The Calling of Matthew (Levi)

Matthew 9:9-13; Mark 2:13-17; Luke 5:27-32

DIG: What is surprising about Jesus’ choice of Matthew? Why? How does this story relate to the paralyzed man? The fishermen who became apostles probably paid inflated taxes to Levi for years. How would they feel when Yeshua called him? Why did He do so? What did it cost Mattityahu to become a talmid? What does the Lord say is needed to enter God’s Kingdom?

REFLECT: If Christ really does forgive sin, why do many believers struggle so much with forgiveness? How sick were you before you saw your need for the Great Physician? Look at the people around you. How can you show those the other side of the cultural fence of unconditional, unquestioning love? How can you cross the great divide and help them see that Yeshua’s love knows no boundaries?

Once again Yeshua went out from Peter’s house for a walk down by the Sea of Galilee. This incident immediately followed the healing of the paralytic (see Co – Jesus Forgives and Heals a Paralyzed Man). The English word by is translated from the Greek word para, which means alongside. It suggests the idea that our Lord did not only go to the seashore, but that He loved to walk along the shore, perhaps for rest and quiet, and for the opportunity to be alone with God the Father. The freshness of the air, the quieting influence of the sound of the waves, and the long view over the sea which met His eyes, all would be a tonic for the man Christ Jesus. Whose human nature with all its limitations, needed recreation and rest just as our bodies need them.428

The white-sailed ships would bring crowds of listeners and as He was walking along, a large crowd gathered to hear the word and see the Word (Matthew 9:9a; Mark 2:13; Luke 5:27a). Perhaps Levi may have witnessed the call of the first apostles. He certainly must have known the fishermen and ship-owners of Capernaum. The city was located on the Via Maris and being a busy populous center, had a large custom house with a correspondingly large number of tax collectors. It was located at the landing-place for the ships that traveled the Lake to various towns on the other shore.

As He walked along, He saw a tax collector by the name of Matthew (Levi), son of Alphaeus (Matthew 9:9b; Mark 2:14a; Luke 5:27b). It was not uncommon for Jews to have two names, as is the practice today. Jews in the Diaspora have both a Hebrew name as well as a name common for the country in which they live. We know from other Gospel writers that his secondary name was Levi. If this means that he was also from priestly descent, then his enigma becomes even greater. Because of the problems associated with such tax collectors, the rabbis issued a series of judgments against them, such as their disqualification as legal witnesses (Tractate Sanhedrin 25b).429

Whether passing through town or country, by quiet side-roads or along the great highway, there was one sight that would constantly remind Jews of their foreign domination and awaken within them fresh indignation and hatred – the foreign tax collector. By profession, Matthew was a tax collector in the service of Herod Antipas, the ruler of Galilee as designated by the Romans. Rome required each tax collector to gather a certain amount of taxes. Anything they got over that amount, they could keep. In order to keep them happy and productive, the Roman government looked the other way as they overcharged people and extorted whatever they could from their countrymen. A shrewd tax collector could amass a large fortune in very little time. Needless to say, they were regarded with the utmost contempt by all Israel and were viewed as traitors.

Jesus saw Matthew (Levi) sitting at the tax collector’s booth (Matthew 9:9c; Mark 2:14b; Luke 5:27c). According to Jewish writings there were two kinds of tax collectors, the Gabbai and the Mokhes. The Gabbai were general tax collectors. They collected property tax, income tax, and the poll tax. These taxes were set by official assessments, so not as much could be skimmed off the top from these. The Mokhes, however, collected on imports and exports, goods for domestic trade, and virtually anything that was moved by road. They set tolls on roads and bridges, taxed beasts of burden and axles on transport wagons, and charged tariffs on parcels, letters, or whatever else they could find to tax.

Mokhes consisted of the Great Mokhes and the Little Mokhes. A Great Mokhes stayed behind the scenes and hired others to collect taxes for him. Zaccheus was apparently one of the Great Mokhes (see Ip – Zacchaeus the Tax Collector). Matthew was evidently a Little Mokhes, because he manned a tax office where he dealt with people face to face. He was the one the people saw and resented the most.

According to the rabbis there was no hope for a man like Levi. Pharisaic Judaism stood silent in regards to the forgiveness of sins, so it had no word of welcome or help for the sinner. The very term Pharisee, or separated one, implied their exclusion. Once a man became a tax collector he became ostracized from the Jewish community. According to the Oral Law (see Ei – The Oral Law), the only people who could associate with them were other tax collectors and prostitutes, who were both considered sinners. They taught that repentance was virtually impossible for either a tax collector or a prostitute.

Here was a Jew who loved money more than the respect and fellowship of his countrymen. The bond between Jews is usually far closer than it is between members of other races, since the Jew is part of an isolated and persecuted nation. Therefore, some tax collectors, concerned about their reputations, stayed out of the public eye by hiring others to collect taxes for them. But the really brazen ones, the ones who didn’t care what people thought of them, actually sat at the tax collecting booth themselves. It was one thing to be a tax collector; it was quite another to flaunt it. On the one hand, this showed the disgusting state of Levi’s soul. But, on the other hand, this was a man that Jesus could use. It was not the first time Yeshua had seen Mattityahu, He had been observing him for some time. And this was not the first time Levi had seen Messiah.

Matthew must have been a man under conviction. Deep down in his soul he must have longed to be free from his life of sin, and that must have been why he practically ran to join Messiah. He would never have followed Yeshua on a whim; he would have given up too much. He surely knew what he was getting into. Jesus had ministered publically all over the area; the whole city of Capernaum knew about the renegade Rabbi. Levi had seen His miracles. He knew what he was signing up for. He had counted the cost and was prepared to obey.430

Then the Savior of Sinners said to him: Follow Me. The Greek word is akoloutheo. It comes from a word meaning to walk the same road. It means to follow one who precedes, or to join one as his disciple. All these things were involved with our Lord’s command, but it was more than an invitation. The word is in the imperative mode, issuing a command. Here was King Messiah, sovereign in His demands. Levi recognized the authoritative tone of Yeshua’s voice. But the Holy Spirit will never kick down the door of your heart. He must be invited in. Mattityahu could say no to Jesus and make it stick. Like we all do - Levi had a choice. At the crossroads of his life, what would he do?

Immediately Mattityahu got up, left everything and followed Him (Matthew 9:9d; Mark 2:14c; Luke 5:27d-28). It meant poverty for Levi, instead of the affluence and luxury to which he had been accustomed. So much for the “God wants you to be a millionaire” crowd of yesteryear and today! The verb is in the present tense, commanding the beginning of an action and its habitual practice. It’s as if Jesus was saying, “Start following Me, and continue as a habit of life to follow Me.” This meant that from that time on, Mattityahu would walk the same road that Jesus walked, a road of self-sacrifice, a road of separation, a road of suffering and a road of holiness.

But the command was not merely: Follow Me. It was, in essence: Follow with Me. The person indicated by the pronoun is the means that completes the association between the two people. King Messiah did not, therefore, merely command Levi to become His follower. He welcomed him to be His friend and participate in His ministry. This was not, Follow behind Me, but Follow beside Me as we walk side-by-side down the same road.431 We are given specific details of the callings of only seven of the original apostles: John, Andrew, Peter, James, Philip and Nathanael (see Bp – John’s Disciples Follow Jesus). Matthew was the seventh talmid.

This marked the point of Matthew’s new birth, so he threw himself a “new birth” birthday party. But instead of the focus of the celebration being on himself, he wanted to celebrate the One who had brought him his new birth. As a sign of heartfelt appreciation for his new calling, Levi held a great banquet for Jesus at his house. Consequently, Mattityahu invited his friends, the only people he could associate with: other tax collectors and prostitutes, and sinners. And a large crowd of tax collectors and sinners came and ate with Yeshua and His talmidim, for there were many who followed and ate with Him (Matthew 9:10; Mark 2:15; Luke 5:29). His friends were thieves, blasphemers, degenerates, con artists, swindlers and other tax collectors. This was a crowd that Christ could not contact in the synagogues.

The Pharisees could verbalize their objections because they were in the second stage of interrogation (see Lg – The Great Sanhedrin). As a result, when the Torah-teachers who belonged to the sect of the Pharisees saw Jesus eating with sinners, they complained to His talmidim. Hardly being able to conceal their dismay, they complained: Why does your rabbi eat with tax collectors, prostitutes and sinners (Matthew 9:11; Mark 2:16; Luke 5:30)? It was as if they were thinking, “If he were really the Messiah, he would be having a dinner for us!”

By the very name of the sect of Judaism called the Pharisees, meaning separate ones, would keep far away from anyone they considered a sinner. The Talmud states it this way, “If a tax collector entered a house, all within it became unclean. People may not believed if they say, ‘We entered but we touched nothing’ (Tractate Toharot 7:6).” From their perspective, such apostate Jews were not only beyond personal friendship, but this kind of crowd would certainly render any observant Jew ritually unclean. Yet, Yeshua breaks down some commonly accepted norms once again, as He not only goes to such a banquet, but also shares a meal with them.432 On hearing this, Jesus answered them in a powerful threefold argument.

First, His appeal to personal experience compares sinners to sick people who need a doctor. He explained: It is not the healthy who need a doctor, but the sick. The Pharisees agreed that the tax collectors were spiritually sick. But Christ’s implied reply was, “So why shouldn’t He go to them?” From Messiah’s perspective, those were the very ones who needed His help. It came as a stinging rebuke to the hard-heartedness of the Pharisees. His not so subtle question to them was this, “If you’re so perceptive as to diagnose them as sinners, what will you do about it? Or are you doctors who give diagnoses but no cure?” Thus, He exposed them for the pious hypocrites that they really were. Jesus was not at the banquet because He enjoyed that kind of company, for He did not. There was sin all around Him, and His righteous, sensitive soul abhorred it. But Messiah was there to reach their souls for salvation. No cost was too high to accomplish that, even His own life.

Second, the argument from Scripture denounced the Pharisees’ pride: Go and learn. The rabbis used this phrase to reprove students ignorant of something they should have known. It was as if Jesus was saying, “Go back through the TaNaKh and come back again when you’ve got the basics down.” Go and learn what this means, and then He quotes Hosea 6:6: I desire mercy, not animal sacrifice. That would have been highly offensive to the Pharisees who considered themselves experts in the TaNaKh. They must have thought, “How dare he quote Hosea to us!” They were characterized by much sacrifice, but they lacked mercy. They were careful to keep the external demands of the Torah, but failed to keep its internal demands, like mercy. While the Pharisees were experts at ritual, they had no love for sinners. ADONAI instituted the sacrificial system and commanded Isra'el to follow certain rituals, but that was pleasing to the LORD only when it was the expression of a broken and contrite heart (Psalm 51:16-17).

The third argument, from His own authority, shocked them: For I have not come to call the righteous, but sinners to repentance (Mattityahu 9:12-13; Mark 2:17; Luke 5:31-32). The Pharisees saw themselves as being among the righteous and saw the tax collectors and prostitutes as sinners. Luke 18:9 describes the Pharisees as those who were confident of their own righteousness and looked down on everyone else. But the reality was that they also were in need of the righteousness that only the Meshiach could provide. The postmodern world or relativism that we live in today should not discourage us from a sense of urgency to share the Good News with all those around us. Apparently, this was the one reason why Levi sponsored his banquet to begin with. Jesus came to call sinners to repentance.

God didn’t look at our frazzled lives and say, “I’ll die for you when you deserve it.” No, despite our sin, in the face of our rebellion, He chose to adopt us. And for ADONAI, there’s no going back. His grace is a come-as-you-are promise from a one-of-a-kind King. You’ve been found, called, and adopted; so trust your Father and claim this verse as your own. But God demonstrates His own love for us in this: While we were still sinners, Christ died for us (Romans 5:8). And you never again have to wonder who your Father is – you’ve been adopted by the King and are therefore an heir of God through Christ (Galatians 4:7).433

Yeshua’s message had been quite clear, and that set the stage for the decision of the Sanhedrin. Was He the Messiah or not? Their decision would change the course of history (see Ek – It is only by Beelzebub, the Prince of Demons, that This Fellow Drives out Demons). So everywhere that Jesus went the Pharisees raised objections either to the things He said or the things He did. It cannot be emphasized too strongly that ALL these objections were over the Oral Law and not the Torah. There was NEVER a time when they objected to Jesus not keeping the Torah. In fact, He was the only person who ever lived that kept all 613 commands of the Torah perfectly.

My wife and I started a church in Wisconsin many years ago. While I was there, I was developing a relationship with a man that lived in my neighborhood. Our sons played on the same Little League team and we started spending time together because he was a sports nut and so was I. One day he asked me if I wanted to go with him to a sports bar to watch the Green Bay Packers on Monday Night Football. I thought it would be a great opportunity to spend some time with him and enjoy the game to boot! So we went. He had some beers and I had many diet Cokes. The next Sunday, one of the members of our church took me to task for being seen in a bar. “A bar! And you are a pastor! How could you? Don’t you care about your witness?” I would like to tell you that I won her over to my way of thinking, but I didn’t - and she left our church. But don’t you see, this was His image: The Son of Man came to seek and save the lost (Luke 19:10). Should we be ashamed to do any less?

Lord, help me to be like You. Help me to be conformed into Your image. Let me care about my witness, but let me be a friend to tax collectors and sinners, just like You. Amen.


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