The Great Entrepreneurs of the Bible: Matthew – The Publican and the Zealot

| January 13, 2019

The Christian Professional Network presents this series of articles on the great entrepreneurs of the Bible.  Our series continues with Matthew.

Matthew was (so far as we can tell) the first man of substantial means to leave his business to follow Jesus. He was a tax collector, which meant that he owned a territory in which he was empowered to collect as much as possible, pay over what was required, and keep the profits for himself.

Augustus Caesar had overhauled the tax code that would finance the Roman Empire. Roman citizens were tax free, and tax revenues all came from the provinces and client-kingdoms (like Judea and Galilee). Under Augustus, Rome would not tax individuals; rather it assessed a levy upon each particular province. The levy was based upon population, and was adjusted from time to time by a new census declared by the Emperor. It was such a decree for an adjustment of taxes that famously brought Joseph and Mary to Bethlehem (Luke 2).

Each province then raised its required levy by holding an auction – auctioning off the right to collect the taxes.  Essentially, under Augustus, Rome had privatized its Internal Revenue Service. The winning bidder would be obligated to pay that bid, with the province keeping the difference between the Roman assessment and the winning bid.

The Publican

These bidders were called “tax farmers” which translates to “publicani” from which comes the Biblical word Publican. The Publican was then empowered to set the local rates at whatever he could get, and squeeze the populous for as much as possible.

The winning Publican would then sell off parts of the province – the way franchised businesses sell off territories today. In Luke 19 we read of Zacchaeus who was “a chief tax collector” — he owned a substantial territory with sub-franchisees below him. All of this added ever greater burdens on the populace, as each level took its profits. Tax collectors were feared and hated. In Acts 5: 37 we read of a tax revolt led by Judas of Galilee, when the Emperor ordered a new census, for a new round of tax increases (and the same event is recorded by the historian Josephus).

Matthew was a local tax collector. He was a Hellenistic (Greek speaking) Jew, educated, well connected, and successful enough to host “a great feast” (Luke 5: 27 – 31, where he is called by his Hebrew name Levi). He likely had purchased a territory; he had to meet his obligation. His success and his livelihood depended on his own abilities to properly assess the value of his territory, sign a contract at a price where he could make a profit, and then work to maximize the revenue that could come from it.

But clearly he was disillusioned in his profession, and was looking for purpose and meaning in life. When John the Baptist was preaching and baptizing in the Wilderness of Judea, there were tax collectors who went out to hear him. Some of them believed and were baptized. When they asked John what they should do to prepare for the Kingdom of Heaven, he answered “collect no more than what is appointed for you.”  (Luke 3: 12, 13).

Matthew was one of them. We read in Acts 1 that each of the 12 apostles had sought God since the days of John’s baptism. Jesus told a parable about a publican who went to the temple to pray. A Pharisee stood nearby, describing publicans as “unjust, extortioners, adulterers” – while the publican would not even raise his head (Luke 18). Jesus often based His parables on actual events, and one cannot wonder if this scene describes Matthew.

Then in Luke 5, Jesus saw Matthew sitting in his tax office, and called him to “Follow Me.” Matthew “left all” – left his business, left his old way of life, followed Jesus, and never looked back.

Matthew had much in life, but he needed to be saved, and he knew it. The Gospels give us several lists of the 12 disciples. When Mark and Luke make the list, they both include Matthew’s name (“ … Philip and Bartholomew, Matthew and Thomas …” Luke 6: 14, 15). But Matthew’s own list reads “…Philip and Bartholomew; Thomas and Matthew, the tax collector …” (Matthew 10: 3). Matthew never forgot that he was saved by grace from an old lifestyle that changed the money.

The Zealot

When Judas of Galilee led the tax revolt mentioned in Acts 5, he started a movement. That movement was called the Zealots, which continued after his death. Zealots would resist Rome absolutely, and refused to pay taxes. One of Jesus’ 12 apostles was Simon the Zealot.

Matthew and Simon were the most unlikely of companions: Matthew the publican collecting taxes; Simon the zealot resisting them.

Matthew’s life was all about money; Simon’s life was all about politics.

Matthew would leave his tax booth to find true riches in Christ. Simon would leave the political struggle to find true freedom in Christ. I can’t help wondering if, when Jesus sent His disciples out two by two – if He paired up the Publican and the Zealot, brought together not on the common ground of compromise, but on the higher ground of the Gospel.

Read more articles from this series.

Category: Entrepreneurs

About the Author ()

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Email | Website | Thomas Schetelich is a founding principal in the law firm of Ferguson, Schetelich & Ballew in Baltimore, Maryland, and a member of the United States Supreme Court Bar. He heads both the firm’s corporate/ business law practice and its personal legal services department. He is an AV rated attorney awarded for highest standards of professional skill and ethical practice. Mr. Schetelich devotes much of his practice to assisting charitable and religious organizations, and is the President of The Christian Professional Network. He is a frequent speaker on Biblical and legal matters throughout the United States.