People who met Jesus : 10 : Matthew
Mt 9:9,10 As Jesus went on from there, he saw a man named Matthew sitting at the tax collector’s booth. “Follow me,” he told him, and Matthew got up and followed him. While Jesus was having dinner at Matthew’s house, many tax collectors and “sinners” came and ate with him and his disciples.
Now the further we move on with the apostles, the more we will find less being said about the individuals because we have taken the more famous first – but fame comes from different causes. Matthew – or Levi we will see his alternate name was – gets his fame from being a tax collector, one of that group of men who served the Romans and who had a reputation for not being very honest.
In a general list of the apostles we see him identified: “These are the names of the twelve apostles: first, Simon (who is called Peter) and his brother Andrew; James son of Zebedee, and his brother John; Philip and Bartholomew; Thomas and Matthew the tax collector; James son of Alphaeus, and Thaddaeus; Simon the Zealot and Judas Iscariot, who betrayed him,” (Mt 10:2-4) and his designation is a ‘tax collector’. That is what made him stand out; in fact it stands out in each description of him as if to say, “Wow, how unusual, a tax collector became a follower of Jesus!”
In our verses today we simply see Matthew at his booth, that tax collectors had so people could know where they were and where to come to pay their taxes, when Jesus comes there and calls him to follow. Now there is no prior reference to Matthew so whether or not this was his first contact with Jesus is unclear. This takes place in the town of Capernaum where Jesus was living so it is almost certain that Matthew would, at the very least, have heard about Jesus, who he was and what he was doing. Had he been yearning for something more than the life he had? We don’t know. Why did Jesus choose him? We aren’t told but must assume that the Son of God, who knows the hearts and minds of all men and women, knew Matthew’s state, saw his hunger, and saw what he could become.
When Luke records this incident in his Gospel we find the following: “After this, Jesus went out and saw a tax collector by the name of Levi sitting at his tax booth. “Follow me,” Jesus said to him, and Levi got up, left everything and followed him. Then Levi held a great banquet for Jesus at his house, and a large crowd of tax collectors and others were eating with them.” (Lk 5:27-29) Note that he calls Matthew, Levi but everything else about the account is so similar that it has to be the same person. Now the Jews often had two names (like we may be given two or more ‘Christian names’), or it may be that Jesus later renamed him; we just don’t know the reason for the difference, but it is clearly the same man. Mark also recorded him as Levi with the rest being so clear as to guarantee it being the same person: “As he walked along, he saw Levi son of Alphaeus sitting at the tax collector’s booth.” (Mk 2:14) Mark simply adds his family background.
Note also that Luke the physician, being the people-sensitive person that he was, makes comment that Levi ‘left everything’. That was the great marvel in Luke’s mind as he recorded this incident, that a man who dealt with money and whose life was money, should be so moved by Jesus that he was happy to just walk away from it all. Indeed this is the marvel of Matthew, that he shows us that Jesus is so attractive that it is worth leaving all our material security to follow him. The other key thing about Matthew is that, of course, he shows us that Jesus will receive anyone; their background or past history is irrelevant. All that matters is their heart desire for Jesus.
The other thing that all three accounts show us is that immediately he left his job, he held a great feast or banquet for Jesus (which Jesus went to!) and invited all his tax collector friends along to. Thus, yet again, we see that one of the characteristics of these disciples is that they immediately wanted to tell their friends about Jesus. So wonderful was he, in their eyes, that they just wanted to tell others about him. Is this, perhaps, one of the required characteristic for anyone who is to be come a leader or even an apostle?
If we briefly note before finishing the meaning of the two names given to this man, we will see something interesting. Mark and Luke call him Levi which, if you go to Gen 29:34 you will see a footnote tells you means ‘attached’. Perhaps they continue to give him his old name because it accentuates the wonder of what has happened: a man who has been attached to materialism has been drawn away and detached from it by the wonderful Son of God. Matthew simply means ‘gift of God’ and it is Matthew himself who, we believe, was probably the author of the first Gospel, who uses it. It is as if he wants to accentuate the wonder of what he sees his life is, of what Jesus has made it.
Beyond these brief references Matthew receives no other reference in the Gospel. He is simply there as one of the twelve. He was still there in the post-ascension church (see Acts 1:13). He does not appear to have done anything outstanding that merited comment by the Gospel writers, but he was just there bearing testimony, by his life, of the transforming power of Jesus. That was enough!