As we consider Jesus as he chooses his disciples, he chooses the least likely of candidates. They certainly do not come with excellent resumes from the finest institutions. Perhaps Matthew had more money and education than the rest, but none of the Twelve were as notorious a sinner as he.
Matthew was the brother of another disciple, James the Less and both were the sons of Alphaeus. He was probably born in Galilee at or near Capernaum. Unlike some of the other disciples it does not appear that Matthew was a follower of John the Baptist. Matthew was also known as Levi.
Here is the background information that we know about Matthew.
1. He was a disappointment to his Godly Parents
Matthew was a tax collector for the Roman occupational government. No Jewish parent ever wanted their child to grow up to be a tax collector for Rome. By taking on this profession, he disappointed and broke the heart of his godly parents and was shunned by his friends. Although Levi, Matthew’s other name, means “joined” in reference to being a part of the tribe set apart to the service and worship of God, he did not become a priest, but a publican.
The Romans collected their taxes through a system called, ‘tax farming.” They would assess a district a fixed tax figure and then sold the right to collect the taxes to the highest bidder. The buyer then would hand over the assessed figure at the end of the year and could keep anything he gathered above the amount.
Tax collectors were held in such low esteem that they could not serve as witnesses in court and were even excommunicated from the synagogues. Matthew was the most publicly unacceptable candidate to be a disciple of Jesus.
He was considered the worse!
2. Matthew’s Decision to follow Jesus
The word that is translated that Jesus “saw” Matthew is a word that conveys more than a passing glance, it was “a calm, continuous contemplation…” (Marvin Vincent. Word Studies in the New Testament, Vol. 1. (Grand Rapids: Eerdman Pub., 1974) p.64) Such a look from Jesus probably made Matthew feel uncomfortable. Yet, we know that Jesus saw beyond the sin and saw someone who could be a champion for his cause.
Matthew’s decision was immediate and drastic. “So he left all, rose up, and followed Him.” The word translated “followed” means he began to follow and continued following.
He left everything! For Matthew, following Jesus was a huge sacrifice. If this venture was a failure, he could never go back. Many believe that just as Simon was named Peter (the rock) by Jesus, Levi was likewise renamed Matthew (the gift of God).
3. Matthew wanted to tell others about Jesus
Having experienced the joy of having his sins forgiven, he wanted to tell other the good news and he chose throwing a feast for all of his friends as the solution. Although all the other gospel accounts tell us the banquet that Jesus attends, Luke is the only gospel writer that informs us that the dinner Jesus attended was a celebration put on by Matthew.
Why did Matthew invite other tax collectors and the lowlifes to the party? Perhaps because it was the only people he knew. I believe he did so because his friends had been astounded by his decision to follow Jesus, the banquet gave him the opportunity to explain his decision and more importantly to introduce his friends to Jesus and learn from themselves what kind of person Jesus was to make a dramatic change in Matthew.
Remember to the religious leaders, people were put into two categories, “righteous” and “sinners.” The “righteous were the ones that kept the rules and did the right things. It is too easy for Christians to forget that we are sinners-forgiven, but still vulnerable.
We know Jesus was angered by the Pharisees because they saw Matthew and is friends simply as condemned “sinners.” Jesus saw them however as spiritually sick who needed help. Jesus had come to call those who would acknowledge they are sinners not those who thought they had no sin.
4. Matthew loved what Jesus had done for him.
We can be certain that when Matthew got up from his tax table and leaving it behind forever, he never dreamed his life would be changed.
One night a house caught fire and a young boy was forced to flee to the roof. The father stood on the ground below with outstretched arms, calling to his son, “Jump! I’ll catch you.” He knew the boy had to jump to save his life. All the boy could see, however, was flame, smoke, and blackness. As can be imagined, he was afraid to leave the roof. His father kept yelling: “Jump! I will catch you.” But the boy protested, “Daddy, I can’t see you.” The father replied, “But I can see you and that’s all that matters.”
“Unbelief puts our circumstance between us and God, but faith puts God between us and our circumstances.”