What Was Jesus Thinking?
Dr. Jim Denison
Several years ago President Bush visited a nursing home, where he began visiting with the residents. One elderly woman in a wheelchair seemed rather disinterested in his presence. He approached her, smiled, patted her shoulder, and gently squeezed her frail hand. She smiled back but said nothing. “Do you know who I am?” the president asked. “No,” she replied, “but if you’ll ask the lady at the nurses’ station over there, she’ll tell you.”
Do we know who we are? See if you can identify this recent movie by its plot: a man and his wife have a midlife crisis. She has an affair with a competitor; he quits his job to work at a hamburger stand, and is infatuated with his daughter’s best friend. His daughter falls in love with the boy next door, who is a drug dealer. The movie, American Beauty, won Best Picture at the most recent Oscars, along with four other Academy Awards. One critic called it “a reflection of boomer suburbia,” and another said, “The hauntingly sublime American Beauty is the way we live now.”
Do we know who we are?
Jesus does. And he loves us anyway. What do you most dislike about yourself? What habit, sin, mistake, guilt, shame do you most regret? Jesus knows all about it. This morning, I simply want to prove that fact, beyond any doubt. The rest is up to you.
The need to follow Jesus
“Matthew” means “gift of God.” This man’s other name was Levi, the priestly tribe of his nation. What a joke, people must have thought.
You see, Matthew “sat at the tax collector’s booth” (9a). And his fellow citizens hated him for it. The Jewish people would not allow tax collectors to testify in court as a witness, for they were assumed to be liars. They could not attend worship in the Temple or synagogue, for they were considered unclean.
Why were they so despised by their society?
For the simple reason that these men were cheating traitors. Rome employed them to tax their own neighbors for the hated Empire, making them turncoats and traitors. Even worse, the government allowed them to exact as much taxation as they wished with the full support of the military, making them thieves.
Here are some examples of the taxes Matthew would have collected from his neighbors and fellow citizens in Capernaum, a fishing village on the north side of the Sea of Galilee. There was the “ground tax,” one tenth of a man’s crop of grain and one fifth of his produce of wine, fruit, and oil. The income tax was one percent of his entire income, and the poll tax was a day’s wages required of every living person.
Then he collected customs of all which was imported and exported through the city. He charged a bridge tax when a bridge was crossed, road taxes when roads were used, harbor dues when a harbor was entered, market taxes when markets were used, town dues upon entering a walled town. A man traveling a road might have to pay Matthew taxes on the road, his cart, its wheels, its axle, and the beast which pulled it.
Matthew could stop any man, anywhere, examine his goods, and assess whatever taxes he wished. If the man could not pay what he required, he could loan him the money at an impossible rate of interest. It is no wonder that the New Testament ranks tax collectors with Gentiles (Matthew 18:17), harlots (Matthew 21:31-33), and sinners (Matthew 9:10-11).
And it is no wonder that he was so despised by his fellow citizens. Imagine a scenario during the Cold War era by which the Russians conquered us, and employed your neighbor to steal your money to pay Russian taxes. Everything you work so hard to earn, he could simply take from you. If you complained, the soldiers, at his beck and call, could take your home or worse. That was Matthew, the “gift of God.” Not according to his neighbors.
The invitation to follow Jesus
But Jesus saw the truth in the name, and the promise in the man. Jesus knew this man, for he, too, lived in Capernaum, at the home of Simon Peter. This was his headquarters for the three years of his ministry. He saw him often, and the tax collector heard him preach and knew of his ministry.
And so one day Jesus said to him, “Follow me.” The words in Greek mean, “Attach yourself to me, commit yourself to my life and cause.” You or I would never choose someone like this for our church staff. But Jesus did. And Matthew came.
There were many reasons Matthew had not followed Jesus of his own initiative before this day. He probably did not think himself worthy to be Jesus’ follower, given his status in the community. He probably did not think Jesus would want him, or care for him. He knew what the other disciples would think about him. But the moment Jesus pushed all that hatred and animosity aside and invited him, he came.
People want a personal relationship with God. But so many don’t know to have one, or don’t think they can. They think their failures and mistakes make then ineligible. They think the church won’t accept them, or that God cannot love them.
Four out of ten who do not attend church say they’d come if someone would just invite them. Jesus invited Matthew, and he came. I wonder if your Matthew would come if you invited her, or him?
The joy of following Jesus
In fact, Matthew was so overjoyed to be able to follow Jesus that he “left everything” to do so (Luke 5:28). His career, once abandoned, could never be regained. His wealth (he was perhaps the richest man in Capernaum) was given to the common treasury of the disciples (John 13:29). Even his safety and life were at risk, for the Roman soldiers would not protect him from those who hated him once he left the employ of the Empire.
By following Jesus, Matthew left his career, his possessions, and risked even his life. Each of the apostles would in time sacrifice these, but Matthew was the first.
This was not the only “first” we find with Matthew. He became the first evangelist for our Lord, inviting all his tax collector and “sinner” friends to what Luke’s gospel calls a “great banquet” at his home, in Jesus’ honor (Luke 5:29). None of the other disciples had begun personal evangelism yet, but Matthew did.
He became the first to record the teachings of Jesus. When he left his tax collector’s booth, he kept his pen. With it he recorded the Sermon on the Mount and other teachings of our Lord. Very early tradition says that he wrote these “logia,” or “sayings” of Jesus, and that they were used by Mark and Luke in their gospels, and in Matthew’s gospel later as well. None of the other disciples could have done this.
Every time we open the New Testament at its beginning, Matthew’s ministry continues.
Matthew was among the first Christian missionaries as well. Immediately after the Resurrection, Matthew began to preach the gospel among his fellow Jews. Evidence indicates that he later preached in Ethiopia, Persia, Parthia, and Macedonia. The Jewish Talmud records the tradition that he was condemned to death by the Jewish Sanhedrin and martyred, perhaps in Ethiopia.
And Matthew extended the love and grace of Jesus to his own family. This is a wonderful, often overlooked part of his amazing story.
Matthew’s father was named Alphaeus (Mark 2:14). “James, son of Alphaeus,” was also numbered later among Jesus’ disciples (Matthew 10:3). Most scholars believe they were brothers, noting that Matthew puts James immediately after himself in his list of Jesus’ disciples.
It is also likely that James, the brother of Matthew, had been his mortal political enemy. Here’s what we know. James is always listed in the gospels with Thaddeus, Simon the Zealot, and Judas Iscariot. The best evidence indicates that all three were Zealots, Jewish nationalists who were passionately committed to the violent overthrow of the Roman government. We would call them terrorists today. And by linking James with them, Matthew and the other gospel writers indicated that he shared such hatred for the Roman Empire.
No one in all of Palestine would be more despised by the Zealots than the tax collectors, those traitors who stole from their own countrymen for the sake of the hated Empire. And so it seems likely that James and his brother Matthew had been estranged from each other, probably for their entire adult lives. One worked for the government, while the other plotted its overthrow.
But by Matthew 10, both are followers of Jesus and partners in his gospel. I think it happened this way. Matthew abandons everything to follow this One who has given him the peace and joy which no prosperity could ever produce. He soon realizes that Jesus in the only One who can bring peace to his people and nation as their Messiah. And so he goes to his brother James, braving the rejection and insults he surely expects, and tells him that he has found the peace and hope which his brothers and his fellow Zealots have sought. He somehow convinces James to come with him to meet Jesus. James finds that his brother is right. And these two brothers in flesh become brothers in the Spirit, for all time.
Now, what does Matthew’s story say to ours? It says that Jesus knows who you are, and where you are, right now. Remember that secret sin or shame you don’t want anyone else to know? He knows it. He knows your mistakes and failures even better than you know them yourself. And He loves you, and has a wonderful plan for your life. What’s more, he can restore any broken relationship, heart, and home, given the chance. He is still the Great Physician, who came to “call sinners” to accept his love and grace.
Why love him? Because he loves you so much. Because his Father gave his Son for you. Because “God so loved the world, that he gave his only begotten Son.” For you.
One of the best stories I’ve received in a long time tells the story of an elderly man who was invited to speak during a Sunday church service. He began, “A father, his son, and a friend of his son were sailing off the Pacific coast, when a fast approaching storm blocked any attempt to get back to shore. The waves were so high that even though the father was an experienced sailor, he could not keep the boat upright; the three were swept into the ocean.”
The elderly man hesitated for a moment, making eye contact with two teenagers who were, for the first time since the service began, looking somewhat interested in his story. He continued, “Grabbing a rescue line, the father had to make the most terrible decision of his life—to which boy would he throw the other end of the line? He had only seconds to make the decision. He knew that his son was a Christian, and he also knew that his son’s friend was not. The agony of his decision could not be matched by the torrent of the waves.
“As the father yelled out, ‘I love you, son!’ he threw the line to his son’s friend. By the time he pulled that friend to the capsized boat, his son had disappeared beyond the swells of the sea into the black night. His body was never recovered.
“The father knew his son would step into eternity with Jesus, and he could not bear the thought of his son’s friend stepping into an eternity without Jesus. Therefore, he sacrificed his son. How great is the love of God that he should do the same for us.”
Then the elderly man turned and sat back down in his chair, as silence filled the room. Within minutes after the service ended, those two teenagers were at his side. “That was a nice story,” one of them said, “but I don’t think it was very realistic for a father to give up his son’s life in hopes that the other boy would become a Christian.”
“Well, you’ve got a point there,” the elderly man replied. A big smile creased his face as he said, “It sure isn’t very realistic, is it? But I’m standing here today to tell you that story gives me a glimpse of what it must have been like for God to give up his Son for me. You see, I was the son’s friend.”
So are you.