THE CALL OF THE MAN WHOM ALL MEN HATED
So Jesus went out again to the lakeside, and the whole crowd came to him, and he went on teaching them. As he walked along, he saw Levi, the son of Alphaeus, sitting in the office where he collected the customs duties. He said to him, “Follow me!” He rose and followed him.
Steadily and inexorably the synagogue door was shutting on Jesus. Between him and the guardians of Jewish orthodoxy war had been declared. Now he was teaching, not in the synagogue, but by the lakeside. The open air was to be his church, the blue sky his canopy, and a hillside or a fishing boat his pulpit. Here was the beginning of that dreadful situation when the Son of God was banned from the place which was regarded as the house of God.
He was walking by the lakeside and teaching. That was one of the commonest ways for a Rabbi to teach. As the Jewish Rabbis walked the roads from one place to another, or as they strolled in the open air, their disciples grouped themselves around and walked with them and listened as they talked. Jesus was doing what any Rabbi might have done.
Galilee was one of the great road centres of the ancient world. It has been said that, “Judaea is on the way to nowhere; Galilee is on the way to everywhere.” Palestine was the land bridge between Europe and Africa; all land traffic must go through her. The great Road of the Sea led from Damascus, by way of Galilee, through Capernaum, down past Carmel, along the Plain of Sharon, through Gaza and on to Egypt. It was one of the great roads of the world. Another road led from Acre on the coast away across the Jordan out to Arabia and the frontiers of the empire, a road that was trodden by the regiments and the caravans.
Palestine at this time was divided up. Judaea was a Roman province under a Roman procurator; Galilee was ruled by Herod Antipas, a son of Herod the Great; to the east the territory which included Gaulonitis, Trachonitis and Batanaea was ruled by Philip, another of Herod’s sons. On the way from Philip’s territory to Herod’s domains, Capernaum was the first town to which the traveller came. It was by its very nature a frontier town; because of that it was a customs’ centre. In those days there were import and export taxes and Capernaum must have been the place where they were collected. That is where Matthew worked. True, he was not, like Zacchaeus, in the service of the Romans; he was working for Herod Antipas; but a hated tax-collector he was. (The King James Version calls the tax-collectors, publicans; that is because the Latin word was publicanus; the translation publican which is, of course, nowadays quite misleading, actually goes back to Wycliffe.)
This story tells us certain things both about Matthew and about Jesus.
(i) Matthew was a well-hated man. Tax-gatherers can never be a popular section of the community, but in the ancient world they were hated. People never knew just how much they had to pay; the tax-collectors extracted from them as much as they could possibly get and lined their own pockets with the surplus that remained after the demands of the law had been met. Even a Greek writer like Lucian ranks tax-gatherers with “adulterers, panderers, flatterers and sycophants.” Jesus wanted the man no one else wanted. He offered his friendship to the man whom all others would have scorned to call friend.
(ii) Matthew must have been a man at that moment with an ache in his heart. He must have heard about Jesus; he must have listened often on the outskirts of the crowds to his message; and something must have stirred in his heart. Now he could not possibly have gone to the orthodox good people of his day; to them he was unclean and they would have refused to have anything to do with him.
Hugh Redwood tells of a woman in the dock district in London who came to a women’s meeting. She had been living with a Chinese and had a half-caste baby whom she brought with her. She liked the meeting and came back and back again. Then the vicar came to her. “I must ask you,” he said, “not to come again.” The woman looked her question. “The other women,” said the vicar, “say that they will stop coming if you continue to come.” She looked at him with a poignant wistfulness. “Sir,” she said, “I know I’m a sinner, but isn’t there anywhere a sinner can go?” Fortunately the Salvation Army found that woman and she was reclaimed for Christ.
That is precisely what Matthew was up against until he found the one who came into the world to seek and to save that which was lost.
(iii) This story tens us something about Jesus. It was as he walked along the lakeside that he called Matthew. As a great scholar said, “Even as he was walking along he was looking for opportunities.” Jesus was never off duty. If he could find one man for God as he walked he found him. What a harvest we could gather in if we looked for men for Christ as we walked!
(iv) Of all the disciples Matthew gave up most. He literally left all to follow Jesus. Peter and Andrew, James and John could go back to the boats. There were always fish to catch and always the old trade to which to return; but Matthew burned his bridges completely. With one action, in one moment of time, by one swift decision he had put himself out of his job forever, for having left his tax-collector’s job, he would never get it back. It takes a big man to make a big decision, and yet some time in every life there comes the moment to decide.
A certain famous man had the habit of going for long country walks on Dartmoor. When he came to a brook that was rather too wide to cross comfortably, the first thing he did was to throw his coat over to the other side. He made sure that there was to be no turning back. He took the decision to cross and made sure he was going to stick to it.
Matthew was the man who staked everything on Christ; and he was not wrong.
(v) From his decision Matthew got at least three things.
(a) He got clean hands. From now on he could look the world in the face. He might be very much poorer and life must be very much rougher, and the luxuries and the comforts were gone; but from now on his hands were clean and, because his hands were clean, his mind was at rest.
(b) He lost one job but he got afar bigger one. It has been said that Matthew left everything but one thing–he did not leave his pen. Scholars do not think that the first gospel, as it stands, is the work of Matthew; but they do think that it embodies one of the most important documents of all history, the first written account of the teaching of Jesus, and that that document was written by Matthew. With his orderly mind, his systematic way of working, his familiarity with the pen, Matthew was, the first man to give the world a book on the teaching of Jesus.
(c) The odd thing is that Matthew’s reckless decision brought him the one thing he can least have been looking for–it brought him immortal and world-wide fame. All men know the name of Matthew as one for ever connected with the transmission of the story of Jesus. Had Matthew refused the call he would have had a local ill-fame as the follower of a disreputable trade which all men hated; because he answered the call he gained a world-wide fame as the man who gave to men the record of the words of Jesus. God never goes back on the man who stakes his all on him.
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