Once we accept the early church tradition that Matthew is responsible for the Gospel that bears his name, the questions remain: “who was he?” and “what do we know about him?” In Matthew 9:9-13, the Gospel of Matthew introduces us to a Jewish man who contracted with the Roman government to collect taxes from his own people on behalf of Rome.
This man was not the kind of tax collector who went door-to-door collecting taxes; rather, he sat at his tax booth and collected taxes from his fellow Jews as they attempted to import or export goods from one province to another. Although they contracted to keep only a fraction of the receipts, the system encouraged extortion.
That tax collectors were considered dishonest is evident from an exchange Luke records between John the Baptist and some tax collectors who come to John to be baptized. They asked, “Teacher, what should we do?” John responded, “Don’t collect any more than what you have been authorized” (Luke 3:12-13). When Zacchaeus, the wee little man, comes face-to-face with Jesus, he blurts out, “Look, I’ll give half of my possessions to the poor, Lord! And if I have extorted anything from anyone, I’ll pay back four times as much” (Luke 19:8).
The Jewish people viewed tax collectors as traitors to their own people and unclean before God. They were disdained and considered sinners of the first order. In fact, they were grouped together with the most unclean of the day. Mark’s Gospel mentions that many tax collectors and sinners were also guests with Jesus and His disciples (Mark 2:15).
Jesus taught that if a person would not respond to church discipline, “let him be like an unbeliever and a tax collector to you” (Matt 18:17). When challenged by the temple leadership, Jesus responded, “I assure you: tax collectors and prostitutes are entering the kingdom of God before you!” (Matt 21:31). They were viewed with such disgust that Jesus could use them as a symbol for the absolute lowest: “For if you love those who love you, what reward will you have? Don’t even the tax collectors do the same?” (Matt 5:46).
Now, back to that despised tax collector in Matthew 9:9-13 sitting at his tollbooth on the great road between Damascus and the seaports of Phoenicia. Jesus had just claimed the authority to forgive a man’s sins as well as healing him of his paralysis. The crowds were amazed at what they had witnessed. And immediately, Jesus saw a man named Matthew sitting at the tax office, and Jesus said to him “Follow Me!” So he got up and followed Him (Matt 9:9. See also Luke 5:27 and Mark 2:14-15, where Matthew is called by the name Levi).
And that’s it! That’s all the Gospels tell us about Matthew specifically. He, along with the other disciples, followed Jesus all the way to Jerusalem and finally to Jesus’ death, resurrection and ascension. But otherwise, he is not mentioned by name again in the New Testament except in the lists of the Twelve (Matt 10:2-4; Mark 3:17-19; Luke 6:14-16; Acts 1:13).
The testimony of the Church Fathers is nearly unanimous that Matthew died as a martyr, after preaching the Gospel primarily to Jews in Ethiopia and other nations. The method of his execution is variously described as burning, stoning, stabbing or beheading. And that’s all that we know. It seems we should know more, but he is largely unknown to us.
Well, we do know one more thing: Matthew the tax collector was the object of God’s amazing grace. It is noteworthy, given how Jews despised tax collectors, that Jesus would even recognize Matthew as a human being of value. It is even more surprising that Jesus would call a person so despised to be his follower. But it is an astonishing testimony to the amazing grace of God that Jesus would choose Matthew, a tax collector, as one of his twelve disciples on which He would build a new people of God.
Thanks be to God for His amazing grace that continues to call unworthy people to be His disciples.