Scripture Sketches: Matthew the Publican

 •  6 min. read  •  grade level: 9
Tax-collectors are nowhere, I believe, very welcome visitors, and when, as in Matthew's time and country, they collected the taxes for a foreign, conquering power, and in addition to this, “farmed” the taxes, extorting from the oppressed people, as was believed, much more than was just or politic, they were as a class doubly disliked. The ancient Jew hated them and classed them generally with sinners— “publicans and sinners” as the common phrase went. So the modern Americans tarred and feathered them when they came claiming tribute for this country, what time they threw the chests of tea into Boston Harbor.
These popular condemnations, however, are usually merely the outcome of ignorant bigotry. The tax-collecting class are probably no worse than their neighbors. Certainly there is no money we pay that is better laid out than that which we contribute to enable the governing power to protect us from anarchy or invasion. The Christian too has received a direct command that dignifies his payment of taxes in an especial way: “Render therefore unto Cæsar the things that are Caesar's;” “Tribute to whom tribute is due, custom to whom custom.” It is well for the Christian to avoid countenancing the vulgar class-hatreds and contempts that are so frequent in every part of the world. The Jew hated the Samaritan, the Greek called the Roman “barbarian,” to the Hindu all other people are contemptibly “Yavanna,” to the Chinese, “Tatse.” Every people have a part of the country which they make it their pleasure to abuse and sneer at: the Italians, Lombardy; the French, Gascony; the Germans, Saxony; the Austrians, the Magyar country; the English,—but I must not come too near home; let us keep at a distance. The Greeks scorned Bmotia, yet it produced Hesiod, Pindar, and Plutarch; the Syrians loathed Nazareth, but out of it came Christ.
In fact by coming from Nazareth, by being born of poor and obscure parents, and passing to His ministry through the curriculum of the workshop rather than the college, and by choosing His companions and apostles from the humblest and most despised classes, fishermen, and tax collectors, our Lord at every step traversed and discountenanced those vulgar prejudices that originate and nourish class-hatreds; and by the world-wide character of His gospel and the fraternal basis of the association of His disciples He opposed and condemned those international enmities which have been the chief causes of the greatest miseries that afflict the human race. It is well when we are characterized by the same spirit.
The principal fact therefore that we have concerning Matthew is that he was one of the hated tax-collectors. Though an apostle he seemed in no sense a prominent man; but, like some other quiet retiring persons we meet, he showed a hearty readiness in turning to Christ, and a thorough surrender of himself and all he possessed. When the Lord called him1 he was sitting with his heaps of custom's money before him; “and he left all, rose up, and followed him.” He evidently regarded the invitation as a most joyful event too, “and made him a great feast in his own house, and there was a great company of publicans and others that sat down with them,” Christ being in the midst.
And this is very fine. It is Luke and Mark that tell us all those pleasant things which were so creditable to Matthew; and there is no trace of envious feeling on their part to hinder his fellow apostles from chronicling them. But Matthew himself only gives the most curt and formal account.2 “He saw a man named Matthew sitting at the receipt of custom: and he saith unto him, Follow me. And he arose and followed him. And it came to pass, as Jesus sat at meat in the house.” Pray mark: he does not even say that it was his (Matthew's) house they sat in, much less that it was “a great feast” which he was giving, to which he had invited all his old publican friends; for he is like Jacob, “a plain man,” and he is too honest and sterling a man to be ashamed either of his old friends or of his new master.
Of course whilst noticing the different statements of the writers of the Gospels, I fully believe in their plenary inspiration, yet this does not affect the truth (and the beauty of the truth) that the Holy Ghost so acted on the mind of each writer as to produce that which should only be in keeping with the most absolute propriety and modesty, but also in some wise that which retains something of the impress of the mind through which it is communicated. The oil that runs down through the golden pipes of necessity takes somewhat the shape of the pipe through which it flows. The wind moves forward with its single majestic force, but it swells out the different sails in a thousand different ways.
Alas! for those who are so foolish as to think variations in gospel narrations to be contradictions. Not only do they wrest them to their own destruction, but what delicate shades of beauty there are, that their blind eyes can never perceive! “Ah, but Luke differs from Matthew: that's a discrepancy, a discord.” No, it is a complement, a concord. “But there are four different accounts;” “there is a confusion.” No, a harmony. “But which is true?” Thou fool! they are all true.
Do not the four parts of music differ and yet are they not all true and harmonic,—soprano, alto, tenor, and bass? Would not four plans of the same building differ, one giving ground-plan, another the elevation, a third the eastern and a fourth the western sides? Are there not the four dimensions, length, breadth, thickness, and throughness in everything that exists from a pin-head to a planet? The accounts differ, do they? Thou fool! if they did not differ, we should only require one of them.
And that were melody without harmony. We prefer both. The beauty of the sound is increased exceedingly. Here is another instance: in enumerating the apostles, the other writers simply say “Matthew and Thomas,” putting Matthew before Thomas and saying nothing about his hated profession; whereas, when Matthew enumerates them, he puts himself after Thomas and mentions his own profession, “Thomas and Matthew the publican.” “You were originally a shoe-maker, Mr. Carey, I believe,” loftily said the great dignitary, to the man who translated the Bible for the Hindus. “No, my lord, only a cobbler,” he replied.
A plain, honest, Christian man, apparently without one spark of natural genius, but characterized by modesty, hospitality, and cheerful devotion. According to Papias, Irenæeus, Eusebius, and others, he wrote his Gospel originally in Hebrew for Jewish converts, though our Greek version of it3 was extant so early as the second century. There seems no reliable evidence of his having been martyred; he seems to have died a natural death.