The IRS Agent in Jesus’ Company (Part 1)

Welcome to yet another installment of our upcoming book on the apostles.  We hope you’re enjoying it!

Scripturally speaking, there are not a lot of things that we know about Matthew, but the few things we do know are interesting for certain.

Matthew the Tax Collector

The name “Matthew,” which means “Gift of God,” appears five times in Scripture—all but one of those is the listing of the names of the apostles.1  If not for Matthew himself writing his gospel account, we would not know anything about him except for the fact that he was one of the apostles.2  Matthew 9:9 is the key to everything else we know about this disciple of Jesus Christ:

As Jesus passed forth from there [the house], he saw a man named Matthew sitting at the tax office: and He says to him, “Follow me.”  And he arose and followed Him.

This tax office, or tax booth3 was located on the outskirts of Capernaum,4 next to the Sea of Galilee in order to charge taxes on the merchandise that came into Galilee from the ships on the sea, as well as the merchants who came from the north.  This port was quite busy, necessitating the employment of several “publicans” or “tax collectors” for the job.  Matthew was one of these men.

Apparently, Matthew did quite well as a tax collector, for he had a “great feast in his own house” immediately after being called by Jesus, and there “was a great company of tax collectors and of others that sat down with them.”5  Jesus’ disciples6 were also present, along with some of the Pharisees and disciples of John.7  This shows that Matthew didn’t live in a small house.

This feast, according to several commentators, was a farewell feast to his friends and family. 8   It may indicate that Matthew sold his ancestral property, or turned it over to the nearest male relative. However, it may have also simply been a great feat in honor of Jesus, the miracle-working Man of God who had been teaching in that area for some time.

The tax collectors were hated by the Jews at large, but especially by the Pharisees and Zealots, because ultimately they were collecting taxes for the Roman government—the government that was ruling over the Jews (plus, no one really like the IRS today, either).  Being a tax collector was, to the Pharisees, the same as renouncing Judaism and removing yourself from the family of God.  It is because of how the Pharisees treated the tax collectors that Jesus gave the parable of the Lost Son (usually called “the Prodigal Son”), showing that the tax collectors were still God’s children, and still loved by Him.9

The zealots were revolutionaries who would even stoop to assassinating government officials (like tax collectors) in their quest to overthrow Roman rule.  One of the other apostles, Simon the Canaanite, was a Zealot.10  But in Christ, these two political enemies were united in love, peace, and mission for their Master.

-Bradley S. Cobb

1 Matthew 10:1-3; Mark 3:14-19; Luke 6:13-16; and Acts 1:13.

2 Of course, the fact that he was one of the apostles tells us that he was also (1) a Jew, (2) a Galilean, (3) religiously-minded, (4) one who forsook Jesus, (5) one who preached on Pentecost, and (6) all the other things that involved all of the apostles.  But as far as any personal information about him, we have only what we know because of Matthew’s own writing.

3 This was not a walled building, but more of an open stand where all incoming and outgoing merchandise was taxed by Herod.

4 Compare Mark 2:1, 13-14.

5 Luke 5:27-29.  Here, Matthew is called “Levi.”  We will see in a later section that they Levi and Matthew are one and the same person.

6 At this point, it certainly included Peter, Andrew, James, John, Philip, and Bartholomew (Nathanael), if not more.

7 These groups both approached Jesus and His disciples at this feast in Mark 2.

8 See Eastman’s Bible Dictionary, “Matthew.”

9 Read Luke 15.

10 See Section on Simon (coming later).  Compare Matthew 10:4 with Luke 6:15.

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