St Matthew, also known as Levi, was one of the 12, and by tradition, the author of Matthew’s Gospel. He isn’t mentioned much in the Gospels: he’s listed as one of the 12. In Acts he is listed as a witness of Jesus’ Ascension into heaven, and in Luke’s Gospel there’s an oblique reference to Tax collectors and Sinners which is the prologue to the setting for the parable of the lost sheep. And then there’s our Gospel reading for today – the story of Jesus calling Matthew to be a disciple – a follower, of the subsequent meal at Matthew’s home, and of the scandal this caused amongst the righteous religious people who were looking on.
Matthew was a tax collector, but not a ‘chief collector’ as was the infamous Zaccheus who is described in Luke’s Gospel as a ‘Chief Tax Collector’. Matthew would have been an employee of someone similar to Zaccheus, and is unlikely to have been a wealthy man. This differentiation between Chief Tax Collectors and their employees is central to a proper understanding of the man whose name was Matthew.
Matthew would have sat in a booth by the city gate, gathering taxes (or ‘tolls’) on goods leaving and entering the city. The taxes being levied were part of the money gathering system of the Roman state: this was, no doubt, in part why Matthew was an unpopular man. From the point of view of the poor people, bearing the brunt of Roman oppression, Matthew could well have been seen as a collaborator. But there it is also possible that they saw Matthew as someone like themselves who had very choice about how he earned sufficient money to live on.
The real venom against Jesus action on this occasion is likely to have come, not from the poor, but from those who actually had enough money and goods to have to pay taxes – the traders who were moving their goods in and out of the city and the rich and educated elite who held tax collectors in contempt as pitiable, illiterate peasants living beyond decency and civilised behaviour.
In this scheme of things Jesus’ calling of Matthew would have upset righteous people who thought Jesus should have preferred them in their position of respectability and decency. Maybe they felt excluded – not something they were used to. Jesus’ action cut right through their sense of entitlement and privilege. It put them at the bottom of the queue whereas they’d always been at the top, and felt that this was how it should be. Jesus action follows Mary’s prophetic words He has put down the mighty from their seat and has exalted the humble and meek. He has filled the hungry with good things and the rich he hath sent empty away.
We are, in the UK at the moment, at the mercy of the entitled. So many of our politicians are old Etonians, Oxbridge graduates – only because of their privilege, wealth and status. Some even deceive us with their pretence of being ordinary people just like us, whilst quietly steering things that will bring them advantage and increase their wealth. Imagine if Jesus turned up in the middle of all this and snubbed them all by inviting someone downtrodden and dusty to tea! It’s easy to point the finger
It is easy for us all, however, to fall into the trap of entitlement. Matthew’ story reminds us that we’re not entitled to God’s love. God doesn’t love us because we’re decent, upright, or well behaved. Gd just loves us – no ifs or buts.
For the poor and rootless and those with few choices, the calling of Matthew is another sign that Jesus was on their side – he had a special concern for those who had few choices, no money and no status. Suddenly those who were assigned no worth had worth, those whose lives were undignified were bestowed dignity, those whom no-one chose were chosen – and chosen by the most important person of all.
When we’re feeling hopeless, unnoticed, unlovely, unworthy Matthew’s story shouts out that Jesus offers us his hand, draws us to himself in love.
Perhaps those who would have been most outraged by Jesus’ calling of Matthew would have been the traders, those working hard, carrying their goods in and out of town and fed up with being taxed every time they moved. To them, Matthew would have been a very annoying little man and Jesus’ actions would have been seen as most unfair. This is hard for us to swallow – again it’s that sense of entitlement. Not this time from the establishment but from the hard working, decent and upright – people pretty much like us. How easy it is for us to look down on those who we regard as less than ourselves, undeserving and second rate. It is sobering for us to realise what the calling of Matthew says to us – that Jesus is happy to count the unworthy among his friends, and that our outrage doesn’t count for anything very much.
For Matthew this would have been a most incredible day – the day that Jesus noticed him, called him and offered him love, acceptance, friendship. The streets would have been busy, chaotic, and, somehow, through all this Jesus saw Matthew and chose him to be one of his friends.
This day changed Matthew’s life forever. He changed from being a jobsworth tax collector to being a fearless man with purpose. He spent the rest of his life telling people that God loved them. Tradition tells us that he was martyred in Ethopia when he got on the wrong side of the King. Matthew didn’t just respond to God’s lit was safe, convenient, or warm and sunny. So life-changing was this revelation of God’s love to him, that he would put his hand to anything that would spread the Good News, the Gospel to those who, like himself had been unloved and unlovely!
May we come to know that great love, without bounds, beyond measure, that causes us to live our lives in response, taking Good News and hope wherever we go.
Image is a detail from The Lindisfarne Gospel Book