One Sunday afternoon a few years ago, my wife and I were visiting with family. We were having a very pleasant after-dinner conversation, and everything was going fine—until someone innocently touched one of my hot buttons.
I felt Monster Zeal come raging out of me. I struggled to recapture him and stuff him back in his cage, but when the discussion was over I felt icky.
During election years, society seems to become furiously polarized—even Christian society. Left-leaning Christians see right-leaning Christians as losers, and vice versa. Sometimes we imagine it is impossible to find common ground. But we are proved wrong by two of Jesus’ disciples: Simon the Zealot, and Matthew the tax collector.
In scripture, Simon is called the Zealot because he is associated with a radical political party called Zealots. In ancient Palestine, members of this group are far more than just lobbyists or activists; they are full-on terrorists. Their goal is to overthrow Rome and its sympathizers by any means, including murder. A subset of them, called “dagger men,” are actually hit men who hide daggers in their sleeves and secretly assassinate Romans and Roman supporters. We don’t know if Simon is part of this subset, but we do know that as a Zealot he would hate Rome and its collaborators.
And that latter category definitely includes Matthew. Matthew is a Jew, but also a tax man for Rome. Unlike Simon, who tries to fight against the Roman conquerors of Palestine, Matthew serves them by collecting taxes for them. Even worse, in that time and place, Rome allows its tax collectors to extort as much money as they can and “keep the change”—so most of them become very rich, at the expense of others. For these reasons, Jewish tax collectors for Rome are shunned by the Jewish community; they are not allowed to enter a Jewish synagogue, or even to testify in Jewish court. They are considered crooks and traitors who cannot be trusted.
Yet day in and day out, Simon and Matthew must travel together and work side by side together with Jesus. And tradition says that when Jesus starts sending out ministry teams (as in Matthew 10 and Mark 6), he even pairs these two adversaries together. Somehow, the Rome-hater and the Rome-helper learn to find unity through Christ.
Why can’t we all just stick with Christians who are similar to ourselves and avoid contact with Christians who aren’t? Why does Jesus put opposites together, requiring each side not to reject the other as losers but to recognize that we are all losers (sinners) in need of his grace? I don’t know. But I do know that before his death, his last and deepest prayer for his followers is that we become one, as he and the Father are one (John 17). If we can’t surpass political issues to find kingdom unity with other true Christ-followers, we haven’t understood his heart.