THE MAN WHOM ALL MEN HATED
As Jesus passed on from there, He saw a man called Matthew seated at the tax-collector’s table. “Follow me,” he said to him; and he arose and followed him.
There was never a more unlikely candidate for the office of apostle than Matthew. Matthew was what the King James Version calls a publican; the publicani were tax-gatherers, and were so called because they dealt with public money and with public funds.
The problem of the Roman government was to devise a system whereby the taxes could be collected as efficiently and as cheaply as possible. They did so by auctioning the right to collect taxes in a certain area. The man who bought that right was responsible to the Roman government for an agreed sum; anything he could raise over and above that he was allowed to keep as commission.
Obviously this system lent itself to grave abuses. People did not really know how much they ought to pay in the days before newspapers and radio and television, nor had they any right of appeal against the tax-collector. The consequence was that many a tax-collector became a wealthy man through illegal extortion. This system had led to so many abuses that in Palestine it had been brought to an end before the time of Jesus; but taxes still had to be paid, and there were still abuses.
There were three great stated taxes. There was a ground tax by which a man had to pay one-tenth of his grain and one-fifth of his fruit and vine to the government either in cash or in kind. There was income tax, which was one per cent of a man’s income. There was a poll-tax which had to be paid by every male from the age of fourteen to the age of sixty-five, and by every female from the age of twelve to sixty-five. These were statutory taxes and could not well be used by tax-collectors for private profit.
But in addition to these taxes there were all sorts of other taxes. There was a duty of anything from 2.5 per cent to 12.5 per cent on all goods imported and exported. A tax had to be paid to travel on main reacts, to cross bridges, to enter market-places and towns or harbours. There was a tax on pack animals, and a tax on the wheels and axles of carts. There were purchase taxes on goods bought and sold. There were certain commodities which were government monopolies. For instance, in Egypt the trade in nitrate, beer, and papyrus was entirely in government control.
Although the old method of auctioning the taxes had been stopped, all kinds of people were needed to collect these taxes. The people who collected them were drawn from the provincials themselves. Often they were volunteers. Usually in any district one person was responsible for one tax, and it was not difficult for such a person to line his own pockets in addition to collecting the taxes which were legally due.
These tax-gatherers were universally hated. They had entered the service of their country’s conquerors, and they amassed their fortunes at the expense of their country’s misfortunes. They were notoriously dishonest. Not only did they fleece their own countrymen, but they also did their best to swindle the government, and they made a flourishing income by taking bribes from rich people who wished to avoid taxes which they should have paid.
Every country hates its tax-gatherers, but the hatred of the Jews for them was doubly violent. The Jews were fanatical nationalists. But what roused the Jews more than anything else was their religious conviction that God alone was king, and that to pay taxes to any mortal ruler was an infringement of God’s rights and an insult to his majesty. By Jewish law a tax-gatherer was debarred from the synagogue; he was included with things and beasts unclean, and Lev.20:5 was applied to them; he was forbidden to be a witness in any case, “robbers, murderers and tax-gatherers” were classed together.
When Jesus called Matthew he called a man whom all men hated. Here is one of the greatest instances in the New Testament of Jesus’ power to see in a man, not only what he was, but also what he could be. No one ever had such faith in the possibilities of human nature as Jesus had.
A CHALLENGE ISSUED AND RECEIVED
Matt. 9:9 (continued)
Capernaum was in the territory of Herod Antipas, and in all probability Matthew was not directly in the service of the Romans but in the service of Herod. Capernaum was a great meeting place of roads. In particular the great road from Egypt to Damascus, the Way of the Sea, passed through Capernaum. It was there that it entered the dominion of Herod for business purposes, and no doubt Matthew was one of those customs officers who exacted duty on all goods and commodities as they entered and left the territory of Herod.
It is not to be thought that Matthew had never seen Jesus before. No doubt Matthew had heard about this young Galilean who came with a message breathtakingly new, who spoke with an authority the like of which no one had ever heard before, and who numbered amongst his friends men and women from whom the orthodox good people of the day shrank in loathing. No doubt Matthew had listened on the outskirts of the crowd, and had felt his heart stir within him. Perhaps Matthew had wondered wistfully if even yet it was not too late to set sail and to seek a newer world, to leave his old life and his old shame and to begin again. So he found Jesus standing before him; he heard Jesus issue his challenge; and Matthew accepted that challenge and rose up and left all and followed him.
We must note what Matthew lost and what Matthew found. He lost a comfortable job, but found a destiny. He lost a good income, but found honour. He lost a comfortable security, but found an adventure the like of which he had never dreamed. It may be that if we accept the challenge of Christ, we shall find ourselves poorer in material things. It may be that the worldly ambitions will have to go. But beyond doubt we will find a peace and a joy and a thrill in life that we never knew before. In Jesus Christ a man finds a wealth surpassing anything he may have to abandon for the sake of Christ.
We must note what Matthew left and what Matthew took. He left his tax-collector’s table; but from it took one thing–his pen. Here is a shining example of how Jesus can use whatever gift a man may bring to him. It is not likely that the others of the Twelve were handy with a pen. Galilean fishermen would not have much skill in writing or in putting words together. But Matthew had; and this man, whose trade had taught him to use a pen, used that skill to compose the first handbook of the teaching of Jesus, which must rank as one of the most important books the world has ever read.
When Matthew left the tax-collector’s table that day he gave up much in the material sense, but in the spiritual sense he became heir to a fortune.
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