The Unlikely Disciple
The Unlikely Disciple
“He saw a man called Matthew sitting in the tax collector’s booth, and he said to him, ‘Follow Me!’”
With God, it does not matter where you have been; it only matters where you are going. For the Christian, what defines us as a person is not the past but the future. Matthew illustrates this principle in his life and calling to be a disciple.
Of all the 12 disciples of Jesus, Matthew was the least likely. We know little of Matthew's background besides that he was formerly a tax collector. Apart from his mention in the gospel, we find no other mention of him in the church's history after the gospel. It was enough that Matthew was formerly a tax collector. Tax collectors were private subcontractors who would collect tools and taxes on behalf of the Roman government. When travelers shipped merchandise on certain Roman-built and maintained roads, the people were required to pay a tax to Romans. Because the government-appointed tax agents were in charge of large territories, they would hire subcontractors to collect the tax. These subcontractors would earn their income by demanding a higher tax from the people than what was required by the Roman government.
Consequently, this would lead to widespread abuse as the tax collectors would over-tax the people to pad their pocketbooks. As a result, they became despised by their fellow countrymen for two reasons. First, they were seen as unscrupulous, dishonest people who abused their fellow countrymen for their financial gain. Second, and most importantly, they were especially despised, for people viewed them as traitors to the Jewish faith and God. They were hated by everyone and seen as betrayers who sold their souls for their financial gain. They were dishonest, self-centered, and betrayers. They were the type of people everyone avoided and viewed with contempt.
When Jesus called Matthew to be his disciples, one can easily imagine the rest of the disciples raising their eyebrows in surprise. Indeed, the Pharisees were surprised and offended. It is one thing to call uneducated fishermen but quite another to reach the individuals considered to be the dregs of society. In response, Christ makes it clear that these are the type of people he came to redeem. Christ came to bring salvation to the worst sinner (verses 12-13).
In today’s world, we judge people by the past and by their present condition. If they have a sordid past or their lives in the present are marred by drugs, unconscionable sin, and deviant behavior, we deem them beyond the reach of the gospel. We avoid associating with them and turn our attention to the good, middle-class people who characterize our neighborhood.
However, the redemption of Matthew reminds us that Christ came to bring salvation not just to “good people” but to the people most ensnared in sin. The hope of the gospel is available to the most hopeless individuals. God delights in demonstrating his redemptive grace to those the world overlooks. Then, when his grace is realized, it no longer matters about the past sin. What matters is that they are now followers of Jesus whom he can use to fulfill his mission.
The same is true for us as well. No matter what our past, how deep our descent into sin, or how vile our actions in the present, Christ can bring complete restoration and forgiveness. Then, he transforms us from the kingdom of darkness to the kingdom of light. Our future position in heaven now defines us. As Paul states, “If anyone is in Christ, he is a new creature; the old things passed away; behold, new things have come” (2 Cor 5:17). In Christ, our past does not define us; what defines us is our future in heaven. Christ can transform a greedy, dishonest tax collector and not only transform him into a disciple but even use him to communicate his word to us.