It is winter in Capernaum, and business at the customs house is slow. Gazing across the sea of Galilee, Levi fingers the coins in his collection box. But today, strangely, Levi isn’t thinking about money. Lulled by the cadence of the waves, Levi thinks instead of himself.
For weeks he has felt remarkably alone. Because of his work, of course, he has always been separated from the life of the city. No Jew who collects taxes for the Roman imperialists is accepted by his countrymen. Levi is very rich, yet his only friends are social and religious misfits like himself.
It’s been years since he attended synagogue. The Law, the Prophets, the Sacred writings—he knows them well. But he is not welcomed. No one despises him more viciously than do the scribes and Pharisees.
Lately, though, Galilee is different. Captivated by the Teacher from Nazareth, people talk of little else. Since his arrival in Capernaum, Jesus has become the town’s most popular citizen. Wherever he goes, crowds flock to him, listening in hushed expectation as he speaks, watching to see what miracle he’ll do next.
Such power he has! Even the scribes and Pharisees are no match for him. And they know it. People are beginning to look to Jesus as their teacher. Some are becoming his disciples. Only a few months earlier Levi watched incredulously as four fishermen left their successful business to follow him.
“He must be the Messiah,” some are saying.
And in the presence of Jesus, Levi never feels alone. Sometimes, obscured by the crowd, he listens to Jesus teach. He watches Jesus with people. Jesus knows nothing of misfits. He seems to love everybody. Even those the scribes call unclean appear special to him. He touches them, speaks to them, smiles at them.
Who is this man? Can Jesus be the Messiah, God made flesh, the redeemer the prophets promised? Fingering his coins, Levi wonders what it all means.
Just then Jesus approaches Levi’s desk, followed as always by the crowd. He looks directly at Levi. “Follow me,” he says. Nothing else. Just “Follow me.”
Astonishment ripples through the crowd. “The publican!” they gasp. “Whatever does the Teacher want with this filthy tax collector?”
Levi wonders, too. But it really doesn’t matter. Jesus wants Levi’s companionship, and he offers Levi his in return. That’s enough. Without a word, Levi leaves everything behind and follows Jesus.
The great exchange
Thus Levi the tax collector became Matthew, disciple of Jesus and author of the Gospel that bears his name. Well educated, Matthew probably spoke several languages and knew shorthand, and his job had trained him in record keeping. Because of him, we have a meticulous record of Jesus’s activities and words.
Although Matthew’s Gospel was written after Mark’s, it was the most valued by the early church. And when the New Testament was compiled, it was placed first in the canon. We have no record in the Bible of any word Matthew ever spoke, but in his Gospel Matthew speaks powerfully and eloquently of the King for whom he exchanged his very life.
For the next few months we will study Matthew’s gospel. Written for the Jews, Matthew pictures Jesus as the fulfillment of all Old Testament prophecies. (Matthew alone uses the phrase “that it might be fulfilled.”) In Matthew’s gospel, the word kingdom appears more than fifty times, and in that kingdom Jesus is King. “Jesus walks through Matthew’s pages as if in the purple and gold of royalty,” William Barclay observes.
That is the Jesus we’ll see as we study this remarkable account of our Lord’s life.
Norma Farthing is a former teacher and administrator who's married to John, a former professor and pastor. They enjoy retirement in Northwest Arkansas, especially being Nana and Poppy to Landon and Layton, reading good books, watching old movies, and cheering for the Duke Blue Devils.