Matthew was a tax collector–a publican– when Jesus called him. After all, tax collectors were the most despised people in Israel. They were hated by all of Jewish society. Publicans were men who had bought tax franchises from the Roman emperor and then extorted money from the people of Israel to feed the Roman coffers and pad their own pockets. They often strong-armed money out of people with the use of thugs.
Matthew 9:9 records the call of this man. It comes out of nowhere, completely catching the reader by surprise” “As Jesus passed on from Capernaum, He saw Matthew sitting at the tax office. And He said to him, ‘Follow Me.’ So he arose and followed Him.” That is the only glimpse of Matthew we have from his own Gospel.
Matthew goes on in the next few verses to say, “Now it happened, as Jesus sat at the table in the house, that behold, many tax collectors and sinners came and sat down with Him and His disciples” (v.10). Luke reveals that this was actually an enormous banquet that Matthew himself held at his own house in Jesus’ honour. It seems he invited many of his fellow tax collectors and various social outcasts to meet Jesus. As we saw in the case of Philip and Andrew, Matthew’s first impulse after following Jesus was to bring his closest friends and introduce them to the Saviour. He was so thrilled to have found the Messiah that he wanted to introduce Jesus to everyone he knew. So he held a large banquet in Jesus’ honour and invited them all.
Luke records what happened on that occasion. Their scribes and the Pharisees complained against His disciples, saying, ‘Why do You eat and drink with tax collectors and sinners?’ Jesus answered and said to them, ‘Those who are well have no need of a physician, but those who are sick. I have not come to call the righteous, but sinners, to repentance (Luke 5:29-32).
Why did Matthew invite tax-gatherers and other lowlifes? Because they were the only kind of people he knew. They were the only ones who would associate with a man like Matthew. For a Jewish man like Matthew to be a tax collector, his occupation made him a traitor to the nation. He would also have been a religious outcast, forbidden to enter any synagogue.
Of course, the people of the religious establishment wasted no time voicing their criticism to the disciples. But Jesus replied by saying sick people are the very ones who need a physician. People like Matthew, who were prepared to confess their sins could be forgiven and redeemed.
No self-respecting Jew in his right mind would ever choose to be a tax collector. He had effectively cut himself off not only from his own people but also from his God. Therefore it must have been a stunning reality to Matthew when Jesus chose him. It came out of the blue. By Matthew’s own account, Jesus saw him sitting in the tax office and simply said, “Follow Me” (Matthew 9:9). Matthew instantly and without hesitation “arose and followed Him”. He abandoned the tax office. He left his toll booth and walked away from his cursed profession forever.
The decision was irreversible as soon as he made it. Someone else stepped in and took over as soon as he stepped away. Once Matthew walked away, he could never go back. Nor did he ever regret his decision.
What was it in a man like Matthew that caused him to drop everything at once like that? Why would he walk away from everything and follow Jesus, not knowing what the future held? The best answer we can deduce is that deep inside, he was a Jew who knew and loved the Old Testament. He was spiritually hungry. At some point in his life, most likely after he had chosen his despicable career, he became a true seeker.
We know that Matthew knew the Old Testament very well because his Gospel quotes the Old Testament ninety-nine times. That is more times than Mark, Luke, and John combined. Matthew obviously had extensive familiarity with the Old Testament. In fact, he quotes out of the Law, out of the Psalms, and out of the Prophets — every section of the Old Testament. So he had a good working knowledge of all the Scriptures that were available to him. He must have pursued his study of the Old Testament on his own because he couldn’t hear the Word of God explained in any synagogue. Apparently, in a quest to fill the spiritual void in his life, he had turned to the Scriptures.
Matthew must have also known about Jesus, because sitting at the crossroads in a tax booth, he would have heard information all the time about this miracle worker who was banishing disease from Palestine, casting demons out of people, and doing miracles. So when Jesus showed up and called him to follow Him, he had enough faith to drop everything and follow. His faith is clearly indicated not only in the immediacy of his response but also in the fact that after following Jesus, he held this evangelistic banquet in his home. He embraced the outcasts of his world and introduced them to Jesus. He became a man of quiet humility who loved the outcasts.