Prepared by Dr. John E. Marshall
Matt. 9:9b “. . .named Matthew, sitting at the receipt of custom:. . .”
By healing the lame man (9:6), Jesus proved He had authority to deal with sinners. Now He lets it be known He wants to deal with sinners. Jesus directed His attention to a member of Israel’s most despised class of sinners, tax collectors.
Since these men held a public office, they were called publicans. They made a living by taxing their own people on behalf of the despised Romans. Publicans bought franchises by agreeing to collect for Rome a certain amount of taxes from a given region. They were allowed to pocket any excess they collected.
It was a lucrative job, but purchased at a huge price. In Israel, publicans were deemed thieves–they often extorted money from people–and were considered traitors, due to dealing with Rome. They were ultimate symbols of treachery, constant reminders of foreign, pagan rule. The Jews made publicans outcasts. They were not allowed to testify in court. No Pharisee would marry a woman from a publican’s family. Publicans, considered ritually unclean, were barred from synagogue. Their money was unclean and could not be given as an offering.
As far as the Jews were concerned, publicans had sold their souls. Therefore, if Jesus was truly serious about being a friend of sinners, He could find no better way to prove it than by dealing with a publican.
Jesus was forced to make a pivotal choice. He obviously had power to forgive sins, and thus had to decide what to do with it. Would He hold back and not risk the social embarrassment of dealing with sinners, or would He take His awesome power and perform the dirty work of dispensing it to those who needed it?
Jesus’ followers face a similar dilemma. We alone have the message of forgiveness. What will we do with it? Will we hide it or tell it to those who need it most? Upon hearing for the first time the message of God’s free forgiveness, an inmate on death row replied, “If I believed that, I would crawl across England on crushed glass to tell it.” I wish we who do believe it would show such conviction.
Christ opted to practice what He preached. He decided to go help a sinner. Jesus, the reader of thoughts, knew of a publican who was yearning for a level of spiritual involvement the current religious structure forbade. A local businessman had tried silver and gold, but found it useless in providing true satisfaction. Jesus decided the man needed another chance, an opportunity to start all over again.
The man’s name was Matthew. He had earlier in life grown tired of the toil and sweat required by his family business. Matthew was gifted. He did well with books, ledgers, and records, plus possessed good organizational skills. Matthew also knew where the real money was. Publicans who lived in big houses on top of the hill were always isolated, off to themselves, but Matthew could hear their parties at night, and decided he wanted a piece of the good life. He investigated how to land one of these well-paying jobs. He even started having contact with publicans. Family and friends warned him, but to no avail. He could see glittering lights in his future. One day he signed on as a publican, and came home to tell his parents. Matthew became the heartbreak of his family, their prodigal son. Instead of feeding on husks the pigs ate, he fed on silver and gold. Matthew sold his soul.
Once the die was cast, Matthew did well in his new profession. He threw himself into his work and quickly rose up the corporate ladder, finally gaining a seat in one of the most lucrative toll booths in Israel. The famous Way of the Sea, the international caravan route between Egypt and Syria, skirted the north shore of the Sea of Galilee. At Capernaum, goods passed between the territories of Philip and Antipas. This was a fantastic place to collect taxes. The money was rolling.
Nevertheless, not all was well in the toll-booth. Matthew, a resident of Capernaum, was troubled by a new local teacher. Matthew the outcast had from afar heard lessons and seen miracles. A tax collector’s heart and conscience were astir.
Matthew wondered, is it too late to start a different life? Other publicans found money an adequate compensation for the hatred spewed on them, but sensitive Matthew didn’t handle scorn well. Missing synagogue services hurt deeply. Matthew was longing for a chance to begin again. All the silver and gold flowing into his bank account could not satisfy his deep craving to live a life that mattered.
This is the businessperson’s dilemma, isn’t it? Money, success, and the developing and honing of expertise are supposed to satisfy, but in the final analysis don’t fill the bill. Many businesspeople stay extremely busy in order to keep from facing this very truth. They do not want to consider ultimate questions. Do my life and my job really count? Am I doing anything that has everlasting value?
I heard a man who has a M.B.A. from Harvard explain why he left a secular job to make much less money in church work. His pastor, Bill Hybels, asked what was he doing that had everlasting significance. He could not escape the question.
Hybels has another staff member whose salary is less than his expense account was in his former job. Hybels asked why was he willing to take such a cut in pay. The minister said he tired of working 80 hours a week and spending six months a year in motels so his employer could add fifteen million dollars a year to his children’s trust funds. The minister added he didn’t even like the boss’ kids.
One of the scariest things that can happen to students or businesspeople is to be forced to step outside our paradigm and critically analyze our life-assumptions. Our self-made measures of self-esteem often don’t stand the test of close scrutiny.
Now let us as pastor and people seriously interact in this matter. Let’s honestly appraise our self-generated gauges of greatness. Do people really care what kind of car we drive or how big a house we live in? They may brag on these items in our presence, and thereby help stroke our ego for a moment, but no one goes home and calls another person great because of a car they drive or house they own. True greatness is measured by neither wheels and fenders nor by brick and mortar.
In a capitalistic society, we all need to examine our motives and ask ourselves pointed questions. Students, why are you pursuing the course of study you have chosen? Where is God in it? What are you planning to do after you graduate that will have everlasting consequences? Young businesspeople, is God in your long-term career objectives? When all the dust settles, what will you have done that will matter forever? Older adults, has your life counted for much thus far? In your accomplishments, what will last forever? Students and adults all need to come to the crisis of Matthew, to testing our most cherished views about life itself.
Students, some of you need to surrender your lives to full-time Christian service. Most of you need to pursue a secular career and find in it how to bring honor and glory to God. Young adults, some of you need to leave your jobs and do the Lord’s work full-time. Most of you need to stay in your current job and begin seeking ways to do God’s work where you are. Older adults, some of you need to take early retirement and give the rest of your lives in full-time vocational work for the Lord. Most of you need to stay in your job and use it for God’s glory.
The question is, how do we do this? How do we serve God faithfully and fully at school and in the marketplace? First, covenant with God to give Him the first ten percent of all you ever make. God’s work could not continue apart from the generous tithes and offerings of godly people who work in the marketplace.
Second, realize the only thing about school and secular jobs that will last forever is the people we see every day. People are more important than budgets, salaries, and grades combined. Pray for your acquaintances, and tell them you are doing so. Care. The company you own exists for God and others before it exists for you. Pay your employees well. Treat your fellow students and workers with dignity. Respect your teachers and employers. Jesus died for people. Act like it.
Third, fulfill the Great Commission. It applies as much in the marketplace as in church. My son reminds me, without godly lay people, my sermons reach no farther than the four walls of our auditorium. Let me take this one step further, without godly students and workers in the marketplace, the Great Commission dies on Jesus’ lips and our building becomes a mausoleum for His words. We are responsible for seeking to affect the everlasting destiny of all with whom we have significant contact. Jesus sought Matthew in the marketplace. Let’s do likewise.