Often we encounter Jesus in the gospels walking around in “secular space” associating with people of questionable character. One day he went out and met a tax collector named Matthew or Levi (likely his original Hebrew name) sitting at the tax booth, a place infamously known for plundering and unjust transactions. Because Roman Tax Collectors often became quite wealthy, the jobs were often given to the highest bidder so Matthew likely bribed a government official to land his lucrative job. Tax collectors from Jewish families were little-esteemed in first century Jerusalem not only because they were noted swindlers but because they were considered traitors working for the Roman Government who were oppressing the Jewish people. Barclay says, “By Jewish law a tax-gatherer was debarred from synagogue classed together with unclean things, robbers and murderers.” So Matthew was not a nice guy that Jesus made a little nicer. He was a bad guy, a sinner, a stray, a prodigal, and a religious outsider.
The choice of Matthew into the family of God and into the inner circle of Apostles was a shocking and surprising instance of grace. There was likely not another man in Jerusalem at the time who was further away from the mainline church than Matthew. He was an outsider! So Jesus’ calling of Matthew in the middle of his work day is an example of Christ’s preference for outsiders and strays; Jesus showing us that His Kingdom will be about Outsiders becoming Insiders to cast down the wisdom of the world and to challenge the self-righteous religiously-serious people of His day.
For Jesus to call a Tax Collector was an example of His undeserved goodness and a reminder to us that the calling of God is not dependent on the merits of our own spiritual resumes but purely 100% on His Kindness. Calvin comments, “Jesus teaches that our calling completely depends not on the merits of our own righteousness but on His sheer generosity.” So if you think you are deserving, you’ve completely missed the gospel. The Apostle Paul, once among the Strict Subscriptionists of his day said of himself, Christ Jesus came into the world to save sinners of whom I am #1. So don’t just think of Matthew as a stranger with whom you have nothing in common. We are Matthew! And as we will see, Matthew’s life will become one that welcomes others sinners, the type of life that begins with an experience of Christ’s undeserved love and generosity.