March 11, 2009

Ordinary Joes, Part 7 - Matthew, the White Collar Criminal

Isn’t that what men like Matthew (also called Levi) would be called today? Matthew was a tax-collector. And a tax-collector’s job was, on behalf of the Roman government, to collect the appropriate taxes from the populous and pass them on to the local officials. But those officials apparently didn’t do extremely careful audits on their IRS employees, allowing men like Matthew to skim a little off the top – actually to collect, from the people, a little more than the government required, and to keep the surplus. And, while the government turned a blind eye to the dishonesty of its employees (how contemporary!) … the common folks seethed with hatred toward men like Matthew (see Luke 5.27-32). They had a sneaking suspicion they were being taken to the cleaners, but with no way of proving it, and no recourse even if they did. Such was, most likely, the case with Matthew. We are not told, in so many words, that he was a cheat. But the fact of his occupation, the attention that the gospel-writers give to it (Matthew 9, Mark 2, Luke 5), and the reaction of the bystanders to Jesus’ eating in Matthew’s house (again see Luke 5) are strong indicators that Matthew was a typical tax-collector.

Imagine how incensed you were when you read about the big-time auto executives flying their luxury jets to Washington to ask the government to hand them some of your hard earned dollars to stabilize them in their ‘plight.’ That’s how the people must have felt about fellows like Matthew. Only they didn’t hear about Matthew on Fox News with Shepherd Smith. They saw him face-to-face, and placed their hard earned shekels directly into his bejeweled hands. And on top of this, he was a Jew … working for the occupying Roman government.

Is this the man that Jesus wants to be His disciple? Is this the designer fabric from which Jesus is going to cut a bold, rough-hewn preacher who will take the good news to Egypt and Ethiopia? Are these bejeweled, money-grabbing fingers going to write the most extensive biography of the most important person in world history? Could God possibly use a self-serving, dishonest, wealthy, white collar cheat to proclaim the gospel of Jesus? Yes! And that is a good reminder for those of us who tend to look with disdain, distrust, and suspicion at the upper classes and big cheeses of our day. O, it’s easy to talk about how the rich look down upon and despise the poor. But the streams of enmity flow in both directions, don’t they? But Jesus loves both poor and rich. And He changes and uses them both for His good purposes. So let’s not sit in the position of the Pharisees … despising the Matthew’s of our own day. But rather let’s walk up to them, like Jesus, and urge them to leave everything and follow Him!

And if we’re among them (as all of us really are in this country) … let’s put ourselves in Matthew’s shoes, and get out of his seat. Let’s leave behind our riches (with the missionaries and the impoverished foreign masses) and get up and follow Jesus into a lifestyle of gospel fervor.

And let’s remember that Matthew’s dishonesty was not his only, or even his primary, sin. In fact, the dishonesty was just one foul weed that grew up from the deep roots of self-centeredness. So you need not be a cheat in order to follow in the footsteps of Matthew … just a self-centered American (or Canadian, or Brazilian, or Mongolian, etc.). Isn’t Jesus worth leaving your riches behind that you might win souls? That you might follow Him, even unto death? That’s what Matthew did, according to historians – either being run through with a spear or burned at the stake (or perhaps both).* The man who had made a career (literally) of taking and keeping ended his life giving. What about you?

*For tradition on Matthew's death, see Foxe's Book of Martyrs, and John MacArthur's Twelve Ordinary Men, 156.

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