The spotless and pure Son of God seeks out disciples whom he graciously makes His friends.
In Mark 2: 13-17, we find one such story – the story of Matthew. Matthew means “gift of God.” He was Jewish, lived in Capernaum, and knew Hebrew, Greek, and Aramaic.
But Matthew was irreligious. As a tax collector, he had been excommunicated from the synagogue and was considered a traitor complicit with foreign oppressors. He was viewed as dishonest, as an extortionist.
The Roman Tax System
To assist in the collection of taxes, the Romans had created a system called tax-farming. These were essentially tax franchises. At the top were Roman equestrians. These noblemen bid for the right to collect taxes over entire provinces.
The Roman Senate determined a fixed amount due from each province and sold the right to collect that amount to the highest bidder. Any surplus that was collected was income for the bidder. The equestrian subdivided the province and made similar arrangement with publicani, or chief tax collectors (like Zaccheus). The chief tax collectors over districts sold the franchise rights for individual cities.
The Mishnah forbade Jews from taking any money from tax collectors. They were viewed as so morally reprehensible that Jews were allowed to lie to tax-collectors with impunity. If a tax-collector so much as touched your house, it became ceremonially unclean.
Opposition to tax collectors and to Jesus
The Rabbis opposed Jesus’ reaching out to tax collectors like Matthew, whom they viewed as sinners beyond the reach of grace. Specifically, the Rabbis objected to…
- Jesus’ claim to forgive sins (2:1-12)
- Jesus’ companionship with sinners (2:13-17)
- Jesus’ unwillingness to keep their traditions (2:18-22)
- Jesus’ violation of their Sabbath regulations (2:23-3:6)
Verse 13 says,
“He [Jesus] went out again by the seashore, and all the people were coming to Him, and He was teaching them.”
People kept coming to find Jesus and to hear Him, and He kept teaching them as they came.
As Jesus headed to the seashore to teach, He passed by and saw Matthew sitting at the tax booth. Jesus called to him, “Follow Me!” Verse 14 says, “And he got up and followed Him.” Luke adds, “And he left everything behind and got up and began to follow Him.”
What an amazing moment! Jesus arrives and sovereignly calls this undeserving sinner to Himself!
The Spiritual Point
It’s hard to come up with a modern equivalent to what Matthew was in the 1st century. If you want to come close, think drug dealer. Think Mafioso. Think gangster. Think terrorist. Those are categories into which Matthew fit. But Jesus, in sovereign grace, called him to be His disciple.
Jesus still calls sinners to repentance. He remains a friend of sinners. Matthew heard the truth. He was called to follow Christ, and he responded in faith.
There is no sinner beyond the reach of the grace of Jesus Christ.
If you’re a Christian and have experienced that same grace, as you look at Christ again, as you see His saving grace toward Matthew, your own heart should respond with great joy, gratitude, and adoration that He’s still a friend of sinners!