We don’t know a lot about how Jesus chose His disciples, but in the first Gospel, Matthew points out that Jesus brought together two men who, under other circumstances, would have been not just rivals but bitter adversaries: Simon the Zealot and Matthew the tax collector.
Zealots were revolutionaries who took up arms against the Roman government controlling Israel, willing to kill or be killed to undermine the ruling authority. Tax collectors, on the other hand, were viewed as traitors, collecting money for that government and notoriously enriching themselves in the process.
We can only imagine the odd scene when Simon and Matthew first met, both now following Jesus. Over the next three years of Jesus’ ministry, and then to their death, these former rivals became co-laborers and friends working to advance God’s Kingdom. They were united in the name of Jesus, and that devotion superseded their differences.
As pastor and author Scott Sauls writes, “Matthew’s emphasis on a tax collector and a Zealot living in community suggests a hierarchy of loyalties, especially for Christians. Our loyalty to Jesus and His Kingdom must always exceed our loyalty to an earthly agenda, whether political or otherwise.”
Yet Jesus’ disciples struggled to grasp how this new loyalty ought to change them. In Mark 9, the disciples argue about who is the greatest. In the next chapter of Mark, James and John come to Jesus with a bold request: When you have been glorified, allow us to sit at your right and left hand. They sought for themselves positions of honor and power, and when the other disciples found out, they were justifiably indignant.
In both instances, Jesus gently reminds the disciples that His Kingdom is like nothing they have seen before. “Whoever wants to become great among you must be your servant,” He tells them (Mark 10:43). We bring glory to our humble King and His upside-down Kingdom when we put one another first, looking beyond ourselves to root for our rivals.
God used a Zealot and a tax collector, cowards and doubters, the selfish and the unseeing to take His message to the ends of the earth. That same God invites us to lay aside our own agendas in pursuit of this higher calling. Fishermen and fanatics, activists and academics, ministers and managers, Jesus is still what unites us.