When Jesus became a ‘follower’ – Feast of St Matthew- Apostle and Evangelist – Matthew 9: 9-13

We celebrate today the feast of St Matthew, the Apostle and Evangelist. The Gospel of today tells us that as Jesus passed on, he saw a man named Matthew sitting at the tax office and said to him, “follow Me.” Matthew simply obeys; he arose and followed Jesus. From the Gospel of St Mark, we know that Matthew is also called Levi, son of Alpheus. We are told that Matthew was a tax collector or as the older texts have it, a publican. The publicani were tax-gatherers, and were so called because they dealt with public money and with public funds.

At the time of Jesus, tax collectors were not only notorious sinners; they were also regarded as the most visible Jewish collaborators with the Romans against their fellow Jews. This was not their only sin as they were also notorious extortioners. Roman tax collectors bid among others for the tax-collecting contract. For example, many tax collectors might want to have the tax contract for a city like Capernaum. The Romans awarded the contract to the highest bidder. The man in charge collected taxes, paid the Romans what he promised, and kept the remainder. Therefore, there was a lot of incentive for tax collectors to over-charge and cheat any way they could.

Tax collection was enforced with the help of the Roman soldiers who were assigned to each tax collector. It was an effective way of collecting taxes, the tax collector was a local who knew the in’s and out of his fellow citizens while the soldiers provided the muscle for ensuring the collection without any incident. It is for this reason that when a Jew entered the customs service he was regarded as an outcast from society: he was disqualified as a judge or a witness in a court session, was excommunicated from the synagogue, and in the eyes of the community his disgrace extended to his family; how Alpheus must have suffered as a consequence of his sons decision.

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