. At some point on His walk along the shore, He sees Levi, the son of Alphaeus. Now you might be thinking, “wait, aren’t we talking about Matthew? Who is this Levi guy?” And the answer is simple – Matthew and Levi are the same person. Matthew is his Greek name, which the Gospel of Matthew uses in Matthew 9:9, and Levi was his Hebrew name, which both Mark and Luke’s gospel use. Matthew was a tax collector who worked for Greek-speaking Romans, collecting taxes from Hebrew and Aramaic-speaking Jews. Though it’s not common for us to hear of people with two names, this was fairly common in Jesus’ day because of the culture. For example, Simon is also called Peter. One is Hebrew, and the other is Greek. So in terms of timing, the calling of Matthew as Jesus’ fifth disciple seems likely to have happened after the second circuit through Galilee, perhaps sometime near the end of 27 or the beginning of 28AD. Again, we can’t be sure about specifics, though the Gospels do give us a trajectory we can understand generally. Some of the major events that are yet to come include the Sermon on the Mount and some of Jesus’ major parables. I can’t wait to talk about those events with you. Well, I want to talk about Matthew for a little bit. Matthew was a tax-collector. If you were a tax collector in the days of Jesus, there would be a certain stigma and disdain associated with your job. Jewish writings of that time actually distinguished between two classes of tax collectors – the first was just a general tax gatherer, and the other was a custom-house official. This second class actually was looked upon by the Jews with almost total disrespect, because they were so utterly different than the religious and pious in the nation. Their job required them to collect the land and sea taxes for the Romans. Many tax collectors were dishonest, collecting much more than was required to keep for themselves. Though we’re not sure about Matthew’s ethics, we do know he probably had a little tax booth in Capernaum where he would have interacted with fishermen and travelers and collected what the Roman law required. Paying taxes was a big deal at the time – there was even a common saying that said: “Woe to the ship which sails without having paid the dues.” Now think about this for a second – if Matthew was collecting taxes in Capernaum, and Jesus was ministering in and around Capernaum very frequently, Matthew would almost certainly have had a large exposure to Jesus and His ministry. Capernaum is where it was all happening. Jesus often taught by the sea, and if Matthew’s little custom house was set up by the sea, Matthew might have heard some of Jesus’ teaching directly and at least heard of His miracles. So what would it have been like for Matthew as he sat there, watched Jesus from a distance, and heard of his fame spreading like wildfire? Surely he never dared to think about being among his disciples because of his despised occupation, but maybe he was quietly drawn to Jesus and sensed something very different about Him. What then would it have been like for him when Jesus comes up to him and says “follow me”? I love this quote from Alfred Edersheim as he describes Matthew in this scene: Only he dared not, could not, have hoped for personal recognition—far less for call to discipleship. But when it came, and Jesus fixed on him that look of love which searched the inmost deep of the soul, and made Him the true Fisher of men, it needed not a moment’s thought or consideration. When he spake it, ‘Follow Me,’ the past seemed all swallowed up in the present heaven of bliss. He said not a word, for his soul was in the speechless surprise of unexpected love and grace; but he rose up, left the custom-house, and followed Him. That was a gain that day, not of Matthew alone, but of all the poor and needy in Israel—nay, of all sinners from among men, to whom the door of heaven was opened. And, verily, by the side of Peter, as the stone, we place Levi-Matthew, as typical of those rafters laid on the great foundation, and on which is placed the flooring of that habitation of the Lord, which is His Church. This is just so dramatic. Jesus just invited the despised tax collector into His ranks of disciples! Imagine what this produced in the hearts of the other disciples – remember, they were fishermen who may have paid taxes to Matthew. I imagine Peter saying “um, Jesus, excuse me, what are you doing? That’s Matthew, the tax collector in town who rips us off and takes all our money. You’re calling him to a formal discipleship relationship?” There would be such a collision between both of them at this point, and Jesus totally knew it. Just imagine how things could have transpired between them after a week or after a month of walking with Jesus together. They are real people with real personalities… we have to remember that and fight to make these things more than just a fairy tale. Well, after Matthew was called, he holds a huge feast in his home to honor Jesus. Let’s keep reading in Mark 2: “And as he reclined at table in his house, many tax collectors and sinners were reclining with Jesus and his disciples, for there were many who followed him. And the scribes of the Pharisees, when they saw that he was eating with sinners and tax collectors, said to his disciples, “Why does he eat with tax collectors and sinners?” And when Jesus heard it, he said to them, “Those who are well have no need of a physician, but those who are sick. I came not to call the righteous, but sinners.”” (Mark 2:15–17 ESV) At Matthew’s feast that evening, we see that a large number of tax collectors and sinners were there reclining at the table with Jesus. I want to develop an often misunderstood point about this specific scene, and that has to do with how we understand the word “sinners”. In a few past episodes I’ve mentioned a little bit about the Pharisees, specifically that they had set up a “fence” around the Law – a bunch of ordinances and requirements that they created – so as to prevent any possibility of disobeying the actual Law whatsoever. This is important because the way the Pharisees understood the word “sinner” is very different than we would in modern times. A sinner was someone who did not abide by and adhere to the traditions of the Pharisees – the “fence” that they created around the Law. The Pharisees did not call someone a sinner because they merely violated the Law that was given through Moses, but because they did not endorse the Pharisees’ interpretation of the Law. Do you see the difference? We call a sinner someone who is immoral or someone who cheats or lies. But the Pharisees called someone a sinner if they did not adhere to their man-made traditions. So when our Bible translators use the word “sinner” here, it can be a little bit confusing without this background information. In my opinion, a better translation of the word could be “outcasts” or “bad characters”. The other important thing to understand here in this scene is the idea of table fellowship. In Jewish society, table fellowship – eating meals with one another – was one of the most intimate expressions of friendship. By eating with despised tax collectors and those who didn’t adhere to the religious leaders’ traditions, Jesus was saying that those people were the ones He cared for. The religious leaders couldn’t understand how Jesus could make the claims He did about Himself and dine with ones who would not obey their traditions. So in this scene, we should not necessarily imagine Jesus having table fellowship with people in gross immorality, as is often thought. Though Jesus did indeed come to save people like that, this scene is quite different than the way Jesus’ interaction with sinners is typically used as a model today. Do you see how different it is? Now think about what’s going on here – what was it like for Jesus to sit around a table with despised tax collectors and those who did not obey the religious traditions of the Pharisees? Jesus was completely pure, and yet He just sat around having conversation and sharing a meal with these people. What did He talk about with them? This is the same Jesus who sits in the heavens right now ruling over all things. What would it have been like to be there at the feast and reflect back on it after Jesus had rose from the dead and ascended back to the heavens? I hope you see a pattern emerging here – Jesus continues to confront the religious leadership at every turn and continues to reveal His true identity to them. That’s how He began His public ministry – confronting the leadership in the Temple – and it’s what we’ll see Him continue to do as the weeks and months pass. He is so patient, continuing to seek the fruits of repentance from the Galileans. In the next episode, we’ll take a look at the last major event in Jesus’ early Galilean ministry – the calling of the Twelve. There’s a lot of common misunderstanding about the disciples that I think the next episode will clear up for you, so come back next time.