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Matthew 9:9 “Disciples Are Called”

“And as Jesus was passing on from there, He saw a man sitting on the tax bench called Matthew. And He says to him, ‘Follow Me!’ And getting up, he followed Him.”

 

These verses are essentially the first half of Matthew’s second discipleship narrative and thus provide (1) a positive example of true discipleship (v. 9) and (2) provide explicit instruction from Jesus’ own lips regarding His mission and purpose (vv. 10-13). It is imperative that disciples of Jesus not only follow Him alone, but also that they understand what and who they are following.

 

Because Matthew’s first discipleship narrative (8:18-22) had not one, but two examples of false disciples, it is essential that Matthew includes a positive example of true discipleship. This example not only serves as a positive foil to the two would-be disciples but also accurately reflects all the major notes of Jesus’ earlier calling of the two sets of brothers from 4:18-22. The similarities can be demonstrated as follows:

·       Jesus takes the initiative by first “seeing” (4:18, 21 vs. 9:9) and then “calling” His disciples (4:19, 21 vs. 9:9)

·       Matthew records the names of said disciples (4:18, 21 vs. 9:9)

·       Matthew records their vocations and that they were busy about their work (4:18, 21 vs. 9:9)

·       Once called, the disciples immediately drop what they were doing and obey (4:20, 22 vs. 9:9)


Thus, Matthew’s calling is not only the positive side of an earlier disappointment but also purposefully mirrors the successful call of the fishermen Peter, Andrew, James, and John. In short, this call consists of three parts: The context, the calling, and the commitment.

 

Context (v. 9a)

“And as Jesus was passing on from there, He saw a man sitting on the tax bench called Matthew.”


By saying that Jesus was passing on from there (ἐκεῖθεν) the reader naturally asks, “from where?” The answer of course refers to the forgiveness and healing of the paralytic from vv. 1-8. Matthew provides no details other than this occurred in Capernaum, that is, Jesus’ “own city” (v. 1). Matthew’s wording implies that Matthew’s calling took place shortly after the healing of the paralytic and the showdown with the scribes perhaps even on the same day. Mark adds the direction in which Jesus was walking, that is He went along the shore of the Sea of Galilee (Mk. 2:13). This detail will become important in short order.


Just as Jesus saw (εἶδεν) Peter and Andrew casting their net (4:18) and Jesus saw (εἶδεν) James and John in the boat with their father (4:21), Jesus saw (εἶδεν) Matthew on his tax collector’s bench. At this point a brief discussion regarding the Roman method of collecting taxes is in order. Rather than bureaucratic officials working as salaried employees of the government, tax collecting was done by private contractors. A detailed exposition of Roman taxation practices is not necessary, but a general explanation of how taxes worked in our specific context may be helpful. As the vassal ruler of Galilee and Perea, Herod Antipas was responsible for paying a fixed amount into Rome’s treasury per annum. Obviously, that payment was not coming from his personal pocket, and so tax collectors were employed to collect revenue for Rome (the poll tax) but also for the province. These would include the temple tax as well as taxes on agricultural production, sales, and trade. Tax collecting districts were established and overseen by chief tax collectors (ἀρχιτελώνης – as in Zaccheus Lk. 19:2). These were not responsible for making sure that each citizen paid their due but were committed to produce a fixed amount to deposit into the governmental treasury. Thus, the contract went to the highest bidder. The goal was not to collect what was owed so much as it was to collect as much as possible. Any surplus that remained after the government’s coffers were filled remained in the pockets of the chief tax collectors. The individuals employed by these chief tax collectors were the τελώνιον (tax collectors) who were responsible for the actual collection of taxes. These were the men who met the people face to face and demanded their hard-earned wages.


These men would set up shop at key positions in order to collect duties on trade and commerce. In the case of Capernaum there was the highway leading from Damascus to the coastal road leading to Egypt that would be rich in caravans. There was also the Sea of Galilee that would bring trade from Philip’s domain (and thus subject to customs tax) as well as the fishing industry. As already mentioned, Mark positions this scene not on the west side of town where the highway ran, but along the seashore. Matthew set up his little booth to meet every boat that came into Capernaum. No doubt the small business owners who plied their trade on the sea knew Matthew professionally and had no love of him. These men would certainly have included Peter, Andrew, James, and John.


With such a system in place it is easy to see why the people distrusted and even hated tax collectors as extortion was not only an everyday occurrence with them but was part of nearly every transaction. If the people were not overtaxed, the tax collectors don’t get paid. The entire system, from the top down, encouraged dishonesty, extortion, exploitation, and corruption. In addition to the faulted system was the public perception that these tax collectors were unpatriotic traitors preying upon their own countrymen for the benefit of themselves, the local government, and Rome (though it may not have been emphasized in that order). The Jewish opinion of tax collectors is well reflected in the Mishnah which states that vows taken to tax collectors are not considered binding (Ned. 3:4) and that a house entered by a tax collector is considered unclean (Tohar. 7:6). What is most interesting is that while there is no excuse to be made for the extortion and dishonesty employed by tax collectors, neither is it correct to imagine that they were the only ones who operated with such methods. Dishonesty was something of a trademark among most merchants and not an exclusive trademark of tax collectors. That they used force to collect from the unwilling seems to be something of an exaggeration, as they could only report uncooperative individuals to the authorities. More than thugs who robbed by force, these men would have to be educated to the point of being at least tri-lingual (Aramaic, Greek, and Latin) as they interacted with people from foreign territory. The ability to take notes and keep accurate records would also be necessary. Thus, one must have a few qualifications besides low morals and missing scruples to remain employed as a tax collector. In this light, it seems best to understand the general disdain for tax collectors as having more to do with their social and political connections (or the appearance thereof) more so than their practices.[1]


That this individual is called (λεγόμενον) Matthew is of some note as both Mark (Mk 2:14) and Luke (Lk. 5:29) refer to the same man as Levi. There are only two things that we can say with certainty. The first is that the practice of using two names is hardly unheard of in the New Testament (Simon-Peter, Saul-Paul, John-Mark, Thomas-Didymus, Nathanael-Bartholomew).[2] That Matthew went by more than one name is thus not so surprising. Secondly, it’s worth noting that Matthew states that he was called (λεγόμενον) Matthew, utilizing the same participle he used to describe Simon’s nickname of Peter in 4:18.[3] The sense then is that the name given to him by his parents was Levi and yet he is known as Matthew. This distinction is important as evidenced by the fact that Matthew is the name attached to this gospel (ΚΑΤΑ ΜΑΘΘΑΙΟΝ) and is the name included in all three versions of the 12 disciples (Matt. 10:2-4; Mk. 3:16-19; Lk. 6:14-16). Not once does Matthew refer to himself as Levi, nor do the other gospel writers after this encounter. It is as if “Levi” is no more, and “Matthew” has permanently emerged.


This distinction could hardly be missed by Matthew’s exclusively believing Israelite audience. What more noble name could one wish for than “Levi”, the patriarch of the priesthood and all things connected with the holy? There is perhaps a subtle hint at Matthew’s larger point: a call to break from the old and cling to the new. The covenant made at Sinai is done and a New Covenant has begun. Matthew is demonstrating what he calls his audience to do: Follow Jesus alone. With this context well in place, it is time to move on to Matthew’s call.

 

Call (v. 9b)

“And He says to him, ‘Follow Me!’”


Matthew again makes use of the historical present (λέγει – he says) to set up the punchline of what is to follow. Jesus approaches the bench, looks Matthew square in the eye, and says: Follow Me! The present imperative used here (ἀκολούθει) is more descriptive than the aorist because it calls for immediate and continuous action. This is not a general command for Matthew to follow Jesus around the corner, but a permanent call to follow Jesus all day, every day for the rest of his life.[4] Externally, Matthew was a follower of Antipas as one of his tax collectors. Internally, Matthew was a follower of himself, seeking an easy way to make money at the expense of others. Now, Jesus has called him to forsake his external and internal allegiances and exchange them for Him.


As mentioned before, it is necessary to note that Jesus is the one who took this initiative. Many crowds followed (ἀκολουθέω) Jesus for a while (4:25; 8:1, 10) with a few individuals boasting that they would follow (ἀκολουθέω) Jesus wherever He went (8:19). None of these seem to have materialized into anything more than a temporary fascination. Discipleship is not a decision made under emotional pressure but a response to an external call. This is that call, the same call made to Peter, Andrew, James, and John and which produces the same result: unwavering commitment.

 

Commitment (v. 9c)

“And getting up, he followed Him.”


The simplicity of this statement is what makes it so beautiful. Jesus commanded Matthew to follow (ἀκολούθει) Him and Matthew got up and followed (ἠκολούθησεν) Jesus. The aorist indicative marks the action as a whole. This is who Matthew is now: a follower of Jesus. Matthew offered no debate, discussion, or descension but rather simple and immediate obedience. The master called and the disciple answered. As the Peter and Andrew left their nets (4:20) and James and John left their boat and their father (4:22), so Matthew arises from his tax bench to follow (and keep following) Jesus.


Matthew’s modesty shines forth in these few words. To him it was a simple matter of standing from his bench and following Jesus. Yet, while it was possible for the fishermen to return to their craft, if need be (and indeed they did – Jn. 21:3), Matthew’s decision was final and irrevocable. The coveted and lucrative position of Capernaum’s tax collector for all commerce coming off the Sea of Galilee will not remain vacant for long. Not only because of the position’s appeal, but because Matthew’s employer would not stand to miss a single day’s worth custom dues. No doubt by the next morning, Matthew’s bench had a new occupant. Matthew left his position as a tax collector permanently behind to follow Jesus. There was no going back.


In addition to this, Matthew’s economic prospects may be even more dire. It is bad enough to have left one’s profession without any hope of returning. But what of other prospects of employment? What job is Matthew fit for and who would employ a hated tax collector?[5] When Matthew got off his bench to follow Jesus, he was not only making a spiritual or professional choice but was making a complete change in his life. Nothing will ever be the same for Matthew. He was not simply adding Jesus as a new hobby nor was he simply hoping to learn a few things while spending time with Jesus. Matthew was repenting of his entire life which was now dedicated for a single purpose: following Jesus. Matthew had crossed the Rubicon. Like Cortez, Matthew burned his preverbal ships and is now bound to his master without any other choice but to follow Him alone.



[1] Everett Ferguson, Backgrounds of Early Christianity, Third (Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans Publishing Company, 2003), p. 96.


[2] William Hendriksen, Exposition of the Gospel According to Matthew, New Testament Commentary (Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Book House, 1973), p. 422.


[3] Charles Quarles, Matthew, Exegetical Guide to the Greek New Testament (Nashville, TN: B&H Academic, 2017), p. 91.


[4] Leon Morris, The Gospel According to Matthew, The Pillar New Testament Commentary (Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans Publishing Company, 1992), p. 219.


[5] Ibid, p. 220.

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