Tax collectors were despised. They collaborated with the Roman Empire, participated in the oppression of their own countrymen and lined their pockets with the surplus. But grace reaches the lowest of the low.
Levi was a tax collector so radically transformed by grace that even his name changed. Levi became Matthew, author of the first gospel narrative. He describes his first encounter with Jesus:
As Jesus went on from there, he saw a man named Matthew sitting at the tax collector’s booth. “Follow me,” he told him, and Matthew got up and followed him. Matthew 9:9 NIV
Can you imagine the scandal? The jaws that dropped? Jesus the rabbi, a holy man, stoops to invite a traitor to join his inner circle. This is grace of enormous proportion. Matthew looked up from his crooked ledger sheet into the eyes of love, and he left his old life behind.
Years later when Matthew sits down to write the story of the Messiah, he makes some interesting choices. Matthew begins with a genealogy. It makes for tedious reading, not quite the way to grip an audience. But this is not your typical genealogy. He doesn’t just trace the lineage of Jesus to King David and the tribe of Judah he draws attention to the bad apples in the bunch.
Why would he do that? Because Matthew was about to launch an epic story of the grace he knew first hand.
Matthew includes Judah, the father of Perez and Zerah whose mother was Tamar. Now here’s a story! Tamar was the wife of Judah’s first born son, Er. When Er died Tamar was given to Judah’s second son Onan, which was the law. When Onan died, Judah decided he’d like to keep his third son alive! Tamar disguised herself as a prostitute. Judah slept with her and she became pregnant with his twins. (Genesis 38) These are Jesus’ ancestors. Shocking, isn’t it?
Matthew also skips over the most celebrated woman in Hebrew culture, Sarah and Rebecca, and goes out of his way to include Rahab and Ruth who weren’t even Hebrew.
When Matthew mentions King David, he doesn’t recount his triumphs as a warrior or the collection of psalms he penned. He shares the scandal of Solomon’s birth by Bathsheba, the wife of Uriah whom David had murdered. (2 Samuel 11)
Within the lineage of Jesus were liars, law breakers, prostitutes and murderers. Matthew includes the people professional genealogy makers would have written out of the story. Why? Because they are the point of the story!
The climax of Matthew’s genealogy is verse 21:
“She will give birth to a son, and you are to give him the name Jesus, because he will save his people from their sins.” Matthew 1:21 NIV
When the religious people of the day challenged Jesus for hanging out with tax collectors and sinners, Jesus said:
“It is not the healthy who need a doctor, but the sick…For I have not come to call the righteous, but sinners.” Matthew 9:12-13 NIV
Christianity is not a collection of people who think they’re good enough – it’s a collection of people who recognize their need for a Savior.
Levi was a tax collector, a sinner, but his life was transformed by grace. He became Matthew – follower of Jesus, author of the Gospel of Matthew. He revealed the true nature of scandalous grace for the lowest of the low.