Matthew’s Story

When I was a boy, I went to the rabbi’s school like everybody else. Rabbi Ben Jacob was my idol. A Jewish boy would never say that, of course, but it was true. He was so smart. Just when we boys thought we had a bit of Torah nailed, Ben Jacob would ask it a different way and we would realize how little we really understood. I dreamed of being a clever rabbi like that.

Well, that was my dream until I was about 15. As a boy, the rabbi’s wit and trick questions impressed me. But as I became a man, I realized how weak the rabbi was, how weak our whole nation was. Rome had all the power. Rome had armies and Rome had money. Money bought armies and armies got money. Israel had precious little of both. The closest we could get to an army was a motley band of thugs we would optimistically call zealots. These guys thought they would drive the Romans out of Palestine. It was ridiculous, and it made me ashamed to be a Jew.

In the old days, so the stories went, God fought for Israel. And Israel had mighty men. Men like David and Samson and Joshua. Great warriors. And the prophets… I loved to read about Elijah and Elisha. Guys like that had real miraculous power from God. But those things happened long ago, if they really happened at all. I began to suspect they were all just legends.

Our rabbis worked no miracles, their power was all in their heads and we boys all played along. When we got older, one or two boys I knew were picked to follow the rabbi. Most of us just followed our father’s trades and did our religious duties when we had to. A few ran off to join the zealots, hiding in the hills and making big plans. And a few of us ran the other way and joined the Romans. That’s what I did. Rome had the power, and I wanted a taste of it, so I started collecting the tax for them. I guess I had Power and money, but I lost the respect of my family, my people, and myself. We had about the same honor as dogs.

Then Jesus showed up. Well, he really had been there all along, living over in Nazareth. That’s about 20 miles from here. He was a carpenter, but I guess he was a pretty good student too. When he reached the age, he became a rabbi himself. Moved here to Capernaum, but he was really an itinerant. He traveled all over Galilee and Judea and everyone heard about him before too long, because he actually had power. He did miracles. I mean he healed sick people, and not just now and then, it was everyone that came to him. I heard a few other stories too, like Jesus making 150 gallons of wine out of water at a wedding. That kind of story got my attention. This guy was the real thing, just like those old prophets I thought might not be real.

I would sit at my tax booth so many times, and watch Jesus go by, with the whole town tagging along. I followed them a few times and listened to Jesus teach. He was not like rabbi Ben Jacob, or any other rabbi I had ever heard before, for that matter. Sure, Jesus taught Torah, but most of the time he didn’t seem to be talking about Torah. He was talking about God, and he sounded like he knew him. He asked trick questions like the other rabbis, but when he gave the true answer, we didn’t feel stupid for missing it, we were amazed because we realized everyone had always missed it.

I remembered my forgotten dream of being a rabbi. What a strange thought that was! I wasn’t exactly a very good Jew any more; most rabbis would rather have a dog follow them. I didn’t really care about the rabbis. I didn’t have much respect for them either. But I had not completely forgotten about God. I wondered if he could forgive me for siding with the Romans. This new rabbi talked about forgiveness a lot. He said we must love our enemies, that God loved his enemies. Did God love the Romans? That was another strange thought to me. I certainly didn’t love the Romans.

Well, one afternoon, I was sitting in my booth when I saw Jesus coming up the street. I thought he was just passing by on his way to the lake, when he stopped in the street, turned and looked right at me. I really thought he was going to rebuke me or something, and I was afraid. But he didn’t do that. He walked slowly over to my booth, looking right at me the whole time, and he bent over until he was right in my face. I was frozen. I couldn’t see anybody, or even hear anything, I just stared at those eyes of his. Then he said the two most wonderful words I have ever heard in my entire life. He said “Follow me.”

It seemed like a dream. I was probably about to faint; my boyhood dream was actually coming true and none of it made any sense to me. I know I stood up. I think the bag of money that was on my lap spilled all over the ground, but I didn’t care. The rabbi was choosing me to be his disciple, to become what he was. What else could I do but go with him?

Well, we went to my house and we had a feast. I was so happy, I put on a real party, and invited all of my friends. My friends at that time were pretty much all tax collectors, since nobody else would even talk to us. They thought it was pretty cool that Jesus was actually going to eat with us. Let me tell you, Jesus took a lot of abuse from the Pharisees that day! Here was the great rabbi eating with a bunch of sinners. But Jesus told them that he came to call sinners. Who ever heard of a rabbi calling sinners? All the words he had said about God loving his enemies and forgiving sinners came back to me. I probably counted as an enemy of God. Did God love me anyway? Had he forgiven me? Did he actually want me to serve him?

That was the day that changed my whole life, of course. And not at all the way I expected. For a while, I was just thinking I was going to become a rabbi after all, but Jesus was a lot more than a rabbi. Pretty soon, I began to realize that he must be the one all Israel was waiting for, the one to restore the throne of David. So that meant I would become a nobleman or something, which would be way better than being a rabbi. Well, I don’t need to tell you what really happened, but I do need to tell you that I wouldn’t have it any other way for all the money in the world.

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