By Lisa May 

Just Like Us: Matthew


Last updated 4/2/2024 at 1:07pm

Have you ever wished you could travel through time? What would it have been like to set out on the Oregon Trail in a covered wagon in 1840? What was life really like in a European castle in the Middle Ages… or in the villages outside? What if we could actually climb into a time machine to experience life alongside the people of another time period? I suggest that there is a sense in which we can. For thousands of years humans have seen the value of recording their stories in written form. Archaeologists have discovered stone tablets that date as far back as 3000 BC. Papyrus documents have been preserved that may have been written as early as 400 BC. Reading literature may not be the time machine that you and I imagined, but it certainly gives us a glimpse into what people were like hundreds or even thousands of years ago. And what we are likely to discover is that people really were not that different from us.

The ancient documents that have most captured my attention are the books of the Bible. The more I have read and studied the stories of the people recorded in the Bible, the more I am convinced that, at the core, human beings of that time period were just like us. They were passionate and held strong opinions. They did the best they could to live true to their beliefs, but sometimes they failed. They had friends and they had enemies. They loved and they often lost that which they loved.

I would like to explore some of these people from the Bible, with a particular eye on how we moderns can relate to them. We will discover that there were good guys and there were bad guys… and sometimes the line between them was not as hard-edged as we would like to believe. I hope you will enjoy this exploration with me, because maybe we can learn something from this time travel and the people we meet along the way.

Our first stop on this journey through time will be in the first century AD, where we meet a man named Matthew. We are starting here because this is someone whose name is familiar to many, even if you haven’t read much of his story. But how much do we really know about Matthew? We think we know a lot about him because he wrote a whole book of the Bible that is called by his name. The reality, which may be startling even to those familiar with the Bible, is that there is only one story told about him. It is repeated with variation in three different books of the Bible, but it is all the same event.

Matthew is sometimes called Levi. He is the son of Alphaeus, but readers are not even given any information about who Alphaeus is. Matthew works at a tax booth, thus his job title is tax collector.

This is where we need to pause in the story of Matthew and pick up some cultural context. When the people of Matthew’s day wrote his story and called him a tax collector, readers are not meant to understand that he held a respectable position with the Internal Revenue Service. In first-century Galilee, where Matthew lived, tax collectors worked for the Roman occupiers. And we can be pretty sure tax collecting was not a once-a-year event. Matthew had a booth on the streets of a Galilean village, so collecting taxes was a regular thing. He was a Jew who worked for the Romans to make sure the Jews paid their taxes on an ongoing basis. Matthew was the worst kind of turncoat, selling out his people for his own financial gain.

The same books of the Bible that record Matthew’s story regularly use the phrase “tax collectors and sinners” to refer to the disrespectable crowd. Tax collectors in first-century Judea were not just outcasts, they were the most nefarious of all sinners. When a parable in the New Testament casts a villain, the bad guy is often described as a tax collector. To bring ourselves into Matthew’s story, when we read that he is a tax collector, we best understand his story if we change that label in our own minds to the most evil identifier that you can conceive from our own culture.

Back to Matthew’s story. As Matthew is sitting at his booth collecting taxes from his fellow Jews, a man named Jesus approaches the booth. “Follow me,” Jesus says. Matthew leaves everything, rises, and follows him. Matthew prepares a feast in his house and invites all his friends to meet Jesus. Of course, all of Matthew’s friends are tax collectors and sinners. The religious guys in town ask Jesus about his questionable dinner companions. If Jesus is supposed to be the good guy, why is he hanging out with the bad guys? Jesus answers that he did not come to take care of healthy people, but he came to care for the sick. After this story, Matthew is then listed in every account in the Bible among the twelve disciples of Jesus.

That’s the entirety of Matthew’s story — he is a sick tax collector in need of a doctor. When the doctor called Matthew to follow him, he did. He left behind the tax booth and all its responsibilities, completely altered his life direction, and was transformed by a Jewish rabbi who presented himself as a physician. What is not actually written in the record of the Bible, but is passed down from early church tradition, is that Matthew — the tax collector— wrote one of the four historical accounts of the life of Jesus, The Gospel According to Matthew.

So, how is Matthew just like us? Do you know a Matthew — a nefarious character who lives completely opposed to your social expectations? Are you a Matthew? The identifying label affixed to Matthew — and to us — need not be set in stone. Just as a first-century Jewish tax collector had his story changed, so we 21st-century people can be changed. Are you in need of a physician?


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