We don’t know much about Matthew. He was a tax collector, and he’s immortalised as one of the gospel writers, but beyond that he’s a bit of a mystery; we know more about him than, say, James the Less, but he’s no Simon Peter. When it comes to apostles, Matthew is firmly mid-table, his name cropping up in lists but almost more of a trivia answer than a man.
Careful though; when it comes to the Bible, lists are often more than lists. Sometimes they’re flat-out scandalous.
For instance, Matthew was a tax collector, and that carried more baggage than a trolley at Heathrow. This wasn’t a nice, middle-class civil service position, this was a political statement. This meant you’d chosen the occupying Romans over your own people. This meant you’d sacrificed your principals in favour of a quick buck. This meant you were a traitor. This meant you were a target.
Tax collectors were subcontractors, collecting revenue for Rome and top slicing some nice profits for themselves in the process. An ultra-nationalistic group like, say, the Zealots, were never going to like that. By siding with the enemies, tax collectors made themselves a target for assassination.
So look at the list of disciples in Matthew 10:2-4 and consider just how significant it is that one of them’s described as a tax collector and another is described as a Zealot. When Jesus said “love your enemies”, he was determined to make that a reality.
We see some of this when Matthew first shows up. Jesus makes a beeline for the tax office and repeats what he’s already said to people like Peter and John: “Follow me.” This time it’s more of a statement – the Pharisee attack dogs are straight onto him. “Why does your teacher eat with tax collectors and sinners?” they ask his disciples; I suspect a few of the disciples were asking the same question.
Jesus’s answer is pithy and cutting – the healthy don’t need a doctor but the sick do. Matthew has a shady past and Jesus will deal with it, but this isn’t some paternalistic lecture. Immediately Jesus hits out at the Pharisees – go back to the Bible, look up Hosea and figure out why God prefers his followers to prioritise mercy over religious ritual. He ends by saying he’s here for ‘sinners’, not the ‘righteous’ – at least Matthew realises that his life has gone off the rails. If you’re convinced of your own religious superiority, however… Well, God needs people he can actually work with, not people who spend most of their lives sneering at those who allegedly don’t make the grade.
Jesus keeps butting up against this them-and-us attitude. We’re righteous, they’re sinners; they’re traitors, we’re freedom fighters; we wear white hats, they wear black. Jesus rejects that idea, to the extent that even a simple list of his disciples becomes offensive. It’s easy to see our enemies as godless heathens; it’s far more challenging to realise that our enemies must become our family, and that family banquets therefore involve both sinners and saints; or rather, sinners who become saints.
Today is St. Matthew’s Day. In Sheffield, the EDL are on the march against immigration and Islam; in Nairobi, gunman have killed 20 in a shopping mall. We violently express our divisions and rain down violence on our enemies.
In the pages of the gospels, a tax collector and a Zealot are on the same team, brought together by the scandalous grace of Christ. We need to become that scandalous again.