The leper and the tax collector had a lot in common. Both were scorned and ostracized by their neighbors. A leper’s only friend was another leper. The tax collector’s only friend was another tax collector.
Tax Collectors were compared to gluttons and drunkards (Matthew 11:19), to Gentiles (Matthew 18:17) and to prostitutes (Matthew 21:32). In first-century Palestine, if you wanted to call someone a nasty name, you didn’t call them a low-down-slithering-snake or a dirty-rat, you called them a tax collector.
A tax collector, with the full backing of the Roman army, could levy any tax he desired. He knew how much revenue the Roman government demanded. Any amount over that, the tax collector retained as profit. If the actual tax was three dollars and he collected five, then he could put two bucks in his pocket.
Because there was a major highway running through Capernaum, with plenty of traffic and valuable commerce, it is likely that Matthew’s business was quite lucrative.
Matthew’s name meant “the gift of Jehovah.” His other name, Levi, was also a strong Hebrew name. So, it’s apparent that he was a Hebrew, not a Roman. But Matthew was in cahoots with the Roman government. His neighbors and the other citizens of Capernaum hated him.
If you grew up as the son of a tax collector, you might have had better toys and newer clothes than the other kids, but you probably didn’t have many friends on the playground.
So.... It began as a normal day at the tax office, but a crowd had gathered outside, and the itinerate rabbi was “teaching them” (Mark 2:13).
From his tax booth, maybe Matthew heard Jesus preaching and teaching about “laying up treasures in heaven” (Matthew 6:19-20). Mathew knew his treasures were temporary. Maybe he heard Jesus say, “a wise man builds his house on the rock” (Matthew 7:24). Matthew knew he had built on shifting sand. Maybe Matthew heard Jesus say, “Repent, for the kingdom of heaven is at hand” (Matthew 4:17).
Matthew did. He repented. The trajectory of Matthew’s life radically changed that day. Everything changed when Jesus came by, saying, “Follow me” (Mark 2:14).
Imagine what Peter might have said. “Jesus, are you crazy? Not Matthew. He’s as crooked as a dog’s-hind-leg! Don’t invite him to come along! He’ll ruin our image.”
Later, “while Jesus was having dinner at Levi's house, many tax collectors and ‘sinners’ were eating with him and his disciples, for there were many who followed him” (Mark 2:15, NIV).
Here’s what I think happened. Matthew went to his only friends... the other tax collectors. He told his friends about the Messiah, the Christ, the Savior and King. Come to my house for dinner. Hear it for yourself! “Many followed him!” Revival broke-out at the IRS!
Jesus cares about messed-up people: a demon-possessed man, a leper, a paralytic, a tax collector and his buddies, and me. To each of us he says, “Follow me!”
South Georgia Baptist Church
Mike Martin, Pastor