The first-century publican, or tax-collector, was often associated with the despised… “tax collectors and sinners” (Matthew 9:10), “tax collectors and prostitutes” (Matthew 21:31), even with gluttons and drunkards (Luke 7:34). Rich, ruthless, and wretched, they were hated by their Jewish brethren.
Matthew, like all publicans, had leased his toll collecting privileges by paying an annual fee to the Roman government. As an employee of Herod Antipas, Matthew set up shop beside the highway leading from Damascus in the north, through Galilee, to Jerusalem in the south. As the local farmers and merchants carried their goods to market, and as the foreign caravans traversed the territory, Matthew, with the enforcement power of the Roman army, assessed a toll… any toll he deemed proper.
Matthew knew the value of barley and wheat, of olives and figs, of wool and pottery. He recognized precious metals and expensive spices. And he knew the required toll tax on each commodity and the excess profit he could keep for his own growing coffers.
At the outset of Jesus’ ministry, He “saw a tax collector named Levi sitting at the tax office, and he said to him, ‘Follow me.’ So, leaving everything behind, he got up and began to follow him” (Luke 5:27-28). When Jesus summoned the Galilean fishermen saying, “Follow me, and I will make you become fishers of men… Immediately they left their nets and followed him” (Mark 1:17-18, ESV). They left their commercial fishing business, their livelihood, all that they knew, and became disciples of the itinerate rabbi. Likewise, Matthew, the young businessman remarkably turned his back on his lucrative profession to follow the penniless Prophet.
Matthew, meaning “the gift of Jehovah,” was also called Levi, the name of Jacob’s third son.
With these strong Hebrew names, we can surmise that Matthew’s family made regular pilgrimages to Jerusalem’s temple for the holy festivals and that he grew up attending synagogue school. Matthew must have known the Old Testament’s prophecies concerning David’s eternal kingdom, and it’s likely that he had an inner longing to see the coming of the promised Messiah.
As a tax collector, Matthew had grown calloused, thick-skinned. He was universally hated. Jesus’ love transformed Matthew’s heart.
When Jesus told the parable of the Pharisee and the Publican, I wonder how Matthew responded. Matthew might have inserted himself into the story, seeing himself, humbly “standing far off,” imagining himself, unable to “even raise his eyes to heaven … striking his chest and saying, ‘God, have mercy on me, a sinner!’ ” (Luke 8:13).
Late in His three-year ministry, Jesus had led His disciples south to Jericho, then turned west toward Jerusalem. In Jericho, as Jesus passed through the crowded streets, the Rabbi had abruptly stopped under a sycamore tree. The thick foliage hid the man perched high on a branch. “Zacchaeus, hurry and come down because today it is necessary for me to stay at your house” (Luke 19:5). Matthew must have known the name and his reputation as the regional “chief tax collector” (Luke 19:2). “The Son of Man came to seek and to save the lost” (Luke 19:10) … like Zacchaeus and Matthew … like me and you. That’s grace.