Matthew the publican

From the Pastor’s Study   9/24/23

I believe the Bible is complete, containing all that God knew we needed.  There are no missing portions.    (II Tim. 3:16)  That being said, I confess that there are questions in the Bible that I wish were answered.  Where was Daniel when his three friends, Shadrach, Meshach, and Abednego, refused to bow before the emperor’s idol, and were thrown into the fiery furnace?  (Dan. 3)  What of Solomon’s later years?  Did he, after indulging in sensuality and idolatry, return to the faith of younger days?  Is the wisdom of Ecclesiastes the fruit of such repentance?  What occurred during Paul’s early years in Arabia (Gal. 1:17, 18).  Why does Dr. Luke not say anything about it in the Book of Acts?  Answers to such questions will have to wait until we reach heaven.  All else is speculation.

But sometimes speculation can have devotional value.  Another unanswered question from the Bible is, why among the twelve disciples did Judas carry the bag?  (Jn. 12:6)  Perhaps he volunteered to be treasurer because he was covetous and a thief, and saw a chance to enrich himself.  But what of Matthew?  Of the twelve, why did he not manage the funds?  After all, collecting, counting, and keeping a record of money was his craft and trade.  Permit some speculation.

The gospel Matthew authored identifies him as “the publican” (Mat. 10:3).  No other book mentions his occupation or background.  The word “publican” means a tax collector.  But in Jesus’ day, it had an added connotation.  Israel was a defeated and occupied nation.  The publicans were empowered by the Roman Empire to collect taxes from the vanquished.  Jews who functioned in this capacity were seen as traitors.  As well, publicans were notorious for dishonesty.  They would exact more than was owed and enrich themselves by keeping the difference.  And for those being cheated, there was no recourse.  The word “publican” became a representative term for any moral reprobate.  (Mt. 5:46, 47; 9:11; 11:19)  This is who Matthew was and what he did.

Matthew records the day he was called by Jesus.  “And he arose, and followed him.”  (Mt. 9:9)  He left his counting table, and his lucrative career as a tax collector, and became a disciple of Jesus Christ.  And here perhaps is found the answer to our question, why Judas rather than Matthew kept the bag.  It was probably not because the others would doubt Matthew’s honesty.  One of the wonders of salvation is that the Lord not only forgives, He changes.  He makes honest men out of thieves.  When a man follows Christ, “old things pass away, behold all things are become new.”  (II Cor. 5:17)

When Matthew followed Christ, maybe more than his ethics changed.  There was also a change in priorities.  He set aside the counting of money, and repurposed his pen exclusively for a more sacred use.

When called by the prophet Elijah to follow him, Elisha the farmer roasted his oxen, burned his farming implements, and went after Elijah.  There is, of course, nothing wrong with farming.  But when God calls a man to do something, competing occupations are abandoned.

I once knew a man who was a concert violinist.  When he sensed God leading him to the gospel ministry, he put aside his violin, and never picked it up again.  “What waste,” some might say. “Such rare talent could have been used for the glory of God.”  Maybe.  But this man knew that for him this could not be.  His heart reflected that of Paul who said, “This one thing I do.”  (Phil. 3:13) 

A physician was leaving the medical profession to be ordained to the ministry.  During the ordination service a church member objected.  “Doesn’t the world need doctors?”  A wise member of the ordination committee replied, “Not as much as it needs preachers.”  Regardless, whatever God wants a man to do, he needs to do, and not look back. 

Some might suggest that Matthew should have kept the bag.  He would have done a better job than Judas.  Maybe he could even have become a patriotic and honest tax collector, and begun a reform movement.  But for Matthew, his counting days were past.  If something – anything – distracts or detracts from our devotion to Christ, lay it aside.  Leave it behind.  Arise, and follow Jesus.