Below is my best guess at what led up to the “instant” decision by Matthew to leave his sordid old life behind and follow Rabbi Jesus, as recorded by himself in Matthew 9:9. The scripture records only one sentence, but there has to be a back story to that decision.
The closest thing Jesus had to a home was his adopted hometown of Capernaum, a fishing village near the top of Lake Galilee (Matthew 9:1). He didn’t have a house of his own (Matthew 8:20), so when resting in Capernaum he was billeted out between five of the disciples who also lived in Capernaum: Peter, Andrew, James, John and Matthew. It looks like he spent a lot of time at Peter’s house (Matthew 8:14).
Matthew was not initially a follower of Jesus. His decision came well after those of the fishermen and his story is interesting. He was a tax collector, and we need to drill down into what that really meant.
Throughout history when a foreign power occupied a region and needed locals to help with its dirty work of control and suppression, there was usually only one group who put their hand up for the job: The criminal class. When you take a region by force you need locals who are familiar with violence and extortion to back you up. This is how empires work. It will never change. Its human nature.
Why do criminals volunteer to help occupying forces? It’s because these people are already ruthless and outsiders. They lack a moral compass. They are considered lowlife so have nothing to lose. They have scores to settle with existing authority. They are brutal when they need to be. They are greedy and ready to sell their soul for a shot at tainted wealth and power. Matthew was one such man. He was a very nasty dude.
His job description was to confiscate a designated quota of money from his fellow Galilean fishermen, through traffic, local businesses and farmers. He would over charge, pocket a percentage and deliver the required quota to the Romans. Mockingly, this paid for the very army that violently suppressed Matthew’s fellow Jewish citizens.
Matthew would have overcharged as much as his poor countrymen could tolerate. Why not, the incentive was there without consequence. This guy deliberately impoverished his own village and his own people! He was the very one ripping off fishing profits from John, Andrew, James and Peter for himself and the Romans. Imagine the heated exchanges Matthew and Peter had engaged in over the years when tax had to be paid. Expletive’s all round!
The result was that Matthew was bitterly hated by all in Capernaum. He was a rich social outcaste (Matthew 9:13). He would probably have had to pay some local thugs for physical security. He walked around town with minders. All Matthew’s “friends” were also lowlife (Matthew 9:11). These would have been those thugs just mentioned, dodgy servants he employed in various tasks around his substantial home, fellow petty criminals, other tax collectors, corrupt businessmen sucking up in the hope of getting a discount on their taxes, corrupt extended family, local loose women, and the like. Imagine a mafia headquarters scene from a Hollywood movie and you get the picture.
These “friends” were the sort that only love you while there is something in it for them. They were the broken prodigals of Capernaum. The Roman tax system was rife for corruption and the Capernaum social underbelly all curried Matthew’s favour. He was the local alpha male, the Putin of Capernaum. He cared little for the Jewish religion, it was too late for him. Money was his god.
Then, out of the blue, another alpha male came down the hill to the village from Nazareth and stayed. Over the months this rabbi came and went, but he always came back. The two knew of each other for possibly six months or more, Capernaum wasn’t a big place. They crossed paths whenever the Rabbi came and left the village because Matthew’s tax booth was just out of town (Matthew 9:9) on the main road that everyone had to use to go north or south. This was the busy main road from Jerusalem to Damascus (yes, this was Paul’s “road to Damascus!”). The perfect place to collect tax.
Matthew had heard the rumours about this Rabbi. He’d met people who told him bizarre stories of miracles. He was very uncomfortable but intrigued. Was this new guy going to stir up trouble for him and his cosy business? Was he going to call him out for criminal activity? Could he read his thoughts? Would he “zap” him like he had recently done to the two crazy men and the pigs on the other side of the lake (Matthew 8:28-34)? Was the Rabbi actually…a prophet!
We don’t know the questions inside Matthew’s head. But what we do know is that Matthew’s conscience was working overtime. He was full of shame and guilt over what he had done to his local brethren. He was sick of being hated and rejected. Somewhere in his past there was a different Matthew, and the Rabbi was reminding him of that past.
He began thinking of quitting the tax business but didn’t know how to extricate himself. Did he share his thoughts with his wife? Was his wife feeding her thoughts about the Rabbi to him? We don’t know. But something was on the boil for probably a month or two. We know this because as soon as Jesus came by the tax station one day, he saw something in Matthew’s eyes. A silent but visible pleading for help. Something was different.
So, when the Rabbi challenged Matthew with the simple dare to follow him (Matthew 9:9), something suddenly leapt inside Matthew’s heart. In an instant he knew that this was his one and only opportunity to redeem himself, to do away with his disgrace and guilt, to make things right with his neighbours, to cleanse his conscience and to make a brand-new start in life. He was ecstatic.
Behind Jesus the Reaction was different. Peter, John, Andrew and James were in shock! As a chorus they shouted, What, him!
After an hour or so of adrenaline-fueled introductions, Matthew announced he would throw a big party to celebrate his new direction. He charged home and proceeded to shock his entire household and entourage with the decision he had made. He then spared no expense on a gala dinner and invited all the people he knew would come, that is, his sleazy mates. They would be his witnesses to his monumental decision, and also meet the Rabbi that he would now be submitting to wholeheartedly.
They all came, and some interesting extras were there as well.
Halfway through the dinner there was a commotion from some of the guests. Capernaum’s religious leaders were present at this dinner. and were pestering Jesus’ disciples with the statement why would your master dine with lowlifes? (Matthew 9:11). This begs the question: What were they doing there???!!! Were they in Matthew’s dirty pocket as well? Was he currying favour with them? Were they currying favour with him? Either way this side note doesn’t look good for the state of religion in Capernaum at the time.
In response the Rabbi said that he was there specifically to invite the outcastes and sinners, not those who think they are on the right path (Matthew 9:13). This olive branch of grace would have led to quite a few more decisions to follow the Rabbi that night. Capernaum would never be the same again.
This is how I imagine Matthew’s personal journey to becoming a dedicated follower of the greatest man who ever lived, Immanuel. His place in history is secure. Little did he know that day that he would become world famous for all the right reasons. Jesus saw something in his heart everyone else missed.
When I get to meet Matthew one day, I will be asking him many questions about that what really happened in those six months.