Responsible to God: Trading Masters with Matthew the Tax-Collector

As Jesus went on from there, He saw a man named Matthew sitting at the tax office, and He said to him, “Follow Me!” So he got up and followed Him. (Matthew 9:9)

In Matthew 9:9, Matthew — the author of this book we’ve been studying — shares the story of his own call in the self-effacing style typical of the gospels.

The story as he tells it is extraordinarily simple.

He was sitting at the tax office, or as the KJV puts it, “the receipt of customs” — not an office tucked away in a building somewhere, but a public customs booth where he was actually in the business of receiving taxes.

This was his work, his job — his chosen livelihood and responsibility.

As Matthew was hard at work, Jesus passed by and spotted him. And furthermore, interrupted him, with a simple command: “Follow Me!”

So Matthew did.

He got up and left the tax office and never, as far as we know, returned.

It sounds simple. And in some ways it probably was. But it wasn’t easy, and it didn’t come without enormous cost. Reflecting on the story gives us a mirror for our own lives and forces us to face our priorities and come face-to-face with God’s claim to mastery in our lives.

What We Give Up to Follow Jesus

Earlier, Matthew reflected on what others gave up in order to follow Jesus’ call. He highlighted this idea of cost and priority again in the Gadarene story , when a community asked Jesus to leave rather than allow him to cost them anything more than he already had.

In all these cases Jesus offered something greater in exchange, but that didn’t mean the initial cost didn’t feel HIGH — in some cases too high.

Although he skims over it so quickly, this was certainly the case for Matthew.

A little background might help, as might a little imagination.

You, at Work

Imagination first:

Picture yourself at work. At your desk, at your post. Think of all this entails.

There’s your routine, of course. Your understanding of what you DO every day. The habits that make up the daily practice of being you.

And then (throwing off the routine, as usual) there are the urgent things: the emails, the phone calls, the emergencies, the child who just threw up (if you work in a day care, or parent); the patient who just flatlined (in the ER, or in a very different sense, the therapist’s office).

Many of us don’t like our jobs, but our jobs make up a significant portion of our LIVES. They are us, in action — responding, creating, caretaking, managing.

Interestingly the word “responsibility” breaks down to “respond” and “ability”: our responsibilities are the areas in which we are able and expected to respond.

Beyond all that is your paycheck, and beyond that the many reasons you require one: your mortgage, your car, your teeth, your children. Groceries and college tuition.

The reason most of us don’t like our jobs but we work anyway is that we have to work. Life requires it of us. Self-respect, our stomachs, and our culture all require it of us. Summer and winter, springtime and harvest require it of us. Adulthood and old age require it of us.

So imagine:

You, at work. Carrying all of the above: your habits, the demands of the moment, and the longer-term obligations of your life.

And to you, Jesus walks up, says, “Follow Me,” and walks away.

Without guaranteeing anything.

Without explaining how your paycheck will be replaced. Without promising to explain this to your boss. Without assuring you that the emergencies will get handled and the new routines will be better than the old ones.

Without explaining who YOU will be, once you are no longer who you used to be.

And yet, Matthew got up and followed.

He wasn’t the only one. Jesus called Peter, Andrew, James, and John right out of their fishing boats. Nobody had an alternate income source or a good retirement plan to make this more doable. They just did it.

Tax Collecting, in Galilee

Some background is helpful to understand this story too. Matthew was a tax collector, or as in other places, a “publican.”

The usual New Testament phrasing “tax collectors and sinners” encapsulates how the larger community felt about people who did this job. Even in our culture people who work for the IRS are easily stigmatized by people who resent paying taxes (which pretty well everyone does).

But the situation in Galilee was several steps removed from that.

A publican was a private contractor who bid on certain jobs having to do with administrating the empire, most notably the task of collecting taxes. Jewish publicans were therefore seen as turncoats. They were profiting off the oppression of their people by Rome, or so most people saw it.

In fact, since Rome was kind of far away, tax collectors were the main point of contact for that oppression. And they weren’t soldiers from another province; they were your cousin, your uncle, your brother.

It didn’t help that tax collectors weren’t salaried, or paid a fair wage for their time. They actually paid the empire for the right to collect taxes, with the amount reflecting the estimated taxes to be collected from their area.

Anything they collected above that amount was how they made a profit. So greed, extortion, and fraud were real problems.

All of this means that Matthew had invested a whole lot in his job. He’d chosen to become a pariah in his own community, to be seen as a traitor and worse than a Gentile, in order to partner with Rome. He’d also invested a considerable sum of money to win his tax-collecting contract.

And if he followed Jesus, he wasn’t going to get it back.

But he followed.

Making the Trade

In our post-resurrection, post-ascension, Holy-Spirit-temple era, Jesus does not call most of his followers to immediately drop their careers in order to follow him.

(The opposite, actually: see 1 Corinthians 7:17-24. We’re to start out following Jesus “in,” not “out of” — but of course he retains the right to issue new orders any time he likes.)

Yet, the call of Matthew speaks to a trade of masters that every believer must undergo, and with it a change of responsibilities.

Responding to God

Before we choose to follow Jesus, we are chiefly responsible to a host of demands from inside and outside of us: to our consciences and giftings but also to our families, communities, bosses, schools, creditors, etc.

After we choose to follow Jesus we have a new master and therefore responsibility on a completely different level:

Our first and primary response must always be to God, even if that comes into conflict with our perceived responsibility in some other area.

It is God-in-Jesus to whom we are able and expected to respond.

As it did for Matthew, this means a realignment of priorities, habits, and rewards, on a day-to-day, real-world basis. It means prioritizing love and virtue over competition and profit at any cost; it means caring more about the will of God in any given situation than we do about getting the bills paid, sending the kids to college, finalizing a deal, or maintaining our reputations.

The will of God may actually encompass all those things, and in most cases probably does, but it’s important we understand ourselves to be serving a different master, for different reasons, with a different hoped-for reward.

Sometimes that costs us. Sometimes it forces a reexamination of priorities that is uncomfortable and even terrifying.

I think of the way people throughout history have described their “call” to the mission field or the pastorate or marriage. They speak of wrestling, of fear, of a struggle.

A clear “Follow Me” is exhilarating, but it’s also one of the most terrifying things anyone can hear. It forces us to come face-to-face with everything we’re really living for and all the ways we’re managing and coping and advancing — and why.

The call of Jesus for us may be “Get up” or it may be “Stay there,” but either way it is a change of masters. We no longer live for ourselves or the expectations of others, but only — only — to respond to God.


I would love to hear from you. Scroll down to leave a comment below!

This is Part 115 in a series on the Gospel of Matthew, which you can access here. Unless otherwise marked, quotes are from the Holman Christian Standard Bible.

By the way, I cowrote a book on living free from fear that talks a lot about the fear of the Lord. You can still get it for free from Amazon, but not for much longer … we have nearly reached our goal of giving away 10,000 free copies. Get yours here: Fearless: Free in Christ in an Age of Anxiety.


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