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The Calling of Matthew


The Gospel lectionary reading for today is from Matthew 9:9-13....
As Jesus was walking along, he saw a man called Matthew sitting at the tax booth; and he said to him, “Follow me.” And he got up and followed him.
And as he sat at dinner in the house, many tax collectors and sinners came and were sitting with him and his disciples. When the Pharisees saw this, they said to his disciples, “Why does your teacher eat with tax collectors and sinners?” But when he heard this, he said, “Those who are well have no need of a physician, but those who are sick. Go and learn what this means, ‘I desire mercy, not sacrifice.’ For I have come to call not the righteous but sinners.”

Matthew was, perhaps, the most unlikely person to follow Jesus. Matthew was probably the name this man was later given by Jesus. It means: "Gift of God." But his original name was Levi. So he was, quite obviously, a Jew. Was he a Jew of the tribe of Levi, one who should have been serving in the temple? No one knows. But one thing is certain, Matthew was a Jew whom other Jews considered to have turned traitor against his people because he was serving as a tax collector for the Roman government. The Jews believed that God alone was king and that to pay taxes to any human ruler was an infringement on God's rights and an insult to his majesty. By Jewish law a tax-gatherer was debarred from the synagogue; he was included with things and beasts unclean; he was forbidden to be a witness in any trial; robbers, murderers and tax collectors were all lumped together in one category in the Jewish mind. When Jesus called Matthew he called someone whom all the Jews hated.

The tax collector's booth where Jesus found him was probably a toll booth on the major international road that went from Damascus through Capernaum to the Mediterranean coast and on to Egypt. Capernaum, where Matthew collected taxes, was part of Herod Antipas' territory. It is likely that Matthew worked indirectly for Rome through Herod. When goods and commodities came through Capernaum they were entering Herod's territory. Matthew was probably a customs officer who exacted duty on these goods, just as someone bringing goods from another country into the United States today might have to pay a duty tax.

Certainly, living and working in Capernaum, Matthew had seen and heard Jesus before. Here was a man who healed paralytics, cast out demons and calmed storms. How would you feel in the presence of such a man if you were someone as universally hated as Matthew was? Perhaps Matthew entertained in the back of his mind the hope that perhaps Jesus could give him a new life just as he had done for so many others. Perhaps Matthew was longing, waiting and looking for a way to start life fresh and to no longer work as a hated tax collector. But maybe he felt he had no way out. What else could he do to support himself and his family? But then when Jesus stood in front of him and said, "Follow me!" that pulled the trigger for Matthew. he suddenly saw his way out of his hated old life and he took it in an instant.

William Barclay has written, "We must note what Matthew lost and what Matthew found. He lost a comfortable job, but found a destiny. He lost a good income, but found honor. He lost a comfortable security, but found an adventure the like of which he had never dreamed."

Barclay goes on to say, "We must note what Matthew left and what Matthew took. He left his tax-collector's table; but from it took one thing--his pen. Here is a shining example of how Jesus can use whatever gift a man may bring to him. It is not likely that the others of the Twelve were handy with a pen. Galilean fishermen would not have much skill in writing or in putting words together. But Matthew had; and this man, whose trade had taught him to use a pen, used that skill to compose the first handbook of the teaching of Jesus, which must rank as one of the most important books the world has ever read."

Is there anyone in your life or sphere of influence whom you think it unlikely for Jesus to call? Matthew shows us that the people you and I may think most unlikely to come to Christ are loved by him, called by him, and often answer that call when it is delivered in love.

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