In Matthew 9, Jesus calls the writer of that Gospel to follow him. We don’t know much about Matthew before this passage, and we are never get given much of a backstory, besides he was a tax collector.
I don’t know if you know about how tax collecting worked back in ancient Israel. In Jesus’ time, Israel was under the control of Rome. This was pretty much the height of their Empire. One of the ways in which Rome controlled the countries that they had taken over was through oppressive taxing.
Rome was smart in the way that they ran things. Instead of having their people conduct the tax collecting, they hired citizens from the countries that they were occupying. Each city in which they collected taxes would have someone local working there. The reason for this was so that the tax collector would know the people and be able to identify them if they hadn’t paid their taxes.
The reason why someone would want to become a tax collector was simple: the promise of becoming wealthy, though Rome didn’t pay them. How a tax collector made money was by overcharging and keeping the extra. For example, let’s say you owed five dollars in taxes. Matthew may have charged you ten, fifteen, twenty, or more dollars. You would have no other choice but to pay. If you didn’t, you would be thrown in jail or worse. Matthew would then collect the money, give Rome its portion, and pocket the rest. This practice was no secret at the time.
You can imagine how this made the other Jews feel about tax collectors; they hated them. Not only have they chosen to go to work for those who were oppressing them, but they were stealing from their own people, family, used-to-be friends, and neighbors. People were starving because of Rome’s tax requirements, yet there is no mention of poor tax collectors in the Bible.
Based on what Matthew 9:1 says, this took place in Capernaum. If you are unaware, that is where Jesus moved to once he was run out of Nazareth. Matthew, also known as Levi in the Gospels of Mark and Luke, was at his booth one day, doing what he did every day. Something out of the ordinary was about to happen to him. He was about to encounter Jesus.
At this point, Matthew would have at least heard about him. He would know that he was a renowned teacher because this takes place after the Sermon on the Mount. He would have caught wind of some of Jesus’ miracles because several had taken place in Capernaum.
If you go back to Matthew 8, we see that Jesus had healed a Roman centurion’s servant who was paralyzed. There’s a good chance that the Centurion was someone Matthew would have been around frequently. Later in that chapter, we see that Jesus healed Peter’s mother-in-law, who was sick, and many other people. All of those took place in Capernaum. As you can imagine, word traveled fast around that small town. Matthew would have known, even if only by reputation, who it was that approached his booth.
After Jesus asked Matthew to follow him, they went to the tax collector’s house for dinner. This was a scandalous event. At that time, to go to someone’s house and share a meal with them was a declaration of friendship. The Jews believed that the Messiah was going to come as a militaristic king that would lead Israel in overthrowing Rome and establishing them as God’s physical kingdom on earth. Yet, we see Jesus hanging out with tax collectors— the very ones who forsook their people and heritage to go to work for the enemy.
Imagine being Matthew. I think if we could go back in time and watch him before he met Jesus, we would see someone who probably didn’t have a great life. Yes, he would have plenty of money and possessions, but that would be about the extent of it. He could not have had a great life. He was hated by his people and family. He would not have been able to freely wander around Capernaum because of the danger of someone attacking or robbing him. On top of all of that, he would have known that it was his fault that his life was the way it was. He chased money above everything. He got what he desired but lost everything else to obtain it. I imagine that it would have been a lonely life.
It would be fascinating to know what he was thinking as Jesus approached his booth. Who knows, maybe he thought he was simply coming to pay his taxes. Matthew’s heart must have beat a little faster when he saw Jesus. The man who had been teaching the masses, healing paralytics, healing the sick, and casting out demons was walking towards him. “Could this be the Messiah,” probably crossed his mind. I don’t think Matthew would have been excited to meet the Messiah, given that he was a Jew who went against his religion to work for Israel’s oppressors. If the Jews hated tax collectors, how harshly would he be treated by the Son of Man?
Of course, we know how Jesus treated him. He was treated the same way that Christ treated all people: with love. Rather than cast judgment or be adversarial toward Matthew, the Messiah extended an offer of friendship. There were no caveats or conditions. He was not told to clean himself up, quit his job, or change his ways. The only thing Jesus asked of him was, “Follow me.”
From that day forward, Matthew would never be the same. When he walked away from his booth, he walked away from his failures and mistakes. He walked away from all the pain that he felt because of his choices. He walked away from his old life and into a new one. 2 Corinthians 5:17 says, “Therefore, if anyone is in Christ, the new creation has come: The old has gone, the new is here!” When he walked away from that booth, he went from an enemy of Israel to a friend of the Savior.
Matthew gained a new identity that day. His life turned around all because he met Jesus and decided to follow him and accept his offer of friendship. We don’t know much about what happens to Matthew after this. Aside from Mark and Luke also recording this event and the listing of the disciples, Matthew isn’t mentioned again. However, we do know that he followed Jesus for the rest of his life.
Imagine the things that he saw! He watched as Jesus healed the blind, the mute, the paralyzed, the deaf, and the sick. He got to be one of the people that handed out the bread and the fish at the feeding of the five thousand. He watched Jesus walk on water. He was there when Christ calmed the storm. He got to witness Lazarus being called out of the tomb and raised from death to life. Though he was not up on the mountain, he got to see the before and after of Christ’s transfiguration. He was there as they laid palm branches down at the feet of Jesus’ donkey as he rode into Jerusalem during the triumphal entry. Most importantly, he got to be face to face with the risen savior, and then watch as he ascended into heaven.
He was one of whom the Holy Spirit fell upon at Pentecost. He got to proclaim the Gospel to the crowd in a language that he did not know. He was a part of thousands of people believing that day. He played a role in establishing the early church and taking the good news of Jesus Christ beyond Israel and into the world. He was blessed by being one of four people who wrote an account of Jesus that we still read and learn from today, nearly 2000 years later. Not bad for a man that was despised by everyone.
Matthew’s entire life was changed because Jesus came and offered him a better one. That is true for all of us today. Jesus invites all of us to follow him. He invites us to give up our old selves and become something new. He died on the cross and was resurrected three days later so that we could have that new life. All that we must do is follow him.
Maybe there’s something that you need to let go of that has defined you for far too long. Maybe you have let others define you as something that you are not. Maybe you have allowed your negative thoughts and shortcomings become your identity. Jesus wants to identify you one way and one way only, as a friend. Will you accept his friendship? Will you say yes to the call to follow him? If you will, I promise you this: today is just the beginning of a life abundant, a life that is far more than we could ever ask for or imagine.