As Jesus passed on from there, he saw a man called Matthew sitting at the tax booth, and he said to him, “Follow me.” And he rose and followed him.
(Matthew 9:9 ESV)
After having given us several examples of Jesus’ miracles, proving that He was the long-awaited Messiah, Matthew now gives us two examples – one positive, one negative – to people’s reaction to Jesus. We’ll read the positive one today.
As Jesus passed on from Capernaum he saw a man called Matthew sitting at the tax booth. Matthew happens to be the author of this gospel.
Tax collectors were locals (in this case Matthew was a Jew) who worked for the occupying Roman government. They collected taxes on behalf of Rome. In the process they were allowed to keep for themselves anything they collected above-and-beyond what Rome demanded. This is how they earned a living.
For this reason they were despised by the Jews, and understandably so. Tax collectors were very wealthy, having amassed their great wealth through the authority of the enemy at the expense of their own countrymen. It was not unusual for them to extort money through bullying and other nefarious means as they had the full backing of the Roman military behind them.
Tax collectors were so hated that they were complete outcasts in society. They could not go to synagogue, the main gathering place in a community at the time. That is why we often read the term “sinners and tax-collectors” in the Bible – tax collectors were a special kind of sinner, worse than any other kind [Luke 7:34, 15:1].
It was such a person as this that Matthew was. Yet Jesus invited him to follow, which Matthew does. Jesus invited a man who the rest of Israel hated to be one of His disciples. Interestingly, with Capernaum being a fishing village and Peter and other disciples being fishermen, it is very likely that these disciples were well acquainted with Matthew and not in a good way. It’s easy to imagine the initial conflict among these men.
Notice that Matthew leaves his job behind as did Peter and John who left their fishing businesses. While it would easy for the latter to return to fishing if they ever so desired, Matthew was making a permanent break. One didn’t quit on the Roman government and then go back.
Here we see a positive example of someone responding to Jesus. Matthew had certainly heard of Jesus (who spent much time in Capernaum) and had maybe even seen Him in person. He believed what he heard and what he saw. He also knew he was a sinner, as did Zacchaeus, another tax collector [Luke 19:1-10].
Jesus came for those who, like Matthew, recognize their sinfulness as Jesus told us in the first beatitude [Matthew 5:3]. Matthew knew he was a sinner and knew his life wasn’t going to get any better through his own efforts. So he gave it all up, as Paul did [Philippians 3:8], and started living for Jesus.
Anyone who wants to avoid hell and spend eternity in heaven must do the same.
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