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.

My Father’s House

I was recently sharing the story of that time when Jesus went missing from his family as they travelled home from Jerusalem to Nazareth. As we considered the story, and in particular, how we might have felt if we were Jesus’ parents, someone in our group spoke about something they had discovered from the story that impacted them deeply. It was the first time they had noticed Jesus’ play on the word Father.

Upon finding Jesus in the temple, Mary said to him, “Your father and I have been frantic, searching for you everywhere.” Jesus’ reply was, “But why did you need to search? Didn’t you know that I must be in my Father’s house?”.

The idea that Jesus, at the tender age of just 12, would have a deep understanding of his relationship with his heavenly Father, was significant for our friend. What stood out the most was the idea of identity, or belonging.

Jesus had an earthy family. He had several brothers and sisters and it would seem from this story that Joseph and Mary were very comfortable with the idea that Jesus was secure in the company of family and friends. Yet, it was not his earthly family that Jesus longed for. Yes, I’m sure he loved them very much. We know that he returned with them to Nazareth and was ‘obedient to them’ for at least another 18 years! But what he really longed for was to be with his Fathers people, in his Fathers house.

As I thought about this some more, I was confronted by the question, Which house do I long for most? Don’t get me wrong.. I love being with my family and friends. But do I long to be with my Father’s people? Do I long to dwell in His house?

I think I am re-learning to say yes to both those questions more often than not.

I am pleading with the Eternal for this one thing, my soul’s desire: To live with Him all of my days — in the shadow of His temple, To behold His beauty and ponder His ways in the company of His people. Psalm 27:4 (The Voice)

Community of Learning

hqdefaultI recently heard an excellent talk in which the speaker focused on the story of Jesus ditching his parents in favour of hanging out in the temple in Jerusalem (Luke 2:41-52). Jesus’ parents had set off home towards Nazareth, thinking that the young Jesus was travelling somewhere in their group with the rest of their family and friends. Unbeknown to them, Jesus had stayed in Jerusalem and after a frantic three days of searching for him, they found him in the temple courts.

As I reflected on this story myself, I was drawn to verses 46-47.

After three days they found him in the temple courts, sitting among the teachers, listening to them and asking them questions. Everyone who heard him was amazed at his understanding and his answers.

As I stopped to consider what these two verses, it occurred to me that this is an excellent example of a shared learning environment. Notice that Jesus is both listening to the teachers and asking questions. Notice also that everyone who heard him (the implication being that ‘everyone’ here means those who were involved in the conversation) was amazed at his understanding and his answers.

The best way I can think of to picture what is going on here is to visualise it with a diagram.

Screenshot at Oct 08 15-40-53This community of learning is not a new idea in the context of the temple. It is how people discussed ideas, debated topics and learnt from each other. I can imagine that at times it got quite lively. There was always room for disagreement and robust debate. But most importantly, there was a culture of listening and asking questions, of sharing answers and knowledge.

I can’t help but wonder why we don’t encourage this more in our own faith communities.

What might it look like if we actively invited people to participate in a shared learning environment? Imagine how vibrant and inclusive our faith communities might be if we dared to encourage people of all ages to step into the conversation, to become active participants in a community of learning.

Spirit And Truth

“Believe me, dear woman, the time is coming when it will no longer matter whether you worship the Father on this mountain or in Jerusalem. You Samaritans know very little about the one you worship, while we Jews know all about him, for salvation comes through the Jews. But the time is coming—indeed it’s here now—when true worshipers will worship the Father in spirit and in truth. The Father is looking for those who will worship him that way. For God is Spirit, so those who worship him must worship in spirit and in truth.” ~ Jesus

In Deuteronomy 6:4, Moses sets down for the Israelites how they are to love their God: “You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your might.”

Because the idea of “might” in Hebrew indicates the totality of ones physical being, Jesus expanded this expression to include the idea of “mind” and “strength”. To worship God in spirit and truth must involve loving Him with heart, soul, mind and strength… all of who we are.

In essence, you can’t separate spirit and truth.

Spirit without truth leads to a shallow, emotionally driven experience. As soon as the experience is over, the worship ends.

On the other hand, truth without spirit can result in an empty, passionless encounter that that often takes the form of joyless legalism.

But when you combine the two, the result is a wondrous appreciation of God.

As we get to know God through the scriptures, we begin to get a picture of what God is like. The more we know about God, the more we appreciate Him. The more we appreciate Him, the deeper our worship. The deeper our worship, the more God is glorified.

Bringing glory to God is what worship is about… And that is what God is looking for.

Up Hill

unimprovedroadThe distance from Capernaum to Cana is about 35km’s. Its a days walk. It’s uphill all the way. A certain man, a royal official, is walking 35km’s, uphill, to ask a carpenter for help. Why? Because his young son has a fever and could very well die. What does that tell you about this man?

It tells me two things. He is desperate and he loves his son very much. Who is this man? What is his story? Who does he think Jesus is? The truth is, we don’t really know. What we do know is that here is a man who is willing to risk everything in a last ditch attempt to save his son’s life. Is he a man of faith? Maybe. Does he have anything to loose? Probably not. Does he have hope? Absolutely. Why else would you make a mad dash up the hill to intercept a man you had only heard rumors about?

read the full story here

What, No Fish?

netWhen Jesus asked the fishermen, “…haven’t you any fish?”… he is simply inquiring as one who wished to buy fish. But at the same time, he can see that they don’t have any.

Another way to ask this question would be, “Hey fellas, you don’t have any fish, do you?”

Remember, they don’t know who this guy on the beach is yet. As far as they are concerned, it is just some prospective customer looking to buy some fish. Of course, Jesus knows that they haven’t caught anything, and by asking the question in this way, he is setting the scene for what he wants to teach them.

The text says they answered with a simple “No”. I would love to know the tone of voice that accompanied that “No”? Was there a hint of exhaustion? An edge of irritation? A trace of embarrassment? We don’t know.

What we do know, is how Jesus responds to their “No”.

“Throw your net on the right side of the boat and you will find some.”

What amazes me is in this story, is that the disciples actually did what the man on the shore suggested. You would think experienced fishermen, who had been up all night and caught nothing, would resent advice from a bystander.

Considering the mood that they were probably in, I wouldn’t have been surprised if they had ignored the stranger all together and wrote him off as just another fishing wannabe who didn’t know what He was talking about.

But do you recall the last time these fishermen found themselves in this situation? In Luke chapter 5, Jesus instructed them to put out into the deeper water and let down the nets… again, after they had been fishing all night and caught nothing.

Simon Peter’s response then was, “Master, we’ve worked hard all night and haven’t caught anything. But because you say so, I will let down the nets.”

But on this particular occasion, it appears that the disciples simply did as they were told. I find that absolutely amazing… and I must confess that I am not sure if I understand why they act in this way.

They didn’t know it was Jesus… and they probably just wanted to get the boat in, clean the nets and go home.

But verse 6 simply says, When they did…

It occurred to me, as I though about this, that professional fisherman would have noticed a large school of fish near the surface so close to the boat. True to the nature of faith, could it be that the fish were not actually there until the net hit the water. When they did, they were rewarded for their faith. When they did, Jesus was able to provide for them in a miraculous way.

I wonder, what might your net be today? What is it that Jesus might be asking you to trust Him with? What do you need to ‘throw to the right side of the boat’?

I look forward to hearing your stories of ‘When you did…’

Riding On A Donkey

why-are-palm-branches_1396549834Imagine the noise as all the praises of a thousand people filled the air!  There was a line of people stretching from the top of the Mount of Olives all the way down to the city gate.  In fact, according to John’s account, there were so many people lining the road that the Pharisees were saying to each other, “Look how the whole world has gone after him!”… which is kind of ironic when you stop to think that in a weeks time, this same crowd would be shouting “Crucify Him!”

And then suddenly, in the midst of this excitement and joyous celebration, we find Jesus all alone.  It’s as if Luke gives us a little insight into what was going through Jesus’ mind as he comes up over the Mount of Olives, with all of Jerusalem spread out before him.

Don’t miss the importance of this…  Jesus is riding into Jerusalem on a donkey, as a king bringing peace to his people.  He is coming down from the Mount of Olives, itself a symbol of peace, when he says… with tears in his eyes… (verse 42) “If you, even you, had only known on this day what would bring you peace—but now it is hidden from your eyes.”

How it must of broken his heart to know that in just a few short days, the very people he was weeping over would be the same ones who would have him put to death.  Their unbelief would be their downfall, which is why he pronounces a judgment on the city.  This prophecy came true in 70 AD when the Roman Emperor Titus destroyed the city of Jerusalem, tearing down the temple and the city walls.

But what an entrance for the King of Kings and the Lord of Lords!