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UCGia Bible Insights Thursday, December 17 2020

Matthew: From serving mammon to serving God

Matthew is introduced to the reader in the Gospel bearing his name in Matthew 9:9: "As Jesus passed ... He saw a man named Matthew sitting at the tax office. And He said to him, 'Follow Me.' So he arose and followed Him."

Matthew: From serving mammon to serving God
Illustrative depiction of Jesus calling Matthew. Credit: Good News Productions International and College Press Publishing /
by Jerold Aust

At the time Matthew met Christ the Romans had established a custom house at Capernaum to collect taxes, and Matthew had been appointed to the very profitable position of tax collector there. By virtue of his office Matthew would have been fluent in Greek, the official language of the region, and Aramaic, the local tongue, as well as being an educated writer and scribe.

For the Jews to be taxed by Rome was considered detestable, but it was even more abhorrent to have a fellow countryman collecting the taxes. Tax collectors were often encouraged to exact fraudulent claims as a means to amass more income. "They overcharged (Luke 3:13), [and] brought false charges of smuggling in the hope of extorting hush-money" (Merrill Unger, Unger's Bible Dictionary, 1966, p. 899, "Publican").

Although Matthew was probably considered, by the standards of those around him, to be quite wealthy, Scripture implies he was willing to walk away from everything, as Christ requires: "If anyone comes to Me and does not hate [that is, to love less or place in lower priority] his father and mother, wife and children, brothers and sisters, yea, and his own life also, he cannot be My disciple. And whoever does not bear his cross and come after Me cannot be My disciple" (Luke 14:26-27).

Important Spiritual Lessons

Mark and Luke refer to Matthew by the name Levi (Mark 2:14; Luke 5:27), indicating he was probably from the tribe of Levi. Chapter 5 of Luke’s gospel records Matthew had prepared a banquet for Jesus and His disciples and Matthew's friends: “Then Levi gave Him a great feast in his own house. And there were a great number of tax collectors and others who sat down with them." (Luke 5:29)

During this banquet Jesus, and likely Matthew as well, heard the Pharisees and Scribes complaining Christ and His disciples were associating with the others who had been invited. They pointedly asked Jesus, "Why do You eat and drink with tax collectors and sinners?" (Luke 5:30).

Jesus’ response to this self-righteous attitude was: "Those who are well have no need of a physician, but those who are sick. I have not come to call the righteous, but sinners, to repentance" (Luke 5:31-32). Confident of their own goodness, the Pharisees and scribes naturally concluded the other "sinners" needed to repent, but they had nothing that needed to change.

Since Matthew may have been quite wealthy, another spiritual lesson Christ taught must have been particularly meaningful to him. Matthew tells of a rich young man who approached Jesus to ask what was required for eternal life, and Jesus advised him to "keep the commandments" (Matthew 19:17).

This young man responded that he had faithfully kept the commandments and asked Jesus if there was anything else he might lack. Jesus responded: "If you want to be perfect, go, sell what you have and give to the poor, and you will have treasure in heaven; and come, follow Me" (Matthew 19:21).

We are then told the young man walked away dejected, "for he had great possessions" (Matthew 19:22), and Jesus instructed His disciples: "Assuredly, I say to you that it is hard for a rich man to enter the kingdom of heaven. And again I say to you, it is easier for a camel to go through the eye of a needle than for a rich man to enter the kingdom of God" (Matthew 19:23-24).

The spiritual lesson here is very applicable in our prosperous age, namely that when we set our minds on material riches and goods we can easily lose sight of pursuing God's spiritual treasures. Like Matthew, God is calling us out of the world today, with its selfish and political ways, to a life filled with concern for God and humanity (Matthew 22:37-39). Will we answer that call as Matthew did?