Had they simply met on a Roman street somewhere, they would have known they were to be sworn enemies. One a supporter of armed rebellion against the state; the other a Jewish agent of that Roman state. However, they both were recruited to be part of an alternate kingdom. A kingdom greater than Rome. A kingdom greater than the imagined revival of earthly Israel.
Recently, I was catching up on some back catalog episodes of one of my favorite podcasts, The Bible Project. In their discussion about the Gospel of Luke, they mentioned the diverse makeup of the twelve disciples that Jesus chose to follow him early in his ministry. They highlighted two of the lesser known disciples briefly, Matthew and Simon.
Matthew (also called Levi) was a Jewish tax collector. The tax collector is a biblical character that you are probably familiar with. Tax collectors were viewed as traitors inside the Jewish community because they facilitated Roman taxation of Jewish residents in the empire. Tax collectors often got rich from overtaxing the citizenry and keeping the profits for themselves.
Simon (not Simon Peter) was a Zealot. While there is some debate over what the title Zealot may mean, many scholars believe it is likely that Simon was part of a radical Jewish sect that supported violent rebellion against the rule of Rome. “Zealots thought it was treason against God to pay tribute to the Roman emperor, since God alone was Israel’s king. They were willing to fight to the death for Jewish independence.” (Youngblood, R. F., F. F. Bruce, and R. K. Harrison. eds. Nelsons New Illustrated Bible Dictionary. Nashville: Thomas Nelson Publishers, 1995.)
Jesus taught and performed miracles during approximately three years of earthly ministry. His teaching was often confrontational to cultural and religious norms. We can learn much by reading his sermons and parables, but often we miss the nuanced, non-verbal ways in which Jesus seeks to teach us even to this day. Think of Matthew and Simon as men from the exact opposite ends of the Jewish political spectrum. One an empire sympathizer and collaborator; the other a covert insurgent in diametrical opposition to Rome. Jesus asked both of them to be part of his traveling party. Jesus taught these men intensively, along with the others, a new way of doing things. He taught them to think outside of their politics and higher than earthly empires.
The fact that Jesus invited Matthew and Simon to be his disciples is consistent with his message and the message of the other New Testament writers. All are welcome in the kingdom, no matter your past or political affiliations… or any other factors by which we or others may define ourselves. He would teach them a new way.
I wonder what those first days of following Jesus were like for Matthew and Simon. Change rarely happens immediately, it is a process. The disciples were human just like you and I. They carried the baggage of their old sinful selves and their flawed thinking. There must have been awkward or heated conversations centered around politics or theology from time to time. But they were committed to Jesus and each other; to put love for one another and the Kingdom of God above all other allegiances. Two potential enemies were part of the core group that changed the world with the message of Jesus.
There is a current narrative that we are more divided than we ever have been—that there may be no way to reconcile our differences. Social media and 24-hour news networks amplify our differences. The internet gives us a place to argue anonymously with others and the option to type things that we would never say in a face to face conversation, even if we have vehement disagreements. It is easy to be discouraged and feel like we’ve lost a little bit (or more) of our humanity.
Think about the group of societal rabble that Jesus chose to follow him—ordinary men and women—those with little voice culturally, entrusted with his powerful message that would turn the world upside-down. As they spent time together with Jesus, the chasmic differences became small. This is the message of Jesus: the insurrectionist and the tax man are on the same team.
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