Matthew sat down behind his tax collector’s booth. It was just another day for him. He’d been doing this for enough years now that everyone knew he was a wealthy man. He had no external needs, or even wants. Yet he was empty inside.
This emptiness had most recently turned Matthew’s attention to the Torah. He wondered if the answers to his questions might be found there, or via some of the other Jewish prophets that were a part of his heritage.
As Matthew’s mind grappled with the teachings he had been exposed to in the synagogue, he harassed the man in front of him into paying his taxes. The grumbling Jew complained about the exorbitant “surcharge” that Matthew routinely tacked on for everyone that came before him. Of course folks hated him, but Matthew considered himself an astute businessman, and his wealth seemed to confirm his perspective.
Yet the more wealth Matthew accumulated, the greater his emptiness grew.
All of a sudden a voice interrupted Matthew’s thoughts. He had noticed a man standing a few feet away observing his tactics with the taxpayers shuffling before him. But when the man spoke, it startled Matthew:
“Matthew, follow me and be my disciple.”
As Matthew rose to comply, he instantly recognized the man as Jesus, the one everyone had been taking about, because of his teachings and the miracles performed by this man from Galilee…
It was now three years after that first encounter with Jesus. Matthew was grappling with his future, along with the ten other men he had come to love. Jesus, the One who had called Matthew to follow Him and become His disciple had just ascended to heaven, after suffering a humiliating death, and rising from the grave, just a few weeks earlier.
As the disciples struggled with the departure of the man who had said to each of them “follow me and be my disciple” they openly acknowledged that they had several options.
As I’ve evaluated their circumstances, losing their Rabbi, the Son of God, with whom they had spent three years, I believe the following options are likely ones they considered:
1. Return to the normalcy of their previous occupations.
2. Take the knowledge they had gained from Jesus and fight the evils of their government, seeking to establish a “righteous” earthly kingdom. After all, this is what most of their family and friends regularly complained about.
3. Follow the example of Jesus, and share the Truth of the Gospel, that would transform the hearts of their neighbors, while also securing eternal life for all how would embrace the Truth.
The first option would have been the easiest, and perhaps the most secure. They knew how to fish, or collect taxes, or whatever their previous profession had been, before Jesus. This would have been comfortable and required no sacrifice, courage, or “cross-bearing.” But it also would have had zero impact on your life and mine, or literally hundreds of millions of Christ-followers over the last 2,000 years.
The second option would have been fraught with risk, and threat to their own personal safety. They knew and could see the rampant corruption in society, from their government, the tax system, and the religious establishment. Rome was an evil empire. The Jewish rulers were corrupt and self-serving. And the disciples had previously inferred in their conversations with Jesus that they were waiting for the Messiah to overthrow the corrupt institutions of their day. Had they chosen this option though, it’s certain their lives would have been cut short, and their influence lost. Furthermore, the Gospels that tell us of Jesus would likely have never been written, and probably none of the rest of the New Testament.
The third option, while seemingly foolish and futile, by any earthly standard, was no doubt the hardest for the disciples to consider, from a human standpoint.
Their training and experience would have suggested option one. Their passion, longing for justice, and perhaps even power and notoriety would have steered them to option two. Yet they chose the least likely option. They chose to simply follow the example of Jesus.
Their three years with Jesus allowed them to see the heart of God, up close and personal. They saw that, while Jesus was surrounded with corrupt politicians, government officials, religious hypocrites, and injustice everywhere, the Son of God did not commit His fleeting time trying to right all the wrongs of society. Jesus was disengaged politically, but not because He didn’t care about government. (In fact, it was Jesus who ordained government, both as the institution He would use to raise some rulers and demote others, while offering some degree of human oversight of the affairs of men.)
But Jesus knew that there would never be any true external reformation unless there was first internal transformation. The heart would never be transformed via kingdoms, politicians, laws, or human initiatives. So Jesus committed His energies, passion, and work, to the heart, and His example illustrated His priority continuously.
Jesus did not fear the leaders of His day, as He routinely confronted them, rebuked them, and left them speechless. But it’s clear from Jesus’ example He did not attempt to overthrow them, or replace them with better men, or encourage others to rebel against them. His mission was so much greater than influencing or extinguishing a temporal earthly kingdom.
So Jesus placed the overwhelming focus of his three years of ministry in speaking eternal Truths to the hearts of His neighbors. He understood and taught that His neighbor was anyone in need, and so like the Good Samaritan, Jesus showed mercy and compassion to the throngs that He encountered daily. And those throngs included every kind of “despicable” person you can imagine. If I’m honest, people just like me.
With Jesus as their teacher and perfect example, is it any wonder that the disciples, whom we now call Apostles, followed directly in the footsteps of their Mentor? They could do no less. Of course, they likely continued to generate income to meet their needs. And they likely remained interested in their political circumstances, and other temporal matters. But those issues did not dominate their lives. In fact, there’s no record that they allocated even the smallest part of their time, treasure or talent to those earthly endeavors or distractions.
So of all the options the Apostles could have chosen, they chose the one that was eternally significant. The other options were temporal, at best. But they understood the words of Jesus when He taught them:
“What does it profit a man if he gains the world, but loses his soul?”
So they gained not only heaven, and resisted the temptation to choose the lesser options, but they also led many to God, by sharing the kingdom of God, versus the kingdoms of men. They pursued and imparted an eternal kingdom and forsook the lure of the temporal one.
If you are a follower of Jesus today, you can thank not only the sacrifice that Jesus made on the cross 2,000 years ago, but also the fact that eleven ordinary men, with no formal training and no external credentials, were willing to simply follow the example of Jesus. They forsook, or diminished, their professions, and the lure of power and prestige, and instead they chose the eternal over the temporal. Should we do any less?
“I have given you an example to follow. Do as I have done to you.” John 13:15
“We must quickly carry out the tasks assigned us by the One who sent us. The night is coming, and then no one can work.” John 9:4