The Tax Collector is referred to as Levi three times in the New Testament (Mark 2:14; Luke 5:27, 27). He is referred to by another name, Matthew, five times (Matthew 9:9), four of these in the listings of the twelve Apostles (Matthew 10:3; Mark 3:18; Luke 6:15; Acts 1:13). While Peter is named more than one-hundred-fifty times, Levi, or Matthew, is named only eight times. Individually, we know very little about the Tax Collector called to follow Jesus as one of His twelve.
Here's what we do know…
Levi was a strong Jewish name, the name of Jacob’s third son, and the name of the priestly tribe. Matthew, meaning “a gift of Jehovah,” may have been an alternate name given by Jesus. Much like Jesus spoke to Simon, saying, “you are Peter, and on this rock I will build my church” (Matthew 16:18), He may have spoken to Levi, saying, “Let’s call you Matthew, because you are a great gift of Jehovah!” Maybe.
Levi’s daddy, Alphaeus, presumably a proud Jew, possibly from the tribe of Levi, may have been the father of another Apostle, “James the son of Alphaeus” (Matthew 10:3; Mark 3:18; Luke 6:15; Acts 1:13). There’s no other hint of a family connection in Scripture.
Jesus discovered Levi while he was collecting toll taxes outside of Capernaum. Tax collectors, contractors of the Roman government, were despised! They were licensed to abuse both international travelers and Jewish citizens and they did so with the protection of Roman soldiers.
The tax agent’s abuse was doled out in the form of over-taxation. Let’s say a farmer was taking olives into Capernaum’s marketplace. The Tax Collector knew the value of olives and he could quickly calculate the toll tax required by the Romans. So many pounds of produce… so many shekels per pound… and the toll tax is X. But the crooked Tax Collector charged the farmer X plus ten, and he put the ten in his pocket. Doing so made tax collectors like Levi filthy rich and universally hated.
Everyone must have been shocked when Jesus invited Levi to become a disciple. “Follow me” (Mark 2:14) were the same words the Lord spoke to Peter, Andrew, James, and John. “Follow Me, and I will make you become fishers of men” (Mark 1:17, NKJV). “Mr. Tax Agent, leave behind your powerful position, leave your lucrative employment, leave the all-too-common cursing from other men. “Follow me, Gift of Jehovah… Matthew, and I will make you a blessing to men.”
At Jesus’ invitation, Levi, now Matthew, “got up and followed him” (Mark 2:14), but he did something that gives us a peak into his soul. He “hosted a grand banquet for him at his house. Now there was a large crowd of tax collectors and others who were reclining at the table” (Luke 5:29). He threw a party and invited all his associates, tax collectors from far and wide. Matthew wanted his friends to know Jesus!
In the Gospel that bears his name, Matthew recorded Jesus’ statement, one directed at the incredulous Pharisees that witnessed Jesus’ attendance at Matthew’s banquet. “It is not those who are well who need a doctor, but those who are sick. Go and learn what this means: I desire mercy and not sacrifice. For I didn’t come to call the righteous, but sinners” (Matthew 9:12-13).
Matthew understood the grace of God because he was the “sinner” Jesus came to save.