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It is an unusually hot morning, and the burning rays of the sun only serve to fuel the townspeople's irritable temperaments. Matthew sits at his booth on the outskirts of Capernaum, on one of the main roads from Damascus into Israel, collecting taxes from residents and tariffs from travelers passing through. So many faces go by, yet there is never a hello. Hissing �swindler� through their teeth, the people throw their money at him.
Before the noonday sun rises into position, Matthew has been berated, reviled, and spat upon by the angry taxpayers. Already frazzled and spent, he wearily begins adding up his columns.
What was it that David said in the psalms? he asks himself. �Though your riches increase, do not set your heart on them.� Counting money and adding figures from sunup to sundown has so often left his heart aching and sore, and today is no exception. How did David finish that psalm? �Surely you will reward each person according to what he has done� (Psalm 62:10, 12). How had he gotten into this profession anyway? As Matthew's thoughts drift, he rubs his temples, stress pulsating beneath his fingers�
He learned early on that money talks. Even as a small boy, he saw that those who have money command respect. Authorities bow to it. Kingdoms govern by it. Money makes all the difference in the worldand Matthew was determined to make plenty of it.
Mathematical equations and word problems came easily to him in school. When other students were off daydreaming, Matthew was bent over his work, fastidiously checking and double-checking his answers. Becoming a fisherman or working in construction was never an option; he was not made for manual labor. He was meticulous, precise, conscientious, and detailed. He loved figures and statistics. And statistics showed that there was money out there to be made.
Tax gathering was a prosperous occupation, and Matthew knew that he was smart enough to do it. But this career was not without its drawbacks. Not only did tax collectors work for the Roman government, but they invariably took an extra cut for themselves. Especially hated were the Jewish tax collectors. Their kinsmen saw them as traitorsas cold-hearted, ruthless snakes. But the real snakes, Matthew reasoned, were collectors who took a larger percentage than he did. He was not as greedy as many of the others, but people still called him an �underhanded, money-grubbing scoundrel� just the same. They still considered him an outcast.
He was not welcome in Jewish synagogues, homes, or conversations. He was an astute and learned man, but there was no one who would discuss philosophy with him. No one would talk with him about the teachings of the great scholars. At every turn he was shunned, ignored, and snubbed. Tax collectors weren't even permitted to testify in court.
Downtrodden and weary from each day's verbal assault, he walked home alone each evening, the people's scathing words reverberating through his ears, deep into his soul:
�You're a cheat!�
�You're nothing but a thief!�
�Criminals like you should be hanged!�
The tongue-lashings had gotten so severe that each morning he questioned whether he could go back to his booth.
But money speaks volumes�
Pulling his thoughts back to his work, Matthew glances up momentarily and sees a few men walking toward his booth. The sun is beaming directly above them, casting their faces in deep shadows. The one man looks like that carpenter from Nazareth. Jesus is his name, he recalls. Jesus had always been different from the others he dealt with. He and his father, Joseph, simply paid their debt and went about their business. They were always prompt. Always polite. Odd to see Jesus here, Matthew thinks. It seems he just paid his taxes.
Even though the Jews never speak to him directly, Matthew is aware of the talk in the streets. Word is that Jesus has left his father's business and is casting out evil spirits, healing the sick, and performing miracles. Even some of the men who travel with him can cast out demons in his name. What was it that he himself had heard Jesus say one day by the lake? �The Son of Man has authority on earth to forgive sins.�
Suddenly Matthew realizes he has lost his place in his count. Hunching over his work, he begins to re-add the columns. But the books and ledgers are soon masked by a dark shadow as he looks up to see the carpenter, this �Son of Man.� What is it that is in those eyes? Acceptance? Friendship? Forgiveness? They look beyond Matthewbeyond his ledgers and his booth. Beyond his statistics and figures. Beyond his money stacks and bottom line.
�Follow me,� Jesus says quietly.
Even his voice is differentnot pinched or strained like the voices Matthew has heard throughout the day. There are no signs of hate, rancor, or loathing in his tone. �Follow me.� With those words Jesus hangs a vestige of humanity around Matthew's neck that had long ago been stripped from him.
Dumbfounded, Matthew clumsily drops his books. He wants me to follow him? He's so kind and gentle. So good. Why would he want me? People hate me! But Jesus does not move. His eyes see past what others seeto Matthew's heart.
Matthew glances at the other men with Jesus. They are rough around the edges, a bit tattered and worn, but something is different about them as well. Then he remembers: �The Son of Man has authority on earth to forgive sins.� That's it! These men are forgiven! Jesus has made the life-changing difference in them!
Money flying, pages scattering in the wind, Matthew hurriedly scrambles to the front of his booth with the freedom of a prisoner whose life sentence has just been overturned. What had not crossed his face in so many years now beams from one ear to the other. He will follow. He will gladly leave his hollow ambitions behind! His desire for money and the love of wealth had left him unfulfilled, unsatisfied, and unhappy. He had always known there must be something more, and now his heart explodes with the joyous realization. Into his shallow existence have come grace and acceptance!
Before given the chance to speak, his back is pounded and his hand pumped in welcoming celebration. Immediately, these men are his friends, his companions. And this Son of Man is his teacher. Matthew closes his books and follows as Jesus leads him into his new life, leaving his tax collector's booth forever behind him.
Your Walk with Him
To say that God accepts us means that he approves of us and welcomes us with open arms. He sees value in us. But in our all-too-human minds, it is hard to believe that God accepts us as we are. Surely our pasts are too appalling, our present thoughts too horrific to ever be accepted by a holy God! Some of us think, Not me. I'm too awful. I can't even think of my past without getting sick. There are lots of people out there who get outraged when they just hear my name. Fortunately, Matthew paved the way for all of us who feel unacceptable.
Others of us may say, �My tiny sin is nothing compared to that other guy's.� Matthew also paved the way for those of us who hide behind a mask of tolerability. We think, Hey, God may not totally approve of my life, but it's good enough. I'm not a murderer, after all. But God always knows our heartswhether they reflect the shame of recognizing the depth of our sin or the self-righteousness of attempting to legitimize it. He knows.
Jesus knew full well what people thought of Matthew. Of all the men on earth, this tax collector didn't appear a wise choice for one of the Twelve, his Twelve. But Jesus saw past the job, past the comments, past the circumstances. He saw Matthew. Just as he sees you�just as he sees me. Regardless of what we do or who people think we are, God sees us and accepts us!
He's standing before us now, his eyes peering past our facades and straight into our hearts. He understands. He knows everything we've been through. With a voice that has no trace of hatred, loathing, or repugnance, he gently says, �Follow me.� Whoever we are. Wherever we are. Whatever we've done. It doesn't matter; he accepts us. He values us. He sees the amazing possibilities of our future!
But do we believe that? Let's close the door of doubt, regret, and remorse over our past and simply follow Jesus. There's no need to go back into that storehouse of pain ever again. Christ has locked the door and thrown away the key.