At the boundary of Capernaum, on the street coming from Damascus, was the customs house where Matthew, the publican, son of Alpheus, collected taxes. All merchandise brought in by the caravans of businessmen through this route into Galilee paid their contributions here….
Matthew: Hey, you, with the red turban!… Yes, yes, don’t pretend you don’t see me. Pay seven dinars!
Trader: Seven dinars?…. Seven dinars for two boxes of pepper? That’s too much!
Matthew: That’s what you owe. Don’t argue anymore, my friend, or I’m gonna call one of the soldiers….
Trader: What a wretched man!… Thief!…. The tax shouldn’t be that high!
Matthew: Are you gonna pay or not? Many are waiting….
Trader: Here, take it…. And go to hell!
Matthew: Next…. Let me see, you…. How many sacks of wool do you carry with you?
Another Trader: Ten sacks, sir.
Matthew: Ten sacks, really? …You’re a liar!… What about those four you’re hiding behind the camels?
Another Trader: But those are not from the….
Matthew: Shut up, you cheat. Now you’ll have to pay me four more, so you’ll know how to respect the law. You can’t deceive me, my friend….
Another Trader: But I didn’t want to…..
Matthew: Ten and four is fourteen, plus four more is eighteen. Come on, let go of your eighteen dinars. And go tell your lies to the marines!
Matthew dipped the pen in the inkwell and scribbled some numbers. Leaning over his table, he was more jittery than he had been before. His beard and fingernails were stained with ink. There was always a jug of wine beside his bunch of papers. Everytime he spotted a caravan coming from a distance, or some traders along the way, he would rub his hands, have a few shots of wine and prepare to collect a good amount of money from them… In the entire Capernaum, there was no other man more hated than he. We would spit everytime we passed in front of his stall. The women cursed him and we never saw a child approach him.
Another Trader: Please don’t charge me too much, sir… With this oil, I practically don’t earn anything for my children’s food…
Matthew: What’re you telling me? I don’t give alms here.
Another Trader: Could you just gimme a little discount? …I really need it…
Matthew: Weep somewhere else and try to get some money. I’m just following orders…
Another Trader: You’re taking advantage of our being illiterate you sonovabitch! Your computation, is not clear!
Matthew: Hey, you, cross-eyed fellow, who told you to poke your nose into this? C’mon, gimme twenty, and beat it!
Taxes were a nightmare for us poor people. Rome collected taxes in the whole of Judea. In our land of Galilee, it was King Herod who sold himself to the Romans whom we had to pay. His officials, the tax collectors who we called publicans, were positioned at all the entrances of the cities in Galilee, collecting customs duties as ordered by the king. The publicans even increased these taxes so they could keep the difference, thus enriching themselves. Soon they, too, earned the hatred of everyone.
Matthew: Well, let’s see. You’re the last… what do you have to declare?
Another Trader: Two sacks of wheat and three barrels of olives.
Matthew: Open that sack, you might be concealing something…
At mid-morning, Matthew had finished off with the caravans of the first hour. That was the time for him to count his collection. He separated what was intended for Herod’s soldiers and for himself. Then he sat at the table with his jug of wine and book of accounts. He wouldn’t know how to exist without the two. Near the stall were the soldiers who guarded the customs house. They played dice while waiting for new traders to arrive. At this time Jesus passed in front of Matthew’s stall….
Matthew: Hey, you, come over here…
Jesus: What’s the matter?
Matthew: What do you have in that sack?
Matthew: Really?… And where are you going, may I ask?
Jesus: To Chorazin.
Matthew: What for, may I know?
Jesus: To shoe some mules. I’ve been making horseshoes, and I’m going there to sell them. That’s my work.
Matthew: Pay three dinars and then you can go. Are you deaf? I said, three dinars.
Jesus: Why do I have to pay three dinars? I’m not going out of Galilee. I’m going to Chorazin.
Matthew: And I don’t believe you. I’m not stupid, you know. You’re one of those involved in smuggling, with the Syrians!
Jesus: What smuggling are you talking about? I’m going to Chorazin to shoe some mules.
Matthew: And I’m saying you are going out of Galilee and you are involved in smuggling! …You can get yourself into trouble, as much as you like… but you have to pay three dinars…
Jesus: But, what three dinars are you talkin’ about? …I can’t pay you… I haven’t got a single cent.
Matthew: Then, you gotta pay me with those horseshoes.
Jesus: How can I do that? If I have to leave them here, there’s gonna be no work for me, so, what will I go to Chorazin for?
Matthew: Ah, that’s your problem. Either you gimme three dinars or the sack of horseshoes.
Jesus: But, what’s all this crap?
Matthew: It’s the law, my friend. The law grabs smugglers, like you, by the throat. That’s how I caught you.
Jesus: I’m sorry, Matthew, but I’m not involved in any smuggling with the Syrians. Neither do I have three dinars, nor can I give you the horseshoes. I have to work. Please lemme go.
Matthew: Don’t ask me for favors when I’m talkin’ about the law. Besides, I don’t wanna waste my time with you… Puah!… You’re a smuggler. You can’t deceive me. These horseshoes shall not leave the customs. Everything has been said now, so do whatever you please…
Jesus: Pff! What a guy! That means, I gotta wait until you cool off tomorrow and listen to reason…. Can I sit here?
Matthew: Do whatever you wish, and don’t bother me anymore. To hell with smugglers!
Jesus sat on the floor, leaned on one of the walls of Matthew’s stall and stared at the road that vanished afar. The heat of the sun became intense, and soon enough he dozed off. Meanwhile, Matthew continued counting his money, scribbling more and more numbers on the papers…. When Jesus woke up, the jug of wine was empty and the tax collector’s eyes were red and sparkling. Just like every other day, before noon Matthew was already drunk…
Jesus: Hmmm… I fell asleep. Well, Matthew, have you solved my case?… What? Are you allowing me now to proceed to Chorazin with the horseshoes?
Matthew: You don’t get outta here! That’s what I say! Hik! And let me work in peace!
Jesus got up and stretched his arms while yawning. Then, leaning over the table, he followed closely the direction of Matthew’s pen…
Jesus: That one… must be difficult, huh, Matthew?
Jesus: I mean, writing. I can write only a few letters… I would like to learn more…. Why, you do it very fast.
Matthew: I had a teacher for this… In this job, if you can’t write, you’re nothing…
Jesus: If I stay longer in Capernaum, will you teach me…?
Matthew: Hmmm… I can write, but I can’t teach, blazes!
Matthew: Say, Matthew, how long have you been in this job?
Matthew: Bah, many years. I don’t remember anymore. One, two, three, four… I don’t remember.
Jesus: Do you like your job?
Matthew: Of course, my friend. Who doesn’t like to have money anytime, so he can buy what he wishes? I have no need for anything… Of course, I like my job… Hik! Damn, you’re messing up my computations… Will you shut up and let me work in peace!
Jesus: But, you paid a price for this, didn’t you?
Jesus: That in order to have everything you want, you had to lose friends.
Matthew: What do I need friends for? No one is a friend to anyone. If someone is at your back, beware, he wants to get something from you. I don’t believe in what you’re saying!
Jesus: Well, but…. don’t tell me you’re used to having people spit at you when they pass by.
Matthew: Oh, let them. They can even blow their noses if they like. They spit at me, I curse them. They can insult me, but that’s all, that’s all they can do. I can extract their money, and that’s more important. I can hurt them even more! What? You think I’m wrong? …I couldn’t care less.
Matthew momentarily set aside his work and, with his eyes swollen from having drunk too much alcohol, turned to Jesus…
Matthew: Hey, who’re you, and why do you ask so many questions? Do you think I don’t know you? …I know your group here in Capernaum. This skinny one and the red-haired and….
Jesus: And John and Peter…
Matthew: Yes, a gang of bandits. Smugglers, that’s what you are. You, being the stranger, must be their chief..
Jesus: Enough!… We’re a group of friends, Matthew. I met them at the Jordan, when we went to see the prophet, John…
Matthew: Another agitator!… I want to know what you’re up to. Be sure, I’m gonna find out. I have a way of doing so.
Jesus: If you really wanna know, then, you gotta come with us one day.
Matthew: Yes, yes, because you’re concealing something. I know your kind very well. You’re like chameleons, you change colors fast, and how!
Jesus: I’m serious, Matthew. Why don’t you go to Madame Salome’s house one day, so we can have a li’l chat…
Matthew: Why don’t you come to the house, eh? Why, you and your friends wouldn’t dare set foot in my house, would you?
Jesus: I wouldn’t mind, really. If you invited me, then I’d accept it. I’m gonna tell my friends right away…
Matthew: Would you eat at my house?
Jesus: Yes, Matthew, if you say so.
Matthew: I see you can pretend pretty well, stranger. But… you see, for a long time, I haven’t invited anyone to my house…
Jesus: Then, I’ll be your first guest. When do you want us to come? …This coming Saturday? …or tonight, if you want…
Matthew: Are you serious?
Jesus: Of course, Matthew. After having been detained in this boring place, I’m hungry, and I can’t stand it any longer. Let me inform the rest. We shall go to your house tonight, okay?
Matthew: Sure. Hik! But, we’re gonna need some wine for everyone. I can’t eat without wine!
Jesus: I can see that…
Matthew: So, better come with me to buy some wine…
Jesus: It’s a deal. Let’s go!
Jesus left his horseshoes beside Matthew’s working table and walked toward the tavern of Joachim, who was blind in one eye. The tavern was located at the exit of Capernaum. Matthew, who was wobbling, followed him.
According to the data that we gathered from the Gospel, Matthew, one of the twelve apostles of Jesus, was the son of a certain Alpheus who was a tax collector at the customs of Capernaum – a gateway for caravans coming from Damascus. In the gospels of Luke and Mark, he is also called Levi. Since the Second Century, he was considered one of the authors of the four Gospels. In the story, Matthew appears as a man of weak character, a pessimist, a skeptic, who finds in his drinking some refuge from the society that considers his job disdainful.
Since the time of Persian domination, Israel knew what it was to pay taxes to a foreign power. It was only up to the time of the Roman empire that collections were unsystematic. The whole Roman province was obliged to pay taxes to the Roman treasury, although some cities and prime allies of the empire could collect them for their own benefit. Such was the case with the Galilean tethrach, Herod Antipas, who collected them from the different cities of Galilee, among which was Capernaum. Matthew, therefore, was an official of King Herod, a great collaborator of the Roman empire. Taxes were a big burden for the people and an important weapon of the rulers for political control. To the computed sums were added certain amounts, in the form of gifts, and bribery to be given to authorities and to administrative personnel. There was corruption from the lowest level to the highest.
The tax collectors (publicans) belonged to the most contemptible social category of the country, including the usurers, the money-changers, gamblers and shepherds. In this job, aside from the strict collection of dues, – which was reason enough to earn the hatred of the people – all kind of cheating occurred. Due to the numerous frauds and the futility of determining the number of all those victimized by them, the publicans were socially stigmatized which caused them to lose their civic and political rights. In the language of the people, the tax collectors are always associated with thieves, pagans, prostitutes, assassins, and adulterers. They were indeed the society’s excrement. All these highlight the great scandal of having Jesus invite a publican to become part of his group, and reiterate on several occasions that the Good News he was bringing along was primarily intended for the “publicans and sinners.”
In all probability, Matthew was a rich man because of the fraud committed in his occupation. But he would not belong to any of the prestigious families, since tax collectors were no more than sub-lessees of some wealthy contractors, usually of the upper social class. Matthew’s occupation has, at times, been interpreted as proof that Jesus got followers from various social classes to emphasize the social harmony that the Gospel was seeking. This is not correct. The gospel’s message is obviously directed to everyone, but not in the same manner for everyone. The Good News for the poor is this: that they will cease to be poor. The rich are asked to renounce their wealth if they want to enter the Kingdom of Heaven. The message clearly shows that God takes sides, that God is not neutral. That Jesus associates himself with Matthew and invites him to his group signifies that he is breaking all socio-religious barriers of “decent” people of his time by befriending the undesirables and the sinners. During that time writing was usually done on papyrus. The papyrus was an aquatic shrub that grew on the marshland. This was harvested at the northern part of the lake of Tiberias. Its fibers were made into baskets, boats and a kind of paper that could easily be rolled. The color of ink with which one wrote was black, basically made of very thick soot. A number of writers would carry their inkwell hanging at the waist. Naturally, a tax collector had to master the art of writing, and normally should have some knowledge of Greek, because of dealings with traders from other countries. In the light of these qualifications of Matthew, Jesus’ level of culture was notably inferior, for he was “semi-illiterate.” In such a society, as in any other society, one who knew how to write had an edge over uncultured neighbors who were dependent on them for knowledge and whom they could, naturally, assist or deceive.
(Mt 9:9; Mk 2:13-14; Lk 5:27-28)