I’d never paid much attention to the apostle Matthew, apart from appreciating the gospel he wrote, of course. He always seemed a bit boring. The calling of Matthew has been the subject of quite a few renaissance paintings, in the romantic Romanesque style. He’s usually depicted as impossibly holy, holding a book, sporting a halo and a grey beard. I don’t know where the painters got their inspiration from, because in the Bible the calling of Matthew takes up exactly two verses, and they don’t present a romantic picture at all.
The detail of Carravagio’s painting – above – seems marginally more real. We see an impossibly young man with his eyes fixed on the coins being counted out for him, his hand poised to grab the lot. I doubt they would have given the job of Tax Collector to such a young man, however.
Jewish tax collector’s were hated by all and sundry because they extorted money for Caesar, the Roman oppressor! They usually over-extorted, to make it worse, tucking the extra into their own money bags, along with their filthy Roman pay cheques. They were viewed as evil sinners by the conquered Jewish population, of which Jesus had chosen to make Himself one. Why did He choose the time of the Roman Occupation to walk the earth? Why not a brighter era of Jewish history? But I digress.
I’d always thought of Matthew as a scrappy little Jewish man with ratty eyes, a ratty beard and a ratty character to boot. It may have been a lucrative job, and someone had to do it, but why would you? It reminds me of when I was a little girl in Victoria. At one time we lived in an area with no deep sewerage, but because it was on the outskirts of a developing suburb we weren’t allowed to have the deep pit toilet they used in the the country. Instead, we had the good old ‘dinkum dunny’ or ‘thunderbox’ down in the back yard away from the house, with a removable pan.
Someone had to remove the pan, replace it with a clean one and take the offensive contents somewhere else. That someone was, with my mother’s sympathetic label, the unenviable Panny Man. We were all locked in the house when the Panny Man came. “Quick, quick, the Panny Man’s here,” Mum would say, shepherding us all safely inside while he carried out his gruesome task. Of course, we used to peer through the window, wide-eyed, and watch him trudge to-and fro down the driveway, an old burlap sack over his head and shoulders, clean pan on his back on the way in, the loaded, reeking, disgusting one on the way out.
That’s how the Jews viewed their tax collectors. They hated paying taxes to Caesar to start with, but to add insult to injury, the tax collectors were probably given the freedom to use their own interpretation of ‘correct amount’. Who wouldn’t take advantage of such a situation? I guess if we had to do the job, we’d extract danger money too!
This is how Matthew himself describes the incident in question.
Mat.9:9 As Jesus was walking along, he saw a man called Matthew sitting at the tax booth; and he said to him, “Follow me.” And he got up and followed him.
That’s it, short and sweet. Done and dusted.
About a week ago, while reading Luke’s version, Luke 5:27, it suddenly opened up to me like a drama on a movie screen, and I saw it happen.
There was snivelling little Matthew (or as the Gospel of Mark calls him, Levi, son of Alphaeus) sitting in his counting-house, scratching away at rows of figures, hunched over his money bags, watching his clients with beady eyes as they dropped their coins on his table with loathing in their eyes. This was his life, and had been for years. He knew he was hated, but the extra money he got made it worthwhile. That is, until he started hearing about the things that were happening in those days, the things everyone was talking about, the person everyone was talking about.
News filtered in, news about miracles and wonders and amazing new teachings centred around a man called Jesus.
At first, Matthew didn’t pay any attention – he was too busy counting money. But as more and more stories of what was happening reached his grimy little tax office, he began to feel an unfamiliar dissatisfaction with his lot. Gradually, a strange longing began to grow in his heart, the longing to be accepted, admired, even loved. He began to wish he’d never agreed to work for the Roman Government, and to wonder wistfully if there was any hope for him.
He heard more stories about Jesus, how he healed people of horrible diseases, spoke about the love of God and forgiveness. He wished he could meet this Jesus, but thought it could never happen – not to him, a tax collector, a sinner.
Matthew’s tax office was really just a booth or a shelter erected on the main road where everyone had to pass. It was an open structure, open so he could see everything that was going on and where the Roman officials could find him easily on reckoning day. No-one was able to go unnoticed by the officials – tax evasion was punishable by death of the most horrible. This was Israel under Roman occupation.
Anyway, Matthew heard the noise of the crowd even before he heard the news. Maybe he thought they might be coming to lynch him – he’d been expecting it for years. His heart began to beat rapidly, and he wondered if he’d have to leave that day’s takings behind if he had to run for it. His mind worked overtime, his breath rasped in his tight chest. Then he heard the truth.
The crowd wasn’t interested in him. They were following Jesus, who had come to town.
I can see the wistfulness spring into Matthew’s sharp little eyes, see him wipe his beaky Jewish nose with sudden despair. “He won’t want to see me.”
The noise of the crowd grew closer, and he watched the dust swirling under thousands of sandalled feet coming his way. There was a figure at the front, around whom people were pressing as if to hear his words, or catch his attention. Matthew could hardly breathe. It must be Him. It must be Jesus!
The crowd drew abreast of Matthew’s tax booth and stopped. Jesus stopped, and that whole crowd of milling bodies stopped with Him. Matthew looked up, hope springing impossibly into his shrivelled soul. The Gospel of Luke says that Jesus looked intently at Matthew.
Do you know that look? That intent stare directed at a particular person can say a thousand words in a glance. That look from Jesus said, “Hello son. I know all about you. I know what you’ve been feeling for the past month. I know the longing you’re afraid to admit. I know your guilt. I know your despair. I’ve come to change your life.”
Then Jesus spoke aloud. All He said was, “Follow me.”
That’s all it took. Matthew had heard Jesus unspoken words as if they’d been shouted. He’d seen the intent look of love, acceptance and forgiveness in Jesus’ eyes. He needed no other incentive – he was ready.
He jumped up from his table as if it was covered with snakes. Maybe it tipped over and money was strewn everywhere. Matthew didn’t care. He knew that if he left now, there was no going back. He’d have the Romans after him with a vengeance, but he didn’t care. He’d be leaving his livelihood, his means of survival, but he didn’t care. He just wanted Jesus. He left everything as it was and ran out into the road, ran to Jesus, and never went back.
In the ensuing days, Matthew gave away all his considerable wealth to those he’d been systematically cheating, and gave a huge banquet for Jesus, to which he invited all the friends from his tax-collecting days, men just as despicable as he had been, hoping Jesus could change them the way he’d been changed himself.
When Jesus gives us that intent look, life can never be the same! Matthew became one of the twelve apostles of our Lord, and wrote one of the four gospels. A bit of a change from money-grabbing, wouldn’t you say?