Matthew Unleashed
Sunday, September 23, 2012
The Backstory

You will recognize Matthew's name as the writer of the first of the Gospel accounts in the New Testament. Although it is the first in the New Testament, it was probably written after the Mark and Luke accounts. John and Matthew were later. Matthew continued as a disciple of Jesus and with the other disciples were "sent out ones" (or "apostle" in the New Testament Greek language). After the resurrection of Jesus, Matthew preached in Judea and eventually went to Rome to serve the church there.

Very few details are known about Matthew's life beyond what is mentioned in the New Testament. Some conjecture that Matthew was faithful in helping younger believers and was an adept story teller, particularly the stories of Jesus. It is believed by scholars that it was in Rome, in his later life, that he collaborated with Mark and wrote down what he remembered. Thus, his words are often reminiscent of Mark's earlier writing. Matthew was Jewish to the core and his Gospel account is written for the Jewish Christian congregations.

Matthew's Life Story

Matthew was born with the Jewish name, Levi. This name was special. Levi was only given to those of the special family descended from the tribe of Levi, who alone could serve as priests in the Temple. Even in today's synagogues, the scrolls of scripture used in Hebrew worship may only be handled by those descended from this Levitical family line.

Despite such an auspicious family heritage, Levi found himself with the opportunity to work for the Roman government which controlled all of Palestine. He hired himself out to be a tax collector. This job entailed collecting "tolls" or "taxes" from all who lived in the area or traveled the trade route through town. It was a lucrative operation and these people were called "publicans". The profession prompted his name change to a more cross-ethnic name, Matthew. It is also possible that Jesus gave him the name though we are not certain. Levi was permitted to charge whatever he thought was best as long as Rome received their percentage. When I lived in Indiana, the County Sheriff had a salary of nearly $300,000 a year because he was permitted by law to keep a percentage of all fines paid through his office (in addition to a salary of $125,00). The practice is was stopped in 2007, but filling empty moneybags is still a temptation for us all. Matthew/Levi would have been considered a traitor to his nation and heritage, a thief, cheat and sinner to be despised by all. Thus the symbol for Matthew in our Church Chancel painting is a set of four money bags with a cross in the center.

Matthew's call to discipleship is in Mark 2: 13-17

As with Peter's story last week, Levi left his tax table and followed Jesus. He must have been an avid evangelist for Jesus, however. The passage in Mark 2:13-17 reports that Levi/Matthew gathered up all his publican cronnies and their friends, telling them about how Jesus was changing his life. He invited all these colleague and friends to a huge party at his large estate (Matthew had grown quite affluent for the day). Matthew then invited his new friend, Jesus and the other disciples to attend and meet his friends. Many were appalled that a man such as Jesus would even think of attending such an event - Some teachers of the Law, who were Pharisees, saw that Jesus was eating with these outcasts and tax collectors, so they asked his disciples, "Why does he eat with such people?" Jesus heard them and answered, "People who are well do not need a doctor, but only those who are sick. I have not come to call respectable people, but outcasts."

Your Story

You may want to use a Bible Concordance to find more references to Matthew and his life. Wikkipedia on the internet also contains a credible biography as does the Catholic Encyclopedia available on the internet.

Where can you identify a "Matthew/Levi" in your own life?

Imagine Jesus' power and influence that allowed Levi/Matthew to walk away from his lucrative business (and probably an entire staff of people who assisted him). In our own faith story, the text pushes us to ask, "what holds me back from following in Jesus' way with deep commitment?" If you were to make Jesus the very center of your life each day, what are the "money bags" that you will have to leave behind (money bags in this context is a metaphor for anything we want to hold onto that needs to be left behind). Matthew was very natural in his invitation to the "publicans and sinners" of which he was one. It didn't occur to him that this was unseemly to the religious elders of Judaisim. When criticized, Jesus responded with that powerful phrase, "I didn't come to heal the healthy, only those who were ill". My paraphrase of this is, "Respectable, God fearing people who go to church/synagogue don't know that they are needy. They have everything they need and don't realize that it is rotting them away from inside out. I have come to the outcasts, the marginalized, the addicted, the homeless, the friendless, those who live with sin as their normal way of life. They are the ones I came to set free because they know their need!"

Who are your neighbors and friends who need to meet Jesus? Do you know your neighbor's name? What would our church look like if we all took time to build relationships with seven neighbors whom we don't know well and invite them to a huge party where they would meet Jesus?

Bob Anderson