THE CLASH OF KINGDOMSHis name was Levi but most New Testament readers know him better as Matthew. He was a tax-collecter. Rome had set up a system of "client kings". It offered its approval and military support to this king or that if the king would agree to raise taxes for Rome's needs [the client king got his cut, of course]. Rome would assess how much they wanted from a kingdom and the client king would give that to Rome. It didn't matter how much he could wring out of his people so long as he could give to Rome what they asked.
The Jewish people had two reasons to despise the tax-collectors—Rome and the Herodian family with whom Rome had made the agreement.
We're not to think of tax-collectors as poor little things who were mistreated; we get a better view of them as a class when we think of those who collaborated with the Nazis in France or Belgium or Holland. Tax-collectors must have been emotionally and socially tough to take such a place in the midst of their own people. Don't you think they would have had to harden themselves to work for the hated and abusive authorities? Would they not be resentful and bitter and tough when every day they were despised, jeered at, isolated and passed by in silence? And if they had wives and children would they not have to steel themselves against the pain their loved ones would surely feel in such a society?
That's the man who was sitting at his place when Jesus walked up to him. Imagine this. There he stands looking in silence at him, those big brown eyes searching Matthew while Matthew looks up at him every now and then with a "Well, what do you want?"
Then Jesus says: "Leave all that and follow me!"
I'm going to take it that Matthew knew something of the one who spoke to him. It cannot have been that just anyone—the local butcher, for example—came and said that to him.
It would be nice [though not needed] to have Matthew tell us about that moment. "There he stood looking at me, saying nothing for what seemed like a lifetime and then, those words..."
Surely some critic saw and heard it all and as soon as Jesus said, "Leave all that and come and follow me," he ran off to tell his friends. "Guess who the new prophet asked to follow him!" They might guess this one or that and the informant would say, "No, no, better than that! Guess again!" When they'd exhausted their list of pious people who loved Israel and hated the Herod family he'd say, "No, it was 'old money-bags' himself. Matthew the tax-collector." And he might have added, "It'll be a cold day in you know where when that happens." They'd all have a good laugh at the prophet's naivete but their laughing and jeering and gossiping would stop and astonishment would take their place when the word got around that Matthew had got up and done it! The capacity for it was there all along and only Jesus had the love to see it and the goodness and power to harness it!
All the hatred, all the sneering, all the isolation and intimidation couldn't turn him from his tax-gathering table, couldn't melt his hardness or strengthen him to finally join the oppressed against his ruthless masters—the world powers. But one long look at this Jesus, one strong sweet appeal from him and Matthew strode out of one world and into another, said a once-for-all goodbye to a way of life and never looked back.
When I think of such a dramatic turn around all sorts of questions swirl around in my mind—questions I have no satisfying answers to. Now and then when I think of it, it makes me half wish I had had Matthew's experience and felt the dramatic urge. I was never a great kid but my coming to the Lord Jesus, my entering the waters of baptism and taking his name upon me as my Lord and Savior was almost a quiet and steady process—as it is with most of us. I love that too but the drama of Matthew's conversion [and many like him down the centuries] thrills me as it must thrill you.
Every coming to the Lord Jesus has its drama even if it isn't obvious. It's more than [not less than] a personal u-turn. Worlds collide and empires clash on such occasions. People by God's grace throw off the shackles and throw ourselves into an adventure that knows no end. Once again, in each conversion, the Story of God as told in the person of Jesus Christ is re-told and re-enacted in a faith-filled baptism and it culminates in the rehearsal of His resurrection to new life and a new world [Romans 6:3-7].
Such conversions are an ongoing witness to the presence of God's saving power and the present existence of a new creation.
People are called to and made for adventure when Jesus comes calling and transforming them with truth about a new world, about a new creation.
In the days of the sailing ships, sailors who had sailed with Drake would come back and tell stories of what it was like to sail with such a captain. They'd tell tales not of balmy days in safe lagoons and gentle breezes. They'd tell of storms, raging seas and battles with giant waves; they whip off their shirts and show scars they'd got as a result of battle with sea monsters and jagged rocks, they'd show calloused hands that rowed for half a day and then another half and then another until exhausted but successful in bringing their ship into contact with a friendly wind that would fill the sails. Farm boys—barefoot farm boys, eyes wide with the longing for adventure, boys who'd never seen the sea would shrug off their harnesses, leave their ploughs lying in the fields and run off to another life—to another world!
That same Jesus is walking the earth today, stopping here and there and looking long at women and men, boys and girls, then saying, "Come and follow me and I will show you what you were made for." And then and there, even the same life setting, will become new and shot through with adventure!