The names of the twelve apostles are these: first, Simon, who is called Peter, and Andrew his brother; James the son of Zebedee, and John his brother; Philip and Bartholomew; Thomas and Matthew the tax collector, etc. (Matt. 10:2,3).
When Matthew was called by Jesus to follow him, Matthew immediately left his post at the tax collector’s booth and so left behind his livelihood and the source of his ill-gotten gains. He was from that point forward no longer a tax collector. However, when Matthew writes his gospel and lists in it the names of the disciples who were called by Christ, when he pens his name, he chooses to write, “Matthew the tax collector,” rather than simply his name as he did for the other faithful disciples.
Though we are not given his reason behind listing his name as such, we certainly know that he did not wear the title “tax collector” as a badge of honor. For a tax collector was one of the most despised persons in Jesus’ day, for not only did he collect taxes for a government that the people loathed, but he often collected taxes unjustly, keeping for himself the difference between what Caesar required and what he actually collected. Therefore he was seen as an unjust man employed by an unjust government.
A tax collector being as such, we would think that Matthew would be quick to rid himself of that despicable title once he had left that position, and yet he does not. And while it is speculation on my part, I believe that we can ascertain that Matthew kept this title in order that he and others would not forget the depths of the darkness from which he’d come and the great grace that pulled him up from it. By keeping his title, Matthew continually pointed to the unfathomable mercy of God to him and redirected any glory that he might receive for his good works to Jesus who called and saved him. He wouldn’t cast off the title for anything, for that which was once a mark of shame had become to him a mark of glory.
I wonder how many of us in Christ do as Matthew did and actively bring to our minds where and who we were when we were outside of Christ. I think our natural tendency as humans is to suppress painful thoughts from our past, including our great sinfulness and rebellion, so that we might avoid being hurt by and mourning over those things again. Yet, I think that we miss out on a great blessing by trying to suppress our pasts, for in doing so we suppress the memory of the magnitude of God’s grace toward us in Christ. I would offer that we would do well to be like Matthew and with him retain our own badges of past dishonor.