How the Tax-Collector Became a Disciple
by Jesse Lyman Hurlbut
SO GREAT were the crowds gathering from all parts of the land to see and hear Jesus, that no place could be found in the city of Capernaum large enough to hold the multitudes. The church was far too small; and there were no open places in the city where so great a company could meet. So every day Jesus went out of the city to the seaside, sometimes sitting in Peter's boat, sometimes upon the shore, while all the people stood upon the grass-covered hillside, with the blue sky above them and the blue lake before them, while Jesus spoke about the Kingdom of God and showed how every man could enter into the kingdom by turning from his sins and doing God's will.
Among these crowds of people Jesus noticed one man standing, who listened closely to every word. This man was named Levi-Matthew. He was an officer of the government, called "a publican"; and it was his work to gather the taxes which the Roman rulers had laid upon the people.
Everybody was called upon to pay money to the Romans, who were the rulers of the land. The people hated the Romans, who held the land under their power, and hated also these tax-gatherers, who were often selfish and unjust men, making the people pay more than they should, robbing the poor and taking much of the money for themselves instead of paying it to the Roman treasury. Because many of these tax-gatherers or publicans were cruel and selfish, all of them were looked upon as wicked. They were called "publicans and sinners," and the people despised them.
One day Jesus was passing the office where Levi-Matthew sat at his table receiving the tax-money from the people. Jesus looked at the publican and said to him, "Come, follow me!" At once Levi-Matthew rose up, left his clerks and helpers to care for the money on the table, and went after Jesus. From that hour he was no longer a tax-collector; he became a disciple of Jesus, and followed him wherever he went, listening to his words and keeping them in his mind and memory.
Many years afterward, when Jesus was no longer among men, Matthew wrote a book telling of what Jesus said and did. That book is the Gospel according to Matthew, the first book in the New Testament; and it tells what Matthew remembered of the teachings and acts of the Lord Jesus. So it was well for the people who lived after the time of Jesus, and for all the people who through the ages since have read that gospel, and for the millions all over the world who now read it, that Matthew the tax-gatherer became a disciple of Jesus. But for this man's prompt obedience to Christ's call on that day, that precious book would never have been written.
Matthew wished his fellow-publicans to meet Jesus and hear his words. He gave a supper at his house to Jesus, and invited all the publicans or tax-gatherers in that part of the country to come. Many of them came, and with their friends sat down to the supper with Jesus. The Pharisees, who were enemies of Jesus, looked scornfully at Jesus sitting at the table with all the tax-gatherers around him. They said to the disciples of Jesus:
"Why does your Teacher eat with those publicans and sinners?"
They told Jesus of these words, and he answered:
"Those who are well and strong have no need of a doctor, but only those who are sick. I did not come to call those who think themselves good, but those who know that they are sinful and want to be saved. But let those Pharisees learn the meaning of the text where God says, 'I prefer those who show kindness and mercy, to those who offer sacrifices upon the altar.'"
This pointed to the Pharisees themselves, for while they were careful about fasting and saying their prayers and making their offerings in the Temple, they were often unjust and hard toward the poor.