Jesus Calls Matthew to Follow Him – Matthew 9:9

Matthew is sitting at a tax booth, and he seems to be friends with other tax collectors. A τελώνιον (telōnion) refers to a tax office, or as BDAG suggests, “toll-collection operation.” In Matthew 10:3 he is called a tax-collector (τελώνης, telōnēs).

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The noun does not refer to an employee of a Roman equivalent to the IRS, but rather to a “tax-farmer.” A person bids on a contract to collect taxes in a particular area, then collect whatever they could from the people and pays the Romans what he bid and pockets the rest. “The prevailing system of tax collection afforded a collector many opportunities to exercise greed and unfairness. Hence tax collectors were particularly hated and despised as a class” (s.v. τελώνης, BDAG).

In a similar situation, Zacchaeus is a tax collector and is described by those who grumbled against Jesus as a “sinner.” Zacchaeus confessed to defrauding people and promised to make restitution (Luke 19:1-10).

Matthew may not have been a tax farmer, but rather an employee in a tax office. His role is not clear, it could be something innocent (an account, a counter), or something more blame-worth (an enforcer?). In either case, anyone working for the Romans would be suspicious, perhaps even disloyalty to Jewish nationalism.

Tax collectors are never particularly popular in any society, but Jews who worked for the Romans to collect taxes and tolls were considered to be traitors since they collected money for the occupying forces. Not all taxes are bad (people tend to like nice roads and national parks, for example). Roman taxes did pay for some level of stability in the region and provided valuable infrastructure all people enjoyed. But because of the practice of tax-farming, tax collectors “were despised as greedy, self-serving, and parasitic” (Hagner, Matthew, 238).

However, like Americans who “do not want their taxes to pay for…” whatever they do not like politically, the Jewish people assumed their money was being rounded up and sent to Rome to pay for pagan temples or other sinful activities.

In addition to the political aspects of tax collecting for the Romans, a tax collector would be in constant contact with gentiles and therefore in a state of ceremonial uncleanliness. Like the leper (8:1), the centurion (8:5-13), (perhaps) Peter’s mother-in-law (8:14-15), the demon possessed men in the cemetery (8:28-34) and the paralyzed man (9:1-8), the woman with the flow of blood (9:18-22) and perhaps even the blond and mute men (9:27-31), Matthew is in a state of uncleanliness which would keep him from entering the Temple courts or sharing fellowship with the Pharisees.

Jesus simply commands Matthew to follow him and he immediately “rose and followed” Jesus. This is the same way he called the first disciples (Matt 4:13-22). The fishermen were going about their business and Jesus called them to follow without any indication they had heard Jesus preaching prior to the call. John 1:35-42 implies the early disciples were followers of John the Baptist prior to following Jesus.

It is one thing to heal a person who is ceremonially unclean, but now Jesus is calling an unclean person to be one of his disciples. When his new disciple reaches out to his social circle, the Pharisees will become indignant and will question his disciples about this practice.

This is a clear example of Jesus’s practice of eating with people who are on the fringe of what it means to be Jewish, at least from the perspective of the Pharisees.

8 thoughts on “Jesus Calls Matthew to Follow Him – Matthew 9:9

  1. The sentence that stood out to me the most in your post was: “Jews who worked for the Romans to collect taxes and tolls were considered to be traitors since they collected money for the occupying forces” (Long, 2020). Then why does Jesus go to this “greedy, self-serving, and parasitic” (Hagner, Matthew, 238) man named Matthew and command him to follow him? We see Jesus do this time again, calling on fishermen to follow him and eating with “sinners”. But why? Matthew and Luke answer that. “For the Son of Man came to save the lost” (Matt. 18:11; Luke 19:10).

    Jesus did this during His human life and still does this today through those carrying out His mission. His mission which is to go to the overcast or the lost and show them the love of Jesus Christ. Christians today may go and do missionary work for a week, but then come back to their air-conditioned home and forget about the work that they had just done for Christ. They forget about those people who are hungry or homeless, going back to their “modern” day lives, not even taking a moment to pray for them. The sad reality is those people who we minister to miss that call. The Spirit nudges them on the shoulder through us but ends up turning back to their old ways because it is “easier”. They have no one to hold them accountable and end up wandering back on the path of evil; the old way of life.

  2. I was never aware of the uncleanliness of tax collectors. I knew they were disliked and often dishonest but had never heard of their unclean status. This brings another level to the ministry of Jesus, not only was he dining with them and associating himself with the unclean, but even his close followers were those who were unclean. He constantly surrounded himself with his disciples. God has his people, though they may be in the minority, in all sorts of groups. They come from different backgrounds, cultures, ethnicities, careers, etc. Christ sought out Matthew. He chose a tax collector over the Pharisees and “righteous” “clean” men of the time. “In Matthew 21:31–32, Jesus declares that certain prostitutes and tax collectors would enter the kingdom ahead of the religious leaders because they had believed John’s message of repentance” (Miller, 2016). Why would he choose a tax collector? They had a detestable reputation. They were some of the worst. He does not care about status. God sees people for their hearts. “Every way of man is right in his own eyes, but the Lord weighs the heart” (Proverbs 21:2). We are just as low as Matthew, yet Jesus condescends to us to call us to himself. This is amazing love and grace that he calls any of us to be his followers. We are all sinners, grouped with tax collectors. There was nothing acceptable about Matthew, nothing for Jesus to gain from inviting him to follow. Yet, once Jesus came to him, Matthew left his life as a tax collector and devoted his life to following Jesus. It was purely grace. Christ takes the first step, all we have to do is receive it.

    Jeffrey E. Miller, “Tax Collector,” ed. John D. Barry et al., The Lexham Bible Dictionary (Bellingham, WA: Lexham Press, 2016).

  3. I feel like this is one of the best examples in the bible of how little Jesus cared about a person’s background, or what they were doing currently. Jesus knew that Matthew was in the tax business, yet he sought him out and made him one of his disciples, giving him one of the most important roles in history, the role of spreading his gospel far and wide. One reason I find this story so powerful is in the ideas of Matthew. Matthew was obviously not the greatest person, as a tax worker he must not have had that much compassion and love for others, and he clearly had a love for money and earthly possessions, and maybe even wanted to reach a certain wealth or status. The fact that he just gives up all of his aspirations so quickly to lead this completely different lifestyle with completely different goals shows you just how powerful the ministry of Jesus was, and what it could do to people.

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