Likely, none of the 12 were more notorious a sinner than Matthew.
He is called by his Jewish name, “Levi the son of Alphaeus,” in Mark 2: 14. Luke refers to him as “Levi” in Luke 5: 27-29, and as “Matthew” when he lists the 12 in Luke 6: 15 and Acts 1: 13.
Matthew, of course, is the author of the Gospel that bears his name. For that reason, we might expect to have a lot of detail about this man and his character. But the fact is that we know very little about Matthew. The only thing we know for sure is he was a humble, self-effacing man who kept himself almost completely in the background throughout his lengthy account of Jesus’ life and ministry. In his entire Gospel he mentions his own name only two times. (Once is where he records his call, and the other is when he lists all 12 apostles.)
Matthew is Called
Matthew was a tax collector—publican—when Jesus called him. That is the last credential we might expect to see from a man who would become an apostle of Christ, a top leader in the church, and a preacher of the Gospel.
“As Jesus passed on from [Capernaum] He saw a man named Matthew sitting at the tax office. And He said to him, “Follow me! So, he arose and followed Him.” (Matthew 9:9)
Matthew goes on in the next few verses to say, “now it happened, as Jesus sat at the table in the house, that behold, many tax collectors and sinners came and sat down with Him and His disciples”. These invitees were the only kind of people that Matthew knew.
Luke records what happened on that occasion:
“Then Levi gave Him a great feast in his own house. And there were a great number of tax collectors and others who sat down with them. And their scribes and the Pharisees complained about His disciples, saying, ‘why do you eat and drink with tax collectors and sinners?’ Jesus answered and said to them, ‘those who are well have no need of a physician, but those who are sick. I have not come to call the righteous, but sinners, to repentance.’” (Luke 5: 29-32).
Tax Collectors in 1st Century Israel
Publicans were men who had bought tax franchises from the Roman emperor and then extorted money from the people of Israel to feed the Roman coffers and to pad their own pockets. For a Jewish man like Matthew to be a tax collector made him a traitor to the nation, a social pariah, the rankest of the rank. He had effectively cut himself off not only from his own people, but also from God; since he was banned from the synagogue and forbidden to sacrifice and worship in the temple, he was in essence worse off religiously than a Gentiles.
Notice in Luke 18: 10-14 the tax collector stood “afar off.” He had to. He would not have been permitted past the court of the Gentiles in the temple.
There were two kinds of tax collectors, the Gabbai and the Mokhes. The Gabbai were general tax collectors. They collected property tax, income tax, and poll tax. These taxes were set by official assessment, so there was not as much graft at this level.
The Mokhes, however, collected a duty on imports and exports, goods for domestic trade, and virtually anything that was moved by road. They set tolls on roads and bridges, they taxed beasts of burden and axles on transport wagons, and they charged a tariff on parcels, letters, and whatever else they could find to tax. Their assessments were often arbitrary and capricious.
There were two kinds of Mokhes —the Great Mokhes and the Little Mokhes. A Great Mokhes stayed behind the scenes and hired others to collect taxes for him. (Zaccheus was probably a Great Mokhes—a “chief tax collector”—Luke 19: 2). Matthew was evidently a Little Mokhes, because he manned a tax office where he dealt with people face to face (Matthew 9: 9). He was the one that people saw and resented most.
We know that Matthew grew to know the Old Testament very well because his Gospel quotes the Old Testament 99 times. That is more than Mark, Luke, and John combined. He must have pursued his study of the Old Testament on his own, because he couldn’t hear the word of God explained in any synagogue.
We know that Matthew wrote his gospel with a Jewish audience in mind. Tradition says he administered to the Jews both in Israel and abroad for many years before being murdered for his faith. There is no reliable record of how he was put to death, but the earliest tradition indicates he was burned at the stake. Thus, this man who walked away from a lucrative career without ever giving it a second thought, remained willing to give his all for Christ to the very end.
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“Two men went up to the temple to pray, one a Pharisee and the other a tax collector. The Pharisee stood by himself and prayed: ‘God, I thank you that I am not like other people—robbers, evildoers, adulterers—or even like this tax collector. I fast twice a week and give a tenth of all I get.’
“But the tax collector stood at a distance. He would not even look up to heaven, but beat his breast and said, ‘God, have mercy on me, a sinner.’
“I tell you that this man, rather than the other, went home justified before God. For all those who exalt themselves will be humbled, and those who humble themselves will be exalted.” Luke 18:10-14
Twelve Ordinary Men by John MacArthur