Matthew's Perspective of The Sermon on the Mount


I have been wondering lately if the Sermon on the Mount was replaying over and over in Mathew’s mind during those couple of days before Jesus asked him to leave his tax collector’s booth to become a disciple.

The well-known Baroque period art piece by Caravaggio, The Calling of St. Matthew, depicts the mystical moment in which Matthew responded to Jesus’ request, “Follow me.” There is an underlying assumption by the artist (and many Sunday school versions of the story) that Matthew was caught completely off-guard by Jesus’ invitation; that the idea of becoming a follower of this rabbi had never in a million years remotely occurred to him. And his getting up to follow Jesus was a split-second, un-rehearsed decision, a mysterious mixture of impulse and divine intervention that has become a sort of model for taking a leap of faith without needing to think.

I hadn’t thought about it until last week, but if Matthew wrote the events of Jesus’ life in chronological order when he penned his gospel, the teachings of Jesus we refer to as The Sermon on the Mount occurred prior to the day that Jesus invited Matthew to become an apostle. I have always thought of Matthew 5-7 as something Jesus intended mostly for his followers, the already convinced, his disciples. When it begins “His disciples came to him and he began to teach them…” the picture in my head includes the 12 apostles sitting closest to Jesus. But what if, for Matthew, these were the words that compelled him to faith; the sermon that persuaded him to get up from his tax-collecter’s booth and follow Jesus in Matthew chapter 9?

I love the story that emerges imagining Matthew listening to Jesus that day while he still had his job as a tax collector. Maybe he thought he was an inconspicuous observer on the back edge of the crowd. I am captivated by the idea that the words Jesus spoke that day to teach his disciples also nudged seekers like Matthew closer to becoming His devoted followers. It is one of those times that reminds me that God’s word accomplishes whatever it sets out to do, and that it can do more than one thing at once.

Since he was Jewish, Matthew was familiar with the traditions and teachings of Israel. He had likely heard the stories of the God of Abraham, Isaac and Jacob as a little boy in temple school. He may have even been a Levite (he was also known as Levi), which meant that by law he should have spent a good portion of his adult life serving in the temple. But when he stood that day listening to Jesus, he wasn’t a practicing Jew in the religious sense. Matthew was a tax collector; hired by the Roman government to collect taxes from his fellow Jews. Tax collectors bent the tax laws for their own profit. They could demand more than what was owed to the government and keep the change. Tax collectors were rich and often greedy and clumped into the same category as sinners and cheaters.

I wonder what was going on in Matthew’s head when he joined the crowds to listen to this new rabbi? Matthew had heard stories of the glory days of Israel’s kingdom, the days when David and Solomon reigned in Jerusalem. Maybe he especially loved how rich King Solomon had been. Was Jesus bringing back a Kingdom like that?

I bet Matthew hoped that Jesus had something to say that was different from what the Pharisees taught. For one thing, the Pharisees thought they were too good for people like Matthew and his friends. Even if Matthew wanted to go to the synagogue to hear the ancient scriptures and try to figure out what God’s connection was to people like him, the Pharisees and the teachers of the law would surely shun him if he showed up there. They didn’t associate with people considered to be unclean — and to the Pharisees, tax collectors were among the worst of sinners.

Beside that, if the Kingdom of heaven was defined by the religious arrogance of the Pharisees and their haughty display of long-winded prayers and legalistic law keeping, Matthew probably wasn’t interested. The religion of the synagogue was claustrophobic and exclusionary. It was more about following rules than it was about living life.

Did Matthew come that day hoping to hear something that would allow a guy like him to break through the wall of religion that seemed to be keeping him out of the Kingdom of his birthright?

As Matthew leaned in to listen, to get a feel for what this rabbi Jesus was so passionate about, I wonder if he was surprised. Jesus kind of bashed the Pharisees and they were pretty confident that they were the good guys.

The Kingdom that Jesus spoke about was not for the people who thought they had it all together. Jesus said that in the Kingdom of Heaven the gentle-spirited inherited the earth, not the bullies; the merciful were rewarded, not the judgmental. In His kingdom mourners found comfort and peacemakers were called God’s children.

“Keeping the law” down to the very tiniest letter didn’t give anyone the right to be angry at a friend or feel ok about getting a divorce just because there was a piece of paper with some legal stuff written on it. Jesus made it sound like the law wasn’t an end in itself; it was more of a starting point. Loving people and forgiving and being kind beyond the legalism of the Pharisees mattered. A lot. There seemed to be room in this Kingdom for Matthew.

As a matter of fact, to the people who considered themselves “perfect” Jesus redefined their standard. Perfect wasn’t about legalism, it was about imitating God.

Was there a wrestling match going on between his brain and his heart? Jesus taught like He knew what he was talking about. Matthew longed to be loved and forgiven and not judged among his own people. He wanted to have a chance to connect with the God of his ancestors without having to become a Pharisee. Jesus made that sound possible.

When Jesus said, “Where your treasure is, there your heart will be also,” did Matthew felt like He was talking directly to him?

Don’t worry about your life…See how the flowers of the field grow…I tell you that not even Solomon in all his splendor was dressed like one of these.

Seek first his kingdom and his righteousness…

I don’t know exactly what transpired for Matthew between hearing the words of that sermon and the day Jesus showed up at his tax collector’s booth. Did he follow the crowd down the mountainside and see Jesus heal the man with leprosy? Was he an eyewitness of the conversation between Jesus and the Centurion whose remarkable faith led to the healing of his servant before he got home? That was a great story.

I wonder if Matthew watched from shore as Jesus and his disciples went out on a boat. The winds had gotten crazy over the lake as a storm blew in, but as suddenly as it had appeared he saw is dissipate in mere seconds. The calm was palpable. What happened on that boat? Who was this Jesus?

I bet Matthew couldn’t get Jesus’ words out of his head. Maybe he even had a hard time concentrating on tax collecting and counting money at work. Jesus had said that the wise man would pay attention to his words. Matthew wanted to be wise. More than that, he couldn’t ignore the tug on his heart toward Jesus. Even if he had to follow from a distance, Matthew wanted to hear everything Jesus had to say.

Of course secretly wanting to follow Jesus with your heart and figuring out how to do that in reality with your actual life can be tricky. Who was Matthew kidding? How was he, a tax collector, going to get in with that crowd of Jesus followers? Maybe he could figure out a way to talk to someone who knew someone who knew someone who knew Jesus.

But Matthew didn’t have to figure it out. A day or so later he was at work and Jesus walked right up to Matthew’s booth where he collected taxes. Jesus was literally standing two feet in front of Matthew and He looked right into Matthew’s eyes like they were already friends or something, and he said, “Follow me.”

And Matthew got up and followed him.

That was the first day of an extraordinary eternal friendship. After that Matthew had breakfast picnics with Jesus on the beach. He rode in the boat with Jesus when he went out on the water again instead of watching from the shore. He saw Jesus turn a little boys lunch into baskets of food and then helped serve it to the crowd. But more than that, he really was forgiven for his past. He learned to love beyond what the law required and began to store up treasures in heaven.

Matthew’s story reminds me that outsiders can become insiders. That our pasts don’t matter nearly as much as what we are willing to become. And that when God speaks He can do more than one thing with the same words. Like He did with the Sermon on the Mount.

After Jesus went back to heaven Matthew stayed around Jerusalem as a teacher and some traditions say he traveled as a missionary after that. We know that he wrote down the stories he knew about Jesus. Matthew recorded scenes from Jesus’ life to convince people that there is a way for regular people to live out their everyday lives in the Kingdom of God that Jesus taught about. And one of the important pieces of the story for him was the Sermon on the Mount.

For the past few months I have spent lots of mornings walking around Roosevelt Park in Edison, New Jersey memorizing these chapters from a Bible app on my iPhone. This is the summer of the Sermon on the Mount for me. I am moving it from my phone screen to my mouth to somewhere deep in my brain and it is surprisingly reassuring and comfortable to walk with. I feel more centered on the days that I get to walk a few miles repeating the words of the Sermon on the Mount, watching the scenes play out like a movie in my head. I hope that I can do whatever it takes to unlock the area of my brain that stores long-term memory and put these verses there so that when I am old and start to tell my grandkids the same stories over and over again, one of the stories is about Matthew and the Sermon on the Mount.

Any new thoughts for you when you reread the Sermon on the Mount?

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