The Holy Land of the first century was roughly equivalent in size and area to the Israel of our Old Testament. But it was a land that through the centuries had lost its glory. It was, at that time, occupied by Rome, the latest in a long succession of oppressors.
Thought the situation in the Holy Land of the first century was unique, in many ways the “polarization” of the people of that land and time seems strangely parallel to that in our nation.
The religious establishment lived in a general truce with the Roman occupiers, although this truce itself did not always hold. The religious were themselves divided theologically, as well as politically. And of course, the irreligious or less religious were despised as “sinners.”
Then, of course, there were the economic divisions. There were wealthy landowners, independent artisans and small businessmen, tenant farmers, day laborers and slaves.
Out of this varied and often polarized population were those who followed Jesus, men and women. And out of this number Jesus chose His twelve apostles, those who would spend their time with Him being discipled and mentored, as well as being appointed to missions of preaching and healing.
We don’t know a lot about the backgrounds of these twelve men. We do know that four of them were men who left the fishing business behind. Two others stand out: Matthew the tax collector and Simon the Zealot. These men were about as far apart as any two men could be, farther apart then our current Religious Right and Secular Left.
Matthew the tax-collector is mentioned in Matthew 9:9-12 and 10:3; Mark 2:14-17 and 3:18; Luke 5:27-32 and 6:15; Acts 1:13. He is also called Levi in a few of these passages. He was apparently a wealthy man, as it is noted that he hosted a feast for all his friends. He was also a member of a group of people that was despised by almost all of his neighbors.
Taxes of many kinds were laid by the Romans on the people of the land, over and above their temple and religious taxes. There were land taxes laid on those who owned and worked the land, as well as a head tax laid on every person counted in the census. These taxes were collected by those in the Jewish establishment. But the most despised taxes were the customs or tolls collected at ports and city gates on goods passing through. These could be collected over and over. Matthew was one of those who sat at the tax booth (Matthew 9:9; Mark 2:14; Luke 5:27).
The tax-collector was one who paid for this authority to the Romans. The job was let to the highest bidder so that Rome got its money in advance. The tax-collector then collected what he could for his own benefit. These people were despised for two reasons: they were collaborators with the oppressors, and they were usually just plain crooks. They were associated with “sinners” (Mark 2:15; Luke 15:1) and with “prostitutes” (Matthew 21:31, 32) in the New Testament.
Simon the Zealot is mentioned in Luke 6:15 and Acts 1:13. Matthew 10:4 and Mark 3:18 refer to him as Simon the Cananean, which is a transliteration of the Aramaic Qan’ana’, which also means zealot.
There were many extremist groups in the first century Holy Land, ranging from religious extremists to outright terrorists. Many are mentioned in the New Testament: false Messiahs (Matthew 24:23); bandits (lestas), two of whom were crucified alongside Jesus (Mark 15:27); assassins (sikarioi; Acts 21:38); revolutionaries of all sorts (Acts 5:36, 37); -- Barrabas was one of these. Though John simply refers to him as a bandit (John 18:40), Luke tells us that he had been involved in an insurrection and murder (Luke 23:18, 19).
According to Josephus (Jewish wars, 4:3) the Zealot party formed later, during the conflicts that led to the revolt against Rome. While they were not the principle leaders in the revolt, they were among those who chose to fight till the death. While Josephus only mentions them as being much later than the time of Jesus, it is quite clear that many of those who made up the party were around already.
It seems doubtful that Simon would be nicknamed “the Zealot” simply because of his zeal. It is more likely that he acquired the title because of his radical views (and actions?) before he became a disciple.
So we have two men (and only two) among the twelve who were labeled by their previous lives. One, whose title signified greed and collaboration with an occupying foreign government, and the other whose title signified violence and hatred for that same government. These facts raise a number of questions in my mind:· Why did Jesus choose such radically diverse men?
· Why did they choose to follow Jesus?
· Did their backgrounds in any way equip them for discipleship?
· How much of their past thinking did they retain after becoming disciples?
· Did their past affect the way they interpreted Jesus’ teachings on discipleship?
· Did they ever clash with each other?
We don’t know the precise answers to these questions, though we do know that Jesus demanded total allegiance from the twelve. He demanded a forsaking of and a radical break from the past. From the stories related about Matthew, we can see that he did forsake all and that he used his wealth to introduce his friends to Jesus (Luke 5:27-29). We can only assume the same about Simon.
Today in America we have the “Culture Wars.” We see the followers of Christ divided along political and economic lines. We divide over certain moral issues. We have a “Christian Right” and a “Christian Left.” We even question the reality of the faith of those who disagree with us.
I may be wrong, but I don’t think it was that way among the twelve. I suspect Jesus would have quashed such talk as He did their other disagreements. And these men, I believe, knew that they had a purpose, a mission. They knew that He had chosen them to “disciple all the nations.”
I believe it is time for us Christians in America to recognize that we are called first of all to be disciples of Jesus Christ and to carry out His command to love our neighbors and His commission to win the nations to Him. We may have differing views on many matters, but we need to “bring every thought captive to the obedience of Christ” (2 Corinthians 10::5b).