The sun was at its zenith by the time the caravan driver finished paying his taxes. This was a large caravan from Damascus heading for the seaport in Tyre. Silk, spices, and porcelain filled the packs of more than one hundred camels. In addition to the regular custom and toll road taxes, the caravan driver had to pay an arbitrary sales tax and assessment on the import and export of each item. Cursing quietly under his breath, the lead camel-puller led the files away from the booth, much of his personal profit now in the hands of the greedy tax-collector whose name was Levi.
Levi heard the curses, but he didn’t care what anyone said about him. He had long since stopped listening to the condemnation of both Gentiles and Jews; their looks of revulsion no longer phased him. His fellow Jews despised him and considered him a traitor, a collaborator with the Roman oppressors. But they didn’t understand that this was a job someone had to do; Rome required a Jew to do it, and he worked hard for this position, speaking both Aramaic and Greek with the precise skills of a scribe. Day after day he sat alone in his hot booth with the stench of camel dung mingling with exotic spices, and the breeze off the Sea of Galilee bringing the added odor of decaying fish. He had to be constantly on guard of sneaky merchants, meticulous in his recording of goods and calculations of taxes. Required to pay the Roman annual taxes himself as well as pay the chief tax collector, he then had to try to recover his costs from the merchants. It was true that Levi was now a wealthy man, but his job was also dangerous, and he lived with the perpetual fear that he could be robbed and beaten. No one considered that when they shunned him.
Levi thought of all this as the camels slowly turned away from Capernaum. There would be little traffic now until evening, but he couldn’t afford to leave the booth until nightfall. After all, there might be more treasure coming his way! Smiling, he added the coins from this transaction to his bulging pouch and leaned back in satisfaction. Closing his eyes, he tuned his ears to the conversations swirling around his booth. He was a pariah to his fellow Jews, ignored and ostracized. Because of that, people treated him as if he was invisible, and he was often able to glean valuable information that he could later use for his own capital gain. Lately, though, all the talk centered around Jesus of Nazareth, who was living now in Capernaum. Recently, crowds had gathered around him on the mountain overlooking the Sea of Galilee where he taught many things never-before heard. He claimed he had not come to abolish the Law or the Prophets but had come to fulfill them. He preached, “Repent, for the kingdom of heaven is near.” Levi also heard he was healing the sick and admonishing people to give to the needy anonymously. Many people even heard Jesus saying, “Blessed are the poor in spirit, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven.”
None of these teachings made sense to Levi, but he couldn’t deny he was curious about this rabbi. Levi had even closed his booth early several days in a row to join the crowds who gathered around Jesus. Today he pondered the words of Jesus who told the crowds not to worry about their lives but to seek God’s kingdom and righteousness first and trust God to provide for their needs. Jesus said, “Do not store up for yourselves treasures on earth. . .But store up for yourselves treasures in heaven.”
This greatly troubled Levi, for he had stored up substantial treasure. He didn’t understand how to store up treasure in heaven. He didn’t understand how to seek God’s righteousness since he knew he was not a righteous man. If he was honest with himself, he knew he had cheated his own people, extorting more out of them than the taxes they owed; he was selfish, not wanting to spend any of his money on other people; he was a prideful renegade, and he was a sinner. It had been so long since he had been to temple, so long since he had even thought about God or heaven. Like most Jews, he anticipated a Messiah who would come and free the Jewish people from Rome’s tyranny, but he had grown complacent in this expectation, just as he was ambivalent about keeping the Judaic laws. Now, with all these snippets about Jesus churning in his mind, he discovered he was having trouble justifying the swindling he did every day in this booth.
Levi was trying desperately to shake free of his self-condemnation when a shadow fell across his face. Looking up, he blinked twice and then rubbed his eyes. Jesus was standing right in front of him and gazing at him with piercing compassion. It was as if Jesus was reading his troubled mind! Levi shrank back and hung his head in shame, shocked to feel tears rolling down his cheeks. Then, in the softest, kindest voice he had ever heard, Jesus spoke his name. At least he thought it was his name, but it couldn’t be. Jesus called him, “Mattityahu – Matthew,” meaning “gift of Yahweh.” That couldn’t be what he heard! He knew he was not anyone’s gift! He was no treasure, that was certain. Then, Jesus spoke again, “Follow me.” Without thought, Levi embraced his name of Matthew, jumped up, and leaving everything behind, including his bulging pouch of coins, he followed Jesus. All his self-condemnation and doubts fell from his shoulders as joy filled his heart with the realization that Messiah came to him, looked at him, forgave him, and called him the gift of Yahweh. Messiah came not to bring political freedom for the Jews from their Roman occupiers; Messiah came to bring him forgiveness and call him to Himself. He was Messiah’s treasure!
Suddenly, he couldn’t wait to give away all his wealth. He started by throwing a lavish banquet for Jesus and his disciples. He invited every other tax collector he knew; he invited every other renegade and swindler and cheat and liar he had ever known. He wanted everyone to not only meet Jesus but to know Him, to experience His forgiveness. Matthew never returned to his toll-house booth. He left all his earthly treasures and followed Jesus for the rest of his life, trusting Him for treasures in heaven. He used his gifts to record every detail of Jesus’s earthly life, His crucifixion, His resurrection, and His final commission. Matthew took to heart the final words he heard Jesus speak on the mountain in Galilee and made them his life’s mission: “All authority in heaven and on earth has been given to me. Therefore go and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, and teaching them to obey everything I have commanded you. And surely I am with you always to the very end of the age.”
Jesus, You alone are my treasure. Nothing compares to the joy of knowing You and following You. May I, like Matthew, leave everything behind to tell everyone I meet how my life changed for all eternity the day I trusted You for forgiveness of my sins. Thank You for saving me. Thank You for continuing to work in me to conform me to Your image. Thank You for removing my name “Never Good Enough” and giving me the name “Beloved.” Help me to live knowing Whose I am.
Lessons From a Tax-Collector:
- In what way do my priorities show where my treasure lies?
- What name of self-condemnation has Jesus removed from me, and what name has He replaced it with?
- What is God asking me to leave behind to follow Him?