In NT times, tax collectors were assumed to be unbelievers (cf. Matt 5:26; 18:17) and were associated with “prostitutes” and “sinners” (Matt 21:31–32; Mark 2:15; Luke 15:1). Extra-biblical literature likewise associates them with “robbers” and “brothel-keepers.”1 It was scripturally noteworthy that tax collectors could be so sinful and yet believe the gospel (Luke 3:12; 7:29; 18:10–14).2
Why were tax collectors so despised? Searching Scripture further, we see that John the Baptist exhorted tax collectors to collect no more taxes than necessary because they, like Zacchaeus, had abused their role to tax citizens above and beyond their required due for the sake of personal gain (Luke 3:12–13; 19:8).3 Like corrupt politicians in our own day, they often bought their office in order to benefit from the illicit gain.4 Besides such extortion, Matthew would have been particularly distasteful to his Jewish countrymen by collecting taxes for a Gentile nation.5
Despite such a background, we know Matthew as one of Jesus’ disciples. Apart from the synoptic Gospels’ record of Matthew’s call to discipleship (Matt 9:9–13; Mark 2:13–17; Luke 5:27–32), the biblical mention of Matthew is limited to general stories and the specific lists of the twelve disciples (Matt 10:3; Mark 3:18; Luke 6:15; Acts 1:13). At the same time, Matthew wrote the lengthiest of the Gospels, showing his writing style, use of words, etc., all of which gives us a small window to his personality. Though called Levi by others (Mark 2:14; Luke 5:27), he called himself Matthew (Matt 9:9). He was a tax collector who immediately left his job and followed Jesus when beckoned to do so (Matt 9:9). Just as Matthew followed Jesus, of the tax collectors and sinners at Matthew’s house (Luke 5:29), “there were many who followed him” as well (Mark 2:15; cf. 2:14), thanks to Matthew’s hospitality.
Though there seems to be but little Scripture to describe Matthew, the record of his call and the subsequent feast he hosted in honor of Jesus show an excellent example for believers today. Follow Jesus immediately, and then introduce Him to everyone you know! He quickly learned what Jesus said elsewhere, words for you and me today: “Follow me, and I will make you become fishers of men” (Mark 1:17).
- Thomas E. Schmidt, “Taxes,” in Dictionary of Jesus and the Gospels (Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity, 1992), 805.
- Ibid., 806.
- Ibid.; see also L. M. Sweet, and G. A. Gay, “Tax; Tribute,” in International Standard Bible Encyclopedia (Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 1988), 4:742.