Who? Me?

So many artists have done the scene—my favorite is Caravaggio—but I love them all actually.

There is one feature that shows up in most of them that especially moves me. Almost without fail, the artist depicts Matthew looking up with a startled expression: he has been interrupted—oh! has he ever!—and now he is pointing a finger at  himself—at his chest—with the most astonished look on his face, as if to say: "Are you talking to me?" 

I love it! Again and again, that gesture shows up: in Hendrik ter Brugghen, Jacob von Oost and a dozen others at least. 

The variations are just as interesting: in Matthias Stomer's version, the shock is registered on tax-payers' faces; one of them, in fact, has grabbed the edge of his chair, apparently to keep from falling off!  And in my favorite, Caravaggio, it is a taxpayer again who is doing the pointing, pointing to Matthew with a stunned look toward Jesus: "Are you talkin' to him?" 

 


                      

The entire episode is only two verses long, but—my!—what a world of change takes place within them! 
Many people today will not find the incident remarkable. In fact, they won't even get the point. Most people these days don't know what the word "tax collector" really means. The Bible doesn't explain it, and that's because it didn't need to. Back when Luke wrote this Gospel, he didn't need to explain a thing: all he had to do was use the word "telones" and every one of his readers would sneer at the thought of one of the lowest life-forms on earth! 

There was no one in all Judea more despised than the tax-collector. He was a hireling of Rome, paid to collect taxes for the nation that had conquered his own people. He made his living by charging a 'tax-collector's fee' which, with Rome's blessing, could be any amount he could get away with. And usually, he got away with a lot. After all, how do you argue with a tax-collector? 

The people of Jesus' day would consider Matthew (or Levi—his other name) a traitor: an enemy of the people. 

I was surprised to learn that there were actually two types of tax collector: there was a Gabbai and there was a Mokhsa. The Mokhsa was the worst, and that's what Matthew was! 

The Gabbai collected property taxes, income taxes, and other taxes we've all grown accustomed to these days. But Matthew—as a Mokhsa—oh, he collected taxes on everything else in the world; everything that could be bought, sold, transported, driven, displayed, written, stamped or delivered. You think your taxes are bad? Matthew's job was to confiscate wheel taxes, axle taxes, pack-animal taxes, pedestrian taxes, road taxes, highway taxes, mountain-pass taxes, taxes for admission into a market—can you imagine,

paying a tax just to go through the door of a Stater Bros?—and taxes for all the goods you carry back out! 

The name "Mokhsa" by the way, is not a pretty one: it comes from the root word  "aqash" which means "to oppress" or "to crush". One section in the Jewish Talmud actually teaches that repentance was almost impossible for a Mokhsa (Babha Qama 94b).

Since literally, everyone in Judea had to deal with the Mokhsa, Matthew would have heard a great deal about Jesus: "Have you heard of the Nazarene, Levi? And the catch he gave some fishermen up in Galilee last week? Almost sunk their boat he did, when he blessed their nets and filled them with fish." 

Oh, don't worry, Matthew had heard that. There were taxes on fish from the Sea of Galilee. 

"Someone told me he touched a dirty old leper and made him as healthy and clean as a young teenager." 

"Yes and what about the other day when they tore open the roof of the house where Jesus was preaching? They lowered a lame man down right in front of him, and later that day he walked home healed! That Jesus of Nazareth is a remarkable man, Levi!" 

"Yeah, well...you owe me three denarii." 

Much more difficult to believe than the miracles was the thought that this "Jesus'' could ever care about him!

But oh, He did! And one day, He came! "Follow me," He commanded:  And Matthew was up and gone! He became one of the Twelve! 

Listen, dear reader: that same Savior calls you, today! He expects you to come! Obey that command! Count it an honor! Consider it a privilege to leave all behind and follow Him! And—oh! what a glory when you do! 

See you Sunday!                            RAS

Saved...by a Fly?
The Desert Route