Matthew: Disciple

Over the Easter period, I had the privilege of sharing a series of stories that walked through the death and resurrection narratives. In a conversation with someone afterward, the question was asked about just who Matthew the tax collector really was. The person asking the question was intrigued by the lack of information we have about many of the disciples, and wondered if it were actually possible to really connect with them as characters in the story. What a great question! It certainly got me thinking…

Matthew or Levi?

In Mark and Luke’s account of the calling of the tax collector, they use the name Levi. We are not entirely sure why, but there are a couple of possibilities. Levi may have been his name before he became a follower of Jesus. Jesus may have given him a new name, in the same way he called Simon the fisherman Peter. It’s also possible that he may of changed his own name, or that he was known as Matthew from the tribe of Levi. The truth is, we don’t really know. What we do know is that Mathew is a shortening of the name Mattathias, which means “gift of Yahweh,” or simply “the gift of God.”

The other thing we can determine from the story is the effect that Jesus had on him. Matthew lived and worked in Capernaum, which is where Jesus was currently living. Did Matthew and Jesus have a prior knowledge of each other?  Had Jesus paid his taxes to Matthew in the past? What had Matthew seen and heard about this Jesus, his miracles and teachings? Perhaps he had heard Jesus teaching in the synagogue.

It’s highly likely that Matthew knows the government official who’s son Jesus had healed by just speaking the words… or the local Roman Centurion who asked Jesus to heal his dyeing servant. Both these men came from Capernaum. Could it also be that Matthew has seen the transformation that has taken place in the lives of some of the other locals who are now following Jesus… like Simon and his brother Andrew. And what about the sons of Zebedee, James and John?


We don’t know what influence Jesus or any of the other disciples had in Matthews life, but we do know that when Jesus stopped and said “Follow Me”, everything changed. When he got up and walked away from his tax-collecting booth, he was virtually guaranteeing himself unemployment. It was alright for some of the other disciples… they always had fishing to return to, but for Matthew, there was no turning back.

And that is one of the things that I admire about him. When Jesus called Matthew to follow him, he got up and followed.

Interestingly, there are no other stories in any of the Gospels about Matthew as a disciple of Jesus. He appears in the list of the disciples who were appointed by Jesus to be Apostles; and he is listed as one of those present in Acts when Matthias was chosen to replace Judas… but other than that, we know next to nothing about him, except what we can deduce from the story.

For example, Matthew would have been reasonably wealthy, because he could afford to throw a lavish banquette in his home. And he was also certainly literate as well. He would have kept immaculate records of the tax collected and paid. In all likelihood, Matthew would have spoken both Hebrew and Aramaic and probably Koine Greek, which was the everyday language used throughout the Roman Empire, especially east of Rome. There is also a good chance he could read and write in the legal language of the Roman Empire, which was Latin.

But did Matthew use his literary skills to write the Gospel that bears his name?

The short and honest answer to that question is… we don’t know. What we do know is that the Gospel of Matthew was accepted by the early Church as authoritative and inspired before the end of the first century. We can also be sure that the author of Matthew wrote with a Jewish audience in mind. Unlike the author of the Gospel of Mark, the author of Matthew never bothers to explain Jewish customs, since his intended audience was a Jewish one.

Even the placing of Matthew as the first Gospel serves a purpose. There is nearly 400 years of silence from God in the Scriptures between the Old Testament and the New Testament, and Matthews account of the birth of Emmanuel breaks that silence. It is the perfect introduction for the Jews to a new and better covenant.  The author of Matthew wants his audience to understand that not only is Jesus King, born in the line of David, but He is also the long awaited for and prophesied about Messiah.

So what might we learn from the life of Matthew the Disciple?

Whether Matthew the tax collector wrote the book or not… the recorded actions of this Jewish man speak volumes. When Jesus called Matthew to follow Him, Matthew got up from his place of security, power and privilege… and allowed Jesus to reshape His identity as a disciple.

That is something I need to do every day.

Matthew: Tax Collector

Who was Matthew the tax collector?

During the time of Jesus in first century Israel, taxes were collected by people called publicans. The word publican comes from the Latin word publicanus, which is translated from the Greek word telones (tel-o’-nace) which mean a collector of taxes. There were two levels of publican in Jesus day; chief publicans and ordinary publicans.

Luke tells us that Zacchaeus was a chief publican – or chief tax collector (Luke19:2) and that he was very wealthy. It was common for a chief tax collector to have a team of tax collectors working for him, so Matthew (also called Levi), being an ordinary publican, may have been working as a part of a larger team.

Contrary to popular belief, Roman taxes were not as high as you might think.

Every adult man was to pay 1% of his annual income as income tax. There were also import and export taxes, crop taxes (1/10 of grain crop and 1/5 of wine, fruit, and olive oil), sales tax and property tax. There was also an emergency tax, which was often as high as 3% of the annual income and was levied in times of war to help fund new military conquests, which was often.

There were positive aspects to being taxed by the Romans, because taxes paid for a good system of roads, law and order, and a level of security. In return, the Romans allowed a level of religious freedom, and a certain amount of self government, as well as other benefits, like emergency aid if there was a natural disaster. But it was a system open to dishonest gain, bribery and extortion.

Every few years, the Roman senate would ‘auction’ the rights to collect the taxes in the various provinces. An enterprising businessman could tender for the right to collect that tax. If he won the tender, he would then pay, in advance, the total amount of expected tax that was to be collected in his province, based on the known population of that province. The money was paid to the Roman treasury, where it was held in trust, with the treasury actually paying the interest earned back to the chief tax collector once he met his required quota. It was then up the chief tax collector to make sure he collected enough tax to meet that quota… plus any extra just in case… plus whatever he wanted to add to make a profit. The treasury didn’t care about how much extra was collected, as long as it got what was required.

To make sure no one was missed, the chief tax collectors employed people to do the actual collecting. Matthew was one of those people. Of course, ordinary tax collectors were free to add their profit margin to the tax also.

But why were tax collectors hated so much?

Well for starters, Matthew, like so many tax collectors, was a fellow Jew, and there was something distasteful about a Jewish person collecting tax from his own people to fill the coffers of the empire that had invaded your country, your home. And there was nothing worse than a fellow Jew making a tidy prophet at your expense. But there was more to it than that.

Paying taxes to the Roman Empire was offensive to the Jewish people, and there was one tax in particular that offended them the most… the Poll Tax. The poll tax is the tax discussed in Matthew 22:15-22. The poll tax was the main tax used to finance the occupying Roman army, and as a tax required to be paid by every person, it implied that Rome owned not only the land but the people themselves. The Jews believed that as a people, they belonged only to God, and that the land was their rightful possession, given to them by God. So in their view, if Jesus answered “No” to their question, “Is it right to pay taxes to Caesar or not?” – the Herodians could charge Him with treason against Rome. But if He said “Yes,” the Pharisees would accuse Him of disloyalty to Israel and God. But Jesus, true to form, gave an answer that destroyed both arguments: “Give back to Caesar the things that are Caesar’s, and to God the things that are God’s.”

So as a tax collector, it is safe to say that Matthew was not very liked by the majority of his countrymen. Was he happy? Did he enjoy what he did? We can’t be sure, but something was about to happen that would change Matthews life for ever.

Personally, I think he was looking for just such a change.