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.