Matthew was a tax collector!
Tax collector was on no one’s list of What I want to be when I grow up. It would have been bad enough if they collected taxes from their people (the Jews), for their people. Then he would have been the equivalent of an employee of the IRS. But this wasn’t the case. He collected money from his people for the Romans.
Rome! Israel was an occupied country in the time of Matthew and had been that way since Pompey had made it a client kingdom of Rome in 63 BC. Shortly before the birth of Christ, Augustus made it the province of Judea. But it wasn’t just the Roman yoke the Jewish people chafed under, it was the centuries of oppression they had known going all of the way back to Egypt. It was the Babylonians, Persians, Seleucids and the Ptolemies. “We are Abraham’s descendants and have never been slaves of anyone,” was their boast to the Christ, but the truth was they had been in and out of bondage throughout their history. They were weary of it and viewed anyone who collected taxes for Rome as traitor to his people. The fact that the tax collector often added his own surcharge (Luke 3:12-15; Luke 19:8-10), just increased their resentment.
If Matthew was from Capernaum (as Mark’s account seems to suggest), then it’s possible he collected import and export tax. Capernaum was on the Via Maris (“the way to the Sea”—Matthew 4:15), and was a major trade route of the ancient world. Edersheim speaks of “the vexation of being constantly stopped on the journey, having to unload all one’s pack animals, when every bale and package was opened, and the contents tumbled about, private letters opened,” to remind us of how annoying Matthew’s work would have been to those he collected from.
The other name Matthew was known by was Levi (Mark 2:14), which strongly suggests that he was a Levite, from the priestly tribe of Israel. If that’s the case, then we have a man who by Jewish law was set aside to serve God and he had set Jewish law and God aside to serve Rome!
And Jesus called him to be His follower!
What could Christ have been thinking? It’s obvious he consulted no public relations or marketing people. It was the kind of disastrous move that could kill a ministry in a skinny minute but He did it anyway. He publicly called a man who was regarded as a traitor to the Jewish people to be His disciple!
And Matthew left everything to follow Him (Luke 5:28).
How about that? And why would Matthew do that? Had he been looking for the opportunity to get out? Had he been thinking to himself, “This job is going nowhere; I’ve got to get out of it the first opportunity I get.” Or maybe his conscience had started to bother him (there are such people thankfully). You know what I think?
I think it makes me want to read his gospel to find out.