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3. MATTHEW THE PUBLICAN
The call of Matthew signally illustrates a very prominent feature in the public action of Jesus, viz., His utter disregard of the maxims of worldly wisdom. A publican disciple, much more a publican apostle, could not fail to be a stumbling-block to Jewish prejudice, and therefore to be, for the time at least, a source of weakness rather than of strength. Yet, while perfectly aware of this fact, Jesus invited to the intimate fellowship of disciplehood one who had pursued the occupation of a tax-gatherer, and at a later period selected him to be one of the twelve. His procedure in this case is all the more remarkable when contrasted with the manner in which He treated others having outward advantages to recommend them to favorable notice, and who showed their readiness to follow by volunteering to become disciples; of whom we have a sample in the scribe who came and said, “Master, I will follow Thee whithersoever Thou goest.”2525Matt. viii. 18–20. This man, whose social position and professional attainments seemed to point him out as a very desirable acquisition, the “Master” deliberately scared away by a gloomy picture of his own destitute condition, saying, “The foxes have holes, and the birds of the air have nests,2626More correctly, roosts, or lodging-places. but the Son of man hath not where to lay His head.”
The eye of Jesus was single as well as omniscient: He looked on the heart, and had respect solely to spiritual fitness. He had no faith in any discipleship based on misapprehensions and by-ends; and, on the other hand, He had no fear of the drawbacks arising out of the external connections or past history of true believers, but was entirely indifferent to men’s antecedents. Confident in the power of truth, He chose the base things of the world in preference to things held in esteem, assured that they would conquer at the last. Aware that both He and His disciples would be despised and rejected of men for a season, He went calmly on His way, choosing for His companions and agents “whom He would,” undisturbed by the gainsaying of His generation — like one who knew that His work concerned all nations and all time.
The publican disciple bears two names in the Gospel history. In the first Gospel he is called Matthew, while in the second and third Gospels he is called Levi. That the same person is intended, may, we think, be regarded as a matter of certainty.2727Ewald (Christus, pp. 364, 397) denies the identity, and asserts that Levi was not one of the twelve; yet he admits the far less certain identity of Nathanael and Bartholomew. It is hardly conceivable that two publicans should have been called to be disciples at the same place and time, and with all accompanying circumstances, and these so remarkable, precisely similar. We need not be surprised that the identity has not been notified, as the fact of the two names belonging to one individual would be so familiar to the first readers of the Gospels as to make such a piece of information superfluous.
It is not improbable that Levi was the name of this disciple before the time of his call, and that Matthew was his name as a disciple, — the new name thus becoming a symbol and memorial of the more important change in heart and life. Similar emblematic changes of name were of frequent occurrence in the beginning of the Gospel. Simon son of Jonas was transformed into Peter, Saul of Tarsus became Paul, and Joses the Cypriot got from the apostles the beautiful Christian name of Barnabas (son of consolation or prophecy), by his philanthropy, and magnanimity, and spiritual wisdom, well deserved.
Matthew seems to have been employed as a collector of revenue, at the time when he was called, in the town of Capernaum, which Jesus had adopted as His place of abode. For it was while Jesus was at home “in His own city,”2828Matt. ix. 1. as Capernaum came to be called, that the palsied man was brought to Him to be healed; and from all the evangelists2929Matt. ix. 9; Mark ii. 13; Luke v. 27. we learn that it was on His way out from the house where that miracle was wrought that He saw Matthew, and spoke to him the word, “Follow Me.” The inference to be drawn from these facts is plain, and it is also important, as helping to explain the apparent abruptness of the call, and the promptitude with which it was responded to. Jesus and His new disciple being fellow-townsmen, had opportunities of seeing each other before.
The time of Matthew’s call cannot be precisely determined, but there is good reason for placing it before the Sermon on the Mount, of which Matthew’s Gospel contains the most complete report. The fact just stated is of itself strong evidence in favor of this chronological arrangement, for so full an account of the sermon was not likely to emanate from one who did not hear it. An examination of the third Gospel converts probability into something like certainty. Luke prefixes to his abbreviated account of the sermon a notice of the constitution of the apostolic society, and represents Jesus as proceeding “with them”3030Luke vi. 13–17. — the twelve, whose names he has just given — to the scene where the sermon was delivered. Of course the act of constitution must have been preceded by the separate acts of calling, and by Matthew’s call in particular, which accordingly is related by the third evangelist in an earlier part of his Gospel.3131Luke v. 27. It is true the position of the call in Luke’s narrative in itself proves nothing, as Matthew relates his own call after the sermon; and as, moreover, neither one nor other systematically adheres to the chronological principle of arrangement in the construction of his story. We base our conclusion on the assumption, that when any of the evangelists professes to give the order of sequence, his statement may be relied on; and on the observations, that Luke does manifestly commit himself to a chronological datum in making the ordination of the twelve antecedent to the preaching of the Sermon on the Mount, and that Matthew’s arrangement in the early part of his Gospel is as manifestly unchronological, his matter being massed on the topical principle, ch. v.–vii. showing Jesus as a great ethical teacher; ch. viii. and ix., as a worker of miracles; ch. x., as a master, choosing, instructing, and sending forth on an evangelistic mission the twelve disciples; ch. xi., as a critic of His contemporaries and assertor of His own prerogatives; ch. xii., as exposed to the contradictions of unbelief; and ch. xiii., as teaching the doctrines of the kingdom by parables.
Passing from these subordinate points to the call itself, we observe that the narratives of the event are very brief and fragmentary. There is no intimation of any previous acquaintance such as might prepare Matthew to comply with the invitation addressed to him by Jesus. It is not to be inferred, however, that no such acquaintance existed, as we can see from the case of the four fishermen, whose call is narrated with equal abruptness in the synoptical Gospels, while we know from John’s Gospel that three of them at least were previously acquainted with Jesus. The truth is, that, in regard to both calls, the evangelists concerned themselves only about the crisis, passing over in silence all preparatory stages, and not deeming it necessary to inform intelligent readers that, of course, neither the publican nor any other disciple blindly followed one of whom he knew nothing merely because asked or commanded to follow. The fact already ascertained, that Matthew, while a publican, resided in Capernaum, makes it absolutely certain that he knew of Jesus before he was called. No man could live in that town in those days without hearing of “mighty works” done in and around it. Heaven had been opened right above Capernaum, in view of all, and the angels had been thronging down upon the Son of man. Lepers were cleansed, and demoniacs dispossessed; blind men received their sight, and palsied men the use of their limbs; one woman was cured of a chronic malady, and another, daughter of a distinguished citizen, — Jairus, ruler of the synagogue, — was brought back to life from the dead. These things were done publicly, made a great noise, and were much remarked on. The evangelists relate how the people “were all amazed, insomuch that they questioned among themselves, saying, What thing is this? what new doctrine is this? for with authority commandeth He even the unclean spirits, and they do obey Him;.”3232Mark i. 27. how they glorified God, saying, “We never saw it on this fashion,”3333Mark ii. 12. or, “we have seen strange things today.”3434Luke v. 26. Matthew himself concludes his account of the raising of Jairus’ daughter with the remark: “The fame hereof went abroad into all that land.”3535Matt. ix. 26.
We do not affirm that all these miracles were wrought before the time of the publican’s call, but some of them certainly were. Comparing one Gospel with another, to determine the historical sequence,3636See Ebrard, Gospel History, on the subject of sequence. we conclude that the greatest of all these mighty works, the last mentioned, though narrated by Matthew after his call, really occurred before it. Think, then, what a powerful effect that marvelous deed would have in preparing the tax-gatherer for recognizing, in the solemnly uttered word, “Follow me,” the command of One who was Lord both of the dead and of the living, and for yielding to His bidding, prompt, unhesitating obedience!
In crediting Matthew with some previous knowledge of Christ, we make his conversion to discipleship appear reasonable without diminishing its moral value. It was not a matter of course that he should become a follower of Jesus merely because he had heard of, or even seen, His wonderful works. Miracles of themselves could make no man a believer, otherwise all the people of Capernaum should have believed. How different was the actual fact, we learn from the complaints afterwards made by Jesus concerning those towns along the shores of the Lake of Gennesareth, wherein most of His mighty works were done, and of Capernaum in particular. Of this city He said bitterly: “Thou, Capernaum, shalt thou be exalted unto heaven? thou shalt go down unto Hades: for if the mighty works which have been done in thee had been done in Sodom, it would have remained until this day.3737Matt. xi. 23. There can be little doubt that the reading μὴ ὑψωθήση, in the first clause, adopted in the R. V., is the correct one. It brings Christ’s prophetic word into closer correspondence with Isa. xiv. 13–15, to which there is an obvious allusion: “Thou hast said in thine heart, I will ascend unto heaven . . . Yet thou shalt be brought down to hell.” Christ’s complaint against the inhabitants of these favored cities was that they did not repent, that is, make the kingdom of heaven their chief good and chief end. They wondered sufficiently at His miracles, and talked abundantly of them, and ran after Him to see more works of the same kind, and enjoy anew the sensation of amazement; but after a while they relapsed into their old stupidity and listlessness, and remained morally as they had been before He came among them, not children of the kingdom, but children of this world.
It was not so with the collector of customs. He not merely wondered and talked, but he “repented.” Whether he had more to repent of than his neighbors, we cannot tell. It is true that he belonged to a class of men who, seen through the colored medium of popular prejudice, were all bad alike, and many of whom were really guilty of fraud and extortion; but he may have been an exception. His farewell feast shows that he possessed means, but we must not take for granted that they were dishonestly earned. This only we may safely say, that if the publican disciple had been covetous, the spirit of greed was now exorcised; if he had ever been guilty of oppressing the poor, he now abhorred such work. He had grown weary of collecting revenue from a reluctant population, and was glad to follow One who had come to take burdens off instead of laying them on, to remit debts instead of exacting them with rigor. And so it came to pass that the voice of Jesus acted on his heart like a spell: “He left all, rose up, and followed Him.”
This great decision, according to the account of all the evangelists, was followed shortly after by a feast in Matthew’s house at which Jesus was present.3838Matthew says modestly, “in the house” (ix. 10). From Luke we learn that this entertainment had all the character of a great occasion, and that it was given in honor of Jesus. The honor, however, was such as few would value, for the other guests were peculiar. “There was a great company of publicans, and of others that sat down with them;.”3939Matt. ix. 10. and among the “others” were some who either were or were esteemed, in a superlative degree, “sinners.”4040Luke v. 29.
This feast was, as we judge, not less rich in moral significance than in the viands set on the board. For the host himself it was, without doubt, a jubilee feast commemorative of his emancipation from drudgery and uncongenial society and sin, or, at all events. temptation to sin, and of his entrance on the free, blessed life of fellowship with Jesus. It was a kind of poem, saying for Matthew what Doddridge’s familiar lines say for many another, perhaps not so well —
”Oh happy day, that fixed my choice
On Thee, my Saviour, and my God!
Well may this glowing heart rejoice,
And tell its raptures all abroad!
’Tis done; the great transaction’s done;
I am my Lord’s and He is mine;
He drew me, and I followed on,
Charmed to confess the voice divine.”
The feast was also, as already said, an act of homage to Jesus. Matthew made his splendid feast in honor of his new master, as Mary of Bethany shed her precious ointment. It is the way of those to whom much grace is shown and given, to manifest their grateful love in deeds bearing the stamp of what a Greek philosopher called magnificence,4141μεγαλοπρέπεια. — Aristotle’s Ethic. Nicomach. iv. 2. and churls call extravagance; and whoever might blame such acts of devotion, Jesus always accepted them with pleasure.
The ex-publican’s feast seems further to have had the character of a farewell entertainment to his fellow-publicans. He and they were to go different ways henceforth, and he would part with his old comrades in peace.
Once more: we can believe that Matthew meant his feast to be the means of introducing his friends and neighbors to the acquaintance of Jesus, seeking with the characteristic zeal of a young disciple to induce others to take the step which he had resolved on himself, or at least hoping that some sinners present might be drawn from evil ways into the paths of righteousness. And who can tell but it was at this very festive gathering, or on some similar occasion, that the gracious impressions were produced whose final outcome was that affecting display of gratitude unutterable at that other feast in Simon’s house, to which neither publicans nor sinners were admitted?
Matthew’s feast was thus, looked at from within, a very joyous, innocent, and even edifying one. But, alas! looked at from without, like stained windows, it wore a different aspect: it was, indeed, nothing short of scandalous. Certain Pharisees observed the company assemble or disperse, noted their character, and made, after their wont, sinister reflections. Opportunity offering itself, they asked the disciples of Jesus the at once complimentary and censorious question: “Why eateth your master with publicans and sinners?” The interrogants were for the most part local members of the pharisaic sect, for Luke calls them “their scribes and Pharisees,”4242Luke v. 30. which implies that Capernaum was important enough to be honored with the presence of men representing that religious party. It is by no means unlikely, however, that among the unfriendly spectators were some Pharisees all the way from Jerusalem, the seat of ecclesiastical government, already on the track of the Prophet of Nazareth, watching His doings, as they watched those of the Baptist before Him. The news of Christ’s wondrous works soon spread over all the land, and attracted spectators from all quarters — from Decapolis, Jerusalem, Judea, and Persia, as well as Galilee:4343Matt. iv. 25. and we may be sure that the scribes and Pharisees of the holy city were not the last to go and see, for we must own they performed the duty of religious espionage with exemplary diligence.
The presence of ill-affected men belonging to the pharisaic order was almost a standing feature in Christ’s public ministry. But it never disconcerted Him. He went calmly on His way doing His work; and when His conduct was called in question, He was ever ready with a conclusive answer. Among the most striking of His answers or apologies to them who examined Him, were those in which He vindicated Himself for mixing with publicans and sinners. They are three in number, spoken on as many occasions: the first in connection with Matthew’s feast; the second in the house of Simon the Pharisee;4444Luke vii. 36. and the third on an occasion not minutely defined, when certain scribes and Pharisees brought against Him the grave charge, “This man receiveth sinners, and eateth with them.”4545Luke xv.. These apologies for loving the unloved and the morally unlovely are full of truth and grace, poetry and pathos, and not without a touch of quiet, quaint satire directed against the sanctimonious fault-finders. The first may be distinguished as the professional argument, and is to this effect: “I frequent the haunts of sinners, because I am a physician, and they are sick and need healing. Where should a physician be but among his patients? where oftenest, but among those most grievously afflicted?” The second may be described as the political argument, its drift being this: “It is good policy to be the friend of sinners who have much to be forgiven; for when they are restored to the paths of virtue and piety, how great is their love! See that penitent woman, weeping for sorrow and also for joy, and bathing her Saviour’s feet with her tears. Those tears are refreshing to my heart, as a spring of water in the arid desert of pharisaic frigidity and formalism.” The third may be denominated the argument from natural instinct, and runs thus: “I receive sinners, and eat with them, and seek by these means their moral restoration, for the same reason which moves the shepherd to go after a lost sheep, leaving his unstrayed flock in the wilderness, viz. because it is natural to seek the lost, and to have more joy in finding things lost than in possessing things which never have been lost. Men who understand not this feeling are solitary in the universe; for angels in heaven, fathers, housewives, shepherds, all who have human hearts on earth, understand it well, and act on it every day.”
In all these reasonings Jesus argued with His accusers on their own premises, accepting their estimate of themselves, and of the class with whom they deemed it discreditable to associate, as righteous and sinful respectively. But He took care, at the same time, to let it appear that His judgment concerning the two parties did not coincide with that of His interrogators. This He did on the occasion of Matthew’s feast, by bidding them go study the text, “I will have mercy, and not sacrifice;.” meaning by the quotation to insinuate, that while very religious, the Pharisees were also very inhuman, full of pride, prejudice, harshness, and hatred; and to proclaim the truth, that this character was in God’s sight far more detestable than that of those who were addicted to the coarse vices of the multitude, not to speak of those who were “sinners” mainly in the pharisaic imagination, and within inverted commas.
Our Lord’s last words to the persons who called His conduct in question at this time were not merely apologetic, but judicial. “I came not,” He said, “to call the righteous, but sinners;.”4646εἴς μετάνοιαν seems to be genuine only in Luke, and the words express only a part of Christ’s meaning. He called men not merely to repentance, but to participation in all the blessedness of the kingdom. intimating a purpose to let the self-righteous alone and to call to repentance and to the joys of the kingdom those who were not too self-satisfied to care for the benefits offered, and to whom the gospel feast would be a real entertainment. The word, in truth, contained a significant hint of an approaching religious revolution in which the last should become first and the first last; Jewish outcasts, Gentile dogs, made partakers of the joys of the kingdom and the “righteous” shut out. It was one of the pregnant sayings by which Jesus made known to those who could understand, that His religion was an universal one, a religion for humanity, a gospel for mankind, because a gospel for sinners. And what this saying declared in word, the conduct it apologized for proclaimed yet more expressively by deed. It was an ominous thing that loving sympathy for “publicans and sinners” — the pharisaic instinct discerned it to be so, and rightly took the alarm. It meant death to privileged monopolies of grace and to Jewish pride and exclusivism — all men equal in God’s sight, and welcome to salvation on the same terms. In fact it was a virtual announcement of the Pauline programme of an universalistic gospel, which the twelve are supposed by a certain school of theologians to have opposed as determinedly as the Pharisees themselves. Strange that the men who had been with Jesus were so obtuse as not to understand, even at the last, what was involved in their Master’s fellowship with the low and the lost! Was Buddha more fortunate in his disciples than Jesus in His? Buddha said, “My law is a law of grace for all,” directing the saying immediately against Brahminical caste prejudice; and his followers understood that it meant, Buddhism a missionary religion, a religion even for Sudras, and therefore for all mankind!
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